In either event, such bizarre activity, conducted when the participants think they have the imprimatur of the president, can have profound consequences for the occupant of the Oval Office. It has happened before.
In handwritten notes, apparently summarizing a call with the president’s personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani, for whom he was working at the time, Parnas wrote a to-do list that reads like a series of confessions: “get [Ukrainian president Volodymyr] Zalensky to Annouce that the Biden case will Be Investigated,” for example — referring to the effort to dig up dirt on former vice president Joe Biden. Also: “do my ‘magic’ and cut deal.” Profanity-laced texts that Parnas exchanged with Hyde, a onetime landscaper and Connecticut congressional candidate, sound ominous indeed, though Parnas told Maddow he didn’t take Hyde seriously.
The messages show Hyde claiming he had engaged operatives in the Ukraine to follow then-Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, and read like a bad “Godfather” knockoff. “They will let me know when she’s on the move,” Hyde wrote. “… The guys over [there] asked me what I would like to do and what is in it for them.” In another text, Hyde wrote, “Guess you can do anything in the Ukraine with money…”
When Hyde was confronted by the media with his handiwork, he responded it was all meaningless banter. “For them to take some texts my buddy’s and I wrote back to some dweeb we were playing with that we met a few times while we had a few drinks is definitely laughable,” he tweeted.
The characters seem so off, so small and inconsequential that one wonders whether their chatter and schemes could possibly affect the political fortunes of the president of the United States. But the same questions could have been asked about G. Gordon Liddy, E. Howard Hunt, James McCord and Alfred Baldwin — key figures in the Watergate scandal.
Liddy was a lawyer and former FBI agent when he moved into the White House in summer 1971 to join a group later known as the Plumbers (because their task was to find and stop the leaks that bedeviled the Nixon administration). He connected with Hunt, a former CIA agent, and they worked out of the basement of the Executive Office Building. In September 1971, Liddy, Hunt and some Cuban American exiles recruited by Hunt broke into the office of a California psychiatrist who treated Daniel Ellsberg, the man who had disclosed the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times and The Washington Post.
It’s here that the tragicomedy begins. The Ellsberg break-in was utterly bungled. Liddy and Hunt found nothing on Ellsberg and roughed up the office to make it seem as though a drug addict had broken in to steal drugs. Hunt used a camera provided by the CIA to take photos of Liddy standing outside the psychiatrist’s office, with car license plates clearly visible. Hunt returned the camera to the CIA without removing the film. Later, when Ellsberg was on trial for espionage, the judge threw out the case, in part because the government had suppressed evidence involving Liddy and Hunt’s actions.
But that was only the beginning. Liddy liked to brag that he was something of a James Bond character; in fact, he was more Maxwell Smart. Nixon’s White House counsel John Dean said Liddy once told him that Dean could literally shoot him, if he was a liability to the administration. When the White House ditched Liddy at the end of 1971, he was sent over to the Committee to Re-Elect the President. He was also asked to take charge of intelligence operations for the campaign.
Liddy met with Attorney General John Mitchell, Dean and deputy campaign chairman Jeb Magruder in January and February 1972 to outline his ideas for election intelligence. He brought charts and described outlandish schemes to drug and kidnap protesters at the Republican National Convention and to procure a party boat at the Democratic National Convention — to lure politicians with prostitutes and photograph them in compromising situations. Dean didn’t think Mitchell took Liddy seriously but was concerned enough that he reported it to Nixon’s chief of staff, Bob Haldeman.
Liddy and Hunt were undeterred. They hatched the Watergate operation and got Mitchell and Magruder to sign off at the end of March 1972. For two men with FBI and CIA experience, they displayed a level of incompetence in carrying out that mission that is hard to fathom; the burglars were caught in their second pass at planting listening devices.
During the first entry at the end of May, Liddy and Hunt used McCord, an employee of the Committee to Re-Elect the President, as the wireman. He placed bugs in the wrong offices and deployed some that were defective.
The Committee to Re-Elect the President hired Baldwin — an unemployed lawyer and unsuccessful former FBI agent whom no one had vetted — to monitor the conversations that were intercepted. As the second break-in went awry, Baldwin failed to notice the plainclothes police who entered the building as it was in progress.
Hunt and Liddy left behind evidence in the rooms they had booked at the Watergate hotel. In haste, Hunt failed to take with him a personal check (for $6.36) he’d written to a local country club; he also left behind an address book with a White House number in it. Liddy, meanwhile, had paid the burglars using fresh hundred-dollar bills, with serial numbers in sequential order, which made them traceable to the Committee to Re-Elect the President.
In the end, Nixon had not approved the operation, nor did he know anything about it beforehand. But these bunglers helped ruin his presidency. In their sheer stupidity and recklessness, the Watergate burglars created a criminal stink that undid the election of a president who had achieved one of the greatest landslides in U.S. history.
Parnas, Fruman and Hyde seem to be cut from similar cloth as these men. Could they be similarly consequential?