Donald Trump and Russia: Like Watergate and Iran-Contra — only worse

Former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn was at the center of the scandal, but he's just the tip of the Russian iceberg.

Former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn was at the center of the scandal, but he’s just the tip of the Russian iceberg.

It took Richard Nixon more than two years to own up to the Watergate scandal. Facing impeachment, he resigned, and top aides spent time in jail. Ronald Reagan’s administration traded arms to Iran for the release of a few American hostages in 1985, using profits from those arms sales to fund a war in Nicaragua, and it took several years and three investigations to unravel the whole mess. Reagan escaped direct punishment for the Iran-Contra affair, but several on his team were convicted (and pardoned by Reagan’s successor).

It has taken Donald Trump less than one month for his administration to be embroiled in a scandal that’s just as bad—and perhaps much worse.

No one knows when we’ll get the full story about the Russian infiltration that reached high levels and inner circles of both the Trump campaign and the Trump White House. The scandal combines the power-grabbing paranoia of Watergate (interfering with an election, this time by a foreign power) with the illegal foreign policy workarounds of Iran-Contra (calling a Russian ambassador with inside info, and who knows what else).

Legendary newsman Dan Rather says Trump’s Russia scandal could end up being as bad as Watergate. “It may become the measure by which all future scandals are judged,” Rather wrote on a Facebook post that quickly went viral. On his Meet the Press Daily show, NBC’s Chuck Todd said, “Welcome to Day One of what is arguably the biggest presidential scandal involving a foreign government since Iran-Contra,” further describing it as a “class-five political hurricane that’s hitting Washington.”

Three scandals of different magnitudes, with different details. What do they have in common? Let’s give a thumbnail description of these scandals and what we know so far about Trumpland’s ties to Russia.

Watergate: After the 1972 break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters — described by the Nixon White House as a “third-rate burglary”—the scandal grew not because of the crime but because of the cover-up by the Nixon White House, including cash payoffs to the original burglars. The Watergate tapes—Nixon secretly recorded every conversation in the Oval Office — also provided damning evidence. (This is probably why the Trump team did not record Trump’s recent phone conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin.) Shoe-leather journalism by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of The Washington Post broke the story open.

By March 1974, a grand jury indicted seven Nixon aides and named Nixon as an “unindicted co-conspirator.” The casualties: Attorney General John Mitchell, who also directed Nixon’s 1968 and 1972 campaigns, was convicted and served 19 months. White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman and top White House aide John Erlichman both were convicted and served 18 months. Charles Colson, special counsel to the president, pleaded no contest and served seven months. Charges against White House aide Gordon Strachan were dropped before trial. The conviction for Robert Mardian, former aide to Mitchell, was overturned on appeal. Kenneth Parkinson, counsel for the Committee to Re-elect the President (fondly referred to as CREEP), was acquitted.

The two men who planned the break-in in the first place, White House staffers Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy, were convicted and jailed. Jeb Stuart Magruder, aide to Haldeman, spent seven months in prison. White House Counsel John Dean implicated himself during Watergate hearings and spent four months in prison. Also convicted were the five original burglars, including James McCord, who was a former CIA officer and CREEP security director. All together, 40 people were indicted and/or jailed.

Nixon resigned in August 1974. One of the first things his successor, Gerald Ford, did was to give him a “full and complete pardon” for his actions as president. That pardon probably cost Ford the election in 1976.

Iran-Contra: This arms-for-hostages scandal developed in three parts. Iran was in a lengthy war with Iraq and desperate for weapons. Seven Americans were being held hostage by a pro-Iranian group in Lebanon. And the Reagan administration wanted to undercut the democratically elected Sandinista government in Nicaragua. What to do?

In 1985, the U.S. sold missiles to Iran, despite a U.S. embargo on selling arms to Iran, a country that had held U.S. citizens hostage for 444 days starting in 1979. In exchange, Iran used its influence to release the hostages in Lebanon, even though it was against U.S. policy to bargain for hostages. (Only three were released, and they were replaced by three more Americans soon afterward. Secretary of State George Schultz referred to this as a “hostage bazaar.”) Much of the missile-sale profits were diverted for weapons and financial support to fund the Reagan-favored “contras” fighting the Sandinista government in Nicaragua, even though it was illegal to fund the contras above the limits set by Congress.

A Lebanese newspaper exposed the whole affair in November 1986. At first, Reagan went on TV and vehemently denied the whole thing, denouncing the newspaper report. A week later, he said the weapons sale was not tied to the hostage release.

While investigating these issues, Attorney General Ed Meese discovered that the U.S. government could account for only $12 million of the $30 million that Iran had paid for the missiles. It turned out that Lt. Col. Oliver North, from his post on the National Security Council, was sending the extra funds to pay for activities of the contras with the full knowledge of the White House.

The congressional and independent investigations and trials took years, with much chest-thumping testimony from North, a decorated Marine with a uniform full of ribbons. His secretary, Fawn Hall, who had done her best to cover her boss’s tracks by shredding documents until the shredder broke down from overuse, actually uttered these words at a congressional hearing: “Sometimes you have to go above the law.”

Fourteen people were charged with operational or cover-up crimes; 11 were convicted, although some of those convictions were overturned on appeal, and sentences were for probation rather than prison time. North and National Security Adviser Adm. John Poindexter were convicted, but their convictions were overturned on a technicality. (Of course, North got a 15-year gig on — where else — Fox News.) President George H.W. Bush pardoned six people who were convicted or facing charges.

During the height of the scandal, Reagan and Bush continued to claim that they had NO IDEA about the entire scheme. The Reagan-appointed Tower Commission (see? appointing an independent investigatory panel isn’t so hard) determined that Reagan’s “disengagement” from running the White House meant that he had nothing to do with Iran-Contra. Might “disengagement” mean that Reagan was already suffering from the effects of Alzheimer’s disease when he was president? Televised interviews with Reagan late in his presidency include a lot of shots of Reagan saying, “I don’t remember.”

Trump-Russia connections: Trumpland’s ties to Russia have long been known, even if they weren’t made public. First, there’s the money angle: As Donald Jr. told a real estate conference in 2008, “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets.” This is the most plausible reason why Trump refuses to release his taxes.

Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who has longstanding ties to Russia, misled officials (i.e., lied to Vice President Mike Pence) for weeks about his calls to the Russian ambassador the day President Obama announced sanctions against Russia for interfering in the 2016 election. Flynn finally was forced to resign as Trump’s national security adviser after only 23 days on the job. Now, new reporting from The New York Times shows Team Trump’s “repeated contacts” with senior Russian intelligence officials during the campaign, a campaign in which Russia heavily put its thumb on the electoral scale for Donald Trump by hacking into the Democratic National Committee. Trump campaign staff with ties to Russia included Paul Manafort, former campaign chairman, and Carter Page, former foreign policy adviser. Also included was Republican operative Roger Stone.

All three scandals share several characteristics: 1) Administration officials stepped over the line legally; 2) Officials denied, denied, denied any involvement; 3) Officials blamed the media and internal leaks, especially during Watergate and the current scandal, and claimed the story was “overblown;” 4) It’s never the president’s fault.

We know how the first two scandals turned out. The media are (finally) doing their part in exposing the Trump White House’s ties to Russia. So which part of the government will investigate all of these charges?

Well, don’t look to the House of Representatives. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, already said the Flynn situation “has taken care of itself.” Instead, Chaffetz is asking the Justice Department’s Inspector General’s Office to investigate leaks about Flynn.

Besides, Chaffetz will be too busy launching a probe into a cartoon show called Sid the Science Kid. From The Washington Post:

The chairman of the powerful panel — the main investigative committee in the House — sent a letter to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention demanding to know why, in an attempt to raise awareness of the Zika virus, “CDC appears poised to make a sole source award to the Jim Henson Company for $806,000 to feature Sid the Science Kid in an educational program about the virus.”

Sid, for readers not familiar with PBS children’s programming, is a preschool cartoon character. Like President Trump, Sid is orange. Unlike Trump, he is highly inquisitive.

At this point, even the Muppets would do a more thorough job of investigating than Chaffetz will.

Don’t expect satisfaction from House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, either. Russian influence on Flynn and Trump? Total loser of an issue. But the leaks that opened the nation’s eyes to this scandal? Now there’s a subject worth investigating, Nunes claimed. Did we mention that Nunes was a member of the Trump transition team? And remember when Trump couldn’t get enough of whatever WikiLeaks delivered, including asking Russia to find and release Hillary Clinton’s emails?

And as far as an independent committee to probe the Russia connections, Nunes, House Speaker Paul Ryan, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell all say nyet. As Nunes told Politico: “There is not going to be one; I can tell you there is absolutely not going to be one. And I am not going to be lectured by people who are speaking out of both sides of their mouths.”

The only hope for congressional oversight seems to rest with a few Senate Republicans. Tennessee’s Bob Corker of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham, Missouri’s Roy Blunt, and Arizona’s John McCain are among those publicly clamoring for further investigation. According to a Reuters story:

“Let’s get everything out as quickly as possible on this Russia issue,” Corker told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program.

“I would want to make sure, with all of this suspicion, that everybody fully understood what has taken place. Otherwise, maybe there’s a problem that obviously goes much deeper than what we now suspect,” Corker added.

The drama of Flynn’s departure was the latest in a series of White House missteps and controversies since Trump was sworn in on Jan. 20. Corker expressed alarm over the way the administration is functioning, referring to “so much back-biting.”

“Is the White House going to have the ability to stabilize itself?” he asked, while also voicing concern that the Russia issue could “destabilize our ability to move ahead as a country.”

Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a prominent Republican voice on foreign policy who has been a Trump critic, called for a broader bipartisan congressional investigation, to be conducted by a special committee, if it turns out that Trump’s presidential campaign communicated with the Russians.

“If it is true, it is very, very disturbing to me. And Russia needs to pay a price when it comes to interfering in our democracy and other democracies, and any Trump person who was working with the Russians in an unacceptable way also needs to pay a price,” Graham told ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

Of course, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky doesn’t see any point to an investigation, because it “makes no sense” to investigate fellow Republicans.

Will the “Drip, Drip, Drip” of this Russian influence scandal be enough to make lawmakers launch an independent investigation? We can’t count on Attorney General Jeff Beauregard Sessions to look into the matter or to appoint a special prosecutor, despite the demands of Democratic senators to do so. Will public opinion make any difference?

What name will the media — and the public — ultimately give this scandal? A Washington Post story gave several examples of names already used, most ending with “-gate.” Flynngate. Kremlingate. Putingate. Russiagate.

While it would be nice to avoid the “-gate construction,” as the great scholar of political lexicology William Safire put it, Watergate remains the yardstick for any scandal, potential scandal or anything a partisan wants to be perceived as a scandal.

As Safire put it in his Political Dictionary, “gate” is merely a “device to provide a sinister label” to something.

But it’s too late to avoid gates. The gate is already out of the gate. …

And Watergate is now a script, with lines such as “what did the president know and when did he know it,” as much as it is history.

Who will turn out to be the Deep Throat of this scandal? In Watergate, FBI Associate Director Mark Felt turned out to be Bob Woodward’s secret source who supplied details and confirmed facts about the Nixon White House. Of course, leaks are gushing out of this White House and the intelligence community faster than the overflow of the Oroville Dam. There are probably IC agents lining up to be Deep Throats.

The most important question: What will be the smoking gun?

Originally posted on Daily Kos, Feb. 19, 2017.

4 Comments on “Donald Trump and Russia: Like Watergate and Iran-Contra — only worse”

  1. Great, great analysis, Sher. This is some of the best writing I have read on the three scandals, particularly the Reagan one. As for the current scandal, I think you have identified the one critical issue as to how far it will penetrate Trumpland: will there be a Deep Throat? Without that, or several of those, this will go nowhere, in my opinion. You’ve laid out quite well the resistance to any substantive action in the House, and my guess is those Republican senators you mentioned will be drowned out by their colleagues who will put the party over the exposing the truth.

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