Why echoes of Watergate are impossible to ignore

by Paul Thomas / 31 May, 2017
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Donald Trump and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in the Oval Office. Photo/Getty Images

Before the special prosecutor investigating Donald Trump’s connections with Russia lays matters to rest, one extreme view is that the US President is a Kremlin plant.

If there’s one thing US President Donald Trump loves more than winning, it’s boasting about winning, and now he has a triumph worth trumpeting. In just four months, he has done what it took Richard Nixon, the benchmark for presidential venality, a full four-year term and then some to do: make impeachment part of the conversation.

The Watergate comparisons are coming thick and fast, and impeachment talk has made its way from the corridors and cloisters to the floor of Congress. It feels premature, but it’s hard to disagree with the assessment offered by Brian Fallon, formerly Hillary Clinton’s campaign press secretary, now a CNN commentator: “Every day we get closer to testing Trump’s theory about what would happen if he shot a man on 5th Avenue in broad daylight.”

Trump reckoned he wouldn’t lose any votes. Well, there’s no smoking gun as yet and the polls are mixed: his approval rating is terrible, but Republican voters seem to be sticking with him. Furthermore, he has the backing of the Republican legislators who form the majority in both houses of Congress. The two are linked: if the Republican base gives up on Trump, his support among congressional Republicans is likely to erode – and quickly.

If multiple reports are to be believed, many congressional Republicans no longer make an effort in private to conceal their disdain for the President. On the record, however, they continue to shrug off developments that would have driven them into paroxysms of righteous, unforgiving rage had they occurred on Barack Obama’s watch.

And God only knows how they would have reacted if President Hillary Clinton had terminated an FBI director overseeing an investigation of her campaign, then crudely disparaged the sacked public servant in the course of an Oval Office back-slapping session with the Russian ambassador, widely regarded as the Kremlin’s US spymaster, and Russian Foreign Minister, last seen in Moscow treating his American counterpart with glacial contempt.

As an aside, it’s interesting to reflect that had Clinton won the election, many supporters would have urged her to sack FBI director James Comey for his late, gratuitous and perhaps decisive intervention in the campaign. And in light of Comey’s admission that the thought of his intervention influencing the election made him feel “mildly nauseous”, one is entitled to wonder: what would it take to make him feel middle-of-the-spectrum nauseous, let alone thoroughly nauseous?

Anti-Trump protest outside the  White House. Photo/Getty Images

“Extremism is no vice”

The congressional Republicans’ determination to back Trump was on unflattering display in their assault on Obamacare. That Republicans in the House of Representatives, including the fiscal hard-liners of the Freedom Caucus, could pass a bill that clearly hadn’t been fully digested by most of them, hadn’t been costed and, on the face of it, looks like electoral poison to give Trump a “win” shows how far they’re prepared to go to shore him up.

There are several reasons for this. As mentioned, Trump still seems to have the support of the party faithful, those who vote in primaries. Second, the right is advancing its agenda, with the appointment of arch-conservative Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court constituting a crucial victory in the culture war.

Third, Republicanism is now so doctrinaire and single-mindedly focused on serving the interests of wealthy white people that it seems to operate on the basis that “extremism on behalf of our class and ideology is no vice”, to paraphrase a former Republican presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater.

It’s sobering to reflect that Goldwater, trounced in the 1964 election after being cast as a bellicose lunatic – his campaign slogan “In your heart, you know he’s right” was flipped to “In your guts, you know he’s nuts” – would be a moderate in today’s GOP. Goldwater believed gays should be allowed to serve in the military, adamantly opposed the intrusion of religion into politics and was one of the three senior party members who went to the White House to tell Nixon the jig was up.

Finally, being Trump’s last line of defence empowers the Republicans in Congress. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell is now arguably the most powerful man in Washington: if Trump loses his support, he’s done for. But if Vice President and apparent cleanskin Mike Pence were to replace Trump, he’d be far less dependent on McConnell.

That said, the echoes of Watergate are impossible to ignore. The appointment of a special prosecutor is a turning point, if only because the congressional Republicans will no longer dictate the tempo and scope of the investigation into the Trump campaign’s Russian ties. There was barely a peep of protest or criticism over the appointment of former FBI director Robert Mueller, which may suggest the Republican leadership is beginning to ask itself whether it’s in the party’s wider interests to act as a roadblock to what Trump calls “the Russia thing”.

As was the case with Watergate, the White House insists the Russia issue is fake news, Democratic sour grapes, a political witch-hunt, all the while acting suspiciously, if not guiltily. The way the story keeps changing, the way leaked information keeps undercutting indignant assertions of nothing remotely untoward, is Watergate Revisited. If there’s really nothing to see here, why is the strategy to tell the truth only when all else fails?

And there’s gut feeling. As with Nixon, one’s instinctive reaction to Trump is that something dodgy, if not wicked, this way comes.

Richard Nixon. Photo/Getty Images

The Gonzo view

In 1968, the year Nixon took office, Hunter S Thompson wrote of him as being “a monument to all the rancid genes and broken chromosomes that corrupt the possibilities of the American Dream”. In 1973, as the Watergate scandal was unfolding, the father of gonzo journalism wrote that Nixon spoke for “the werewolf in us; the bully, the predatory shyster who turns into something unspeakable, full of claws and bleeding string-warts, on nights when the moon comes too close”. Even if you didn’t go all the way with Thompson, there was undoubtedly “something of the night” about Nixon. (That characterisation was deployed, to devastating effect, in a UK Tory party leadership contest in the late 1990s; it may have resonated as strongly as it did because the target, Michael Howard, was of Romanian ancestry.)

When Trump first blundered into our consciousness in the guise of a playboy property developer, he was a caricature of the Ugly American, an epically vulgar but essentially harmless – unless you were a young woman who got within arm’s length – buffoon. The more we’ve learnt about him and the further he has ventured into politics, the stronger the sense of unease he generates. Everything about him suggests this guy is a wrong ’un, a bad egg.

There’s an easy way for Trump to change the atmosphere and regain a measure of control over the narrative and that’s to release his tax returns, as every major party presidential nominee since 1976 has done.

If, as he insists, they’d show everything in TrumpLand is above board and squeaky clean, several damaging, inter-related perceptions would be immediately neutralised: that he’s hiding something; that the mogul and his empire aren’t all they’re cracked up to be; that there have been years of murky dealings with murky people; that Trump Inc has been kept afloat by Russian money and he who pays the piper is now calling the tune. Seeing a full and frank financial disclosure would be so disarming, the almost irresistible assumption if it doesn’t eventuate – and recent statements from surrogates suggest his previous, vague undertakings to do so at some point no longer apply – is that it would actually make things worse for him.

That’s certainly the consensus among journalists and investigators who’ve spent years looking into Trump’s affairs. According to James Henry, an economist and investigative journalist specialising in money laundering, “of all the smoke pouring out of Trump’s basement, the dirtiest, darkest smoke comes from his involvement in money laundering and financial fraud”. Henry believes that if one were able to follow the money trail all the way to its source, one would find oneself in close proximity to a certain VV Putin.

Robert Mueller. Photo/Getty Images

“No deals, no loans, no nothing”

In 2014, golf writer James Dodson played golf with Trump and his son Eric at a new Trump course in North Carolina. Dodson’s version is that when he asked Trump Jr where they got their funding from, given that US banks hadn’t wanted a bar of golf course construction since the 2008 global financial crisis, Eric told him, “We have all the funding we need out of Russia.” No 2 son says this account is “completely fabricated”; Big Daddy has tweeted, in foaming capitals denoting unequivocal truthiness, “I HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH RUSSIA – NO DEALS, NO LOANS, NO NOTHING!”

If the US President is indeed in hock to Russia or, in the more alarmist theory, a Manchurian candidate, it would be the greatest intelligence coup in history. The most explosive charge in the infamous dossier prepared by Christopher Steele, a former head of MI6’s Russia desk now operating in the intelligence underworld’s private sector, was that “the Kremlin has been cultivating, supporting and assisting Trump for years and had compromised him sufficiently to be able to blackmail him”. The Manchurian Candidate is a 1959 novel by Richard Condon, which has been made and remade into a movie, about an American soldier serving in the Korean War who is captured, brainwashed into becoming a communist agent by Chinese and Soviet intelligence officers and sent back to the US to enter politics.

If that’s really the case, would his Russian handlers want him to be acting the way he is: clinging to disgraced former national security adviser Michael Flynn, whose Russia ties are a matter of record; taking every opportunity to fawn on Putin; chortling over “nut-job” Comey’s demise with Putin’s henchmen; in short, doing pretty much everything he can to ensure there’s a proper investigation of the Russian connection?

Maybe it’s simpler than that. Maybe it’s a matter of Russia making the most of a golden opportunity to embarrass and humiliate the US, discomfort its allies and undermine democracy.

“[The Russians] have an inherent desire to undermine the US,” says Naveed Jamali, a former FBI counter-intelligence agent, now a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a Philadelphia-based think-tank. “Russia really wants to essentially harm the credibility of the United States … As long as the United States looks illegitimate, as long as we look to be in total free fall to the outside world, that’s a huge benefit to them.”

In that scenario, every Trump lie, blunder and freak-out, every demonstration that the greatest democracy on the planet has placed its fate and that of the Western world in the hands of a 70-year-old spoilt brat who is spectacularly ill-equipped for that awesome responsibility, is a little victory. In that scenario, the Kremlin’s gambit is already a raging success.

This article was first published in the June 3, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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