The political crisis now confronting the United States is not the worst since Watergate. It is the worst since the Civil War.
It is hard to escape the conclusion that President Donald Trump is waging a relentless, self-preservation-driven campaign to discredit the core of our justice establishment and to unseat anyone he sees as a threat.
This is not to minimize the damage Watergate did to America. Richard Nixon oversaw an illegal effort to gain electoral advantage and then covered it up. He placed himself above the law and sought to shut down those entrusted with the responsibility of bringing him and his team to justice. Watergate was, undoubtedly, the gravest constitutional crisis America had faced in the modern era, until President Trump’s shenanigans began.
At its heart, though, Watergate was also just “a third-rate burglary,” as then-White House press secretary Ron Ziegler termed it. It turned truly ruinous because of all that happened next. Today’s situation is rooted in something considerably darker – an effort by a hostile power to undermine American democracy.
What’s more, regardless of what we may learn about efforts within Trump’s campaign to collude with the Russians, we can be certain our enemies have already benefited from his presidency.
Just last week, the White House announced that it would not be enforcing congressionally mandated sanctions against Russia. In Moscow, an anchor on Russian State TV celebrated the decision: “Trump is ours again,” she told her viewers. Trump remains reluctant to accept the unanimous verdict of the intelligence community that the 2016 election was beset by Russian-sponsored attacks. Instead of recognizing an ongoing threat, he has offered Russian officials photo-ops and dished out classified intelligence in private meetings.
Worse, agencies of the U.S. government that are essential to protecting against further foreign attacks on our system – the Justice Department, our independent judiciary, the FBI, our intelligence services – are now being undermined in unprecedented ways.
Nixon had his “Saturday Night Massacre,” in which he sought to shut down the investigation into Watergate by firing a special prosecutor only to have to reappoint another after two top Justice Department officials resigned in dramatic public protest. Trump’s slow-motion massacre removed one FBI director, pressured a deputy FBI director into early retirement and pushed out an acting attorney general. He reportedly is demanding personal loyalty of many who remain in office, including Rod Rosenstein, who manages the Russia collusion investigation.
As Watergate unfolded, Republican Party leaders stepped up and began to challenge Nixon. They eventually forced his resignation. Except for a very small minority, today’s Republicans have actively joined in the president’s war on the justice and intelligence professionals. They are behaving much like an autoimmune disorder in which cells that are supposed to protect the body politic turn against it.
Nixon lied; Trump lies pathologically. Fact-checkers have documented more than 2,000 falsehoods in his first year in office.
Nixon was an experienced politician and in many respects an effective president. Trump, despite majorities in both houses of Congress, has gotten precious little done and in some areas – such as environmental, immigration, trade and foreign policy – he has been a disaster. Above and beyond this, however, he manages to constantly debase the office daily in ways Nixon, for all his flaws, would never have dreamed of doing.
The more the White House tries to convince Americans that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation is a hoax and a witch hunt, the clearer the danger to the nation becomes: The president and his supporters say he is “fighting back” against unfounded attacks, but in actuality, with cynical moves such as the release of California Rep. Devin Nunes’ memo, he is eroding our laws and values.
We congratulate ourselves that the republic and its system of checks and balances withstood the likes of Nixon. Will it survive Trump?
It is hardly a certainty that an effective firewall of conscience will finally emerge within the GOP. And while the minority party speaks out, Democrats have such limited power in Congress, their protests seem futile.
We must hope the special counsel’s investigation and the judiciary will successfully play the independent role intended for them. And we must recognize that our last best line of defense in this crisis is the American voter. Our ballots will determine whether the damage inflicted by Trump will be temporary, as it was with Nixon, or catastrophic and enduring.
David Rothkopf is a senior fellow at the School for Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.
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