In one presidential scandal, an anonymous government official dubbed “Deep Throat” provided the crucial information that helped break the case. In the other, it’s an anonymous government whistleblower.
That’s just one of the uncanny parallels between the events that forced President Richard Nixon’s 1974 resignation in the Watergate scandal and those that precipitated the current House impeachment probe of President Donald Trump.
There are also some, but fewer, parallels with the events that led to President Bill Clinton’s 1998 impeachment.
At the center of the Trump probe is the White House summary transcript of his July 25 conversation with Ukraine’s new president, asking him “to do us a favor” of investigating presidential rival Joe Biden.
It was evidence of a conversation that sank Nixon — the “smoking gun” tape that became public some two years after the break-in at the Democratic Party’s Watergate headquarters.
An equally important parallel is the contention by the unnamed government whistleblower that Trump’s advisers sought to “lock down” any records of the president’s effort to use pending U.S. aid to Ukraine to leverage President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to reopen probes into Biden and his son, Hunter.
It resembles Nixon’s effort requesting the FBI and the CIA to cover up the role of his campaign operatives in the June 1973 break-in — and subsequent efforts to silence the burglars by paying them off. Nixon was already facing likely impeachment and conviction when disclosure of that directive on the tape-recorded conversation prompted his resignation.
Anonymous government officials were crucial to both cases.
In Watergate, the anonymous government source known as Deep Throat, revealed years later to be top FBI official Mark Felt, provided details that helped Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein break key aspects of the case.
In the Trump inquiry, the key figure has been the unnamed whistleblower, who The New York Times said was a CIA official detailed to White House duty. Like Felt, he used his position to out what he saw as wrongdoing; like Felt, his name will presumably become known, maybe sooner rather than later.
Finally, like Nixon, Trump is accused of seeking to damage Democratic political opponents. The real motive for the 1972 Watergate break-in remains hazy, but the target was obvious: the rival party.
And Trump made clear in talking to Zelenskiy that his principal target was Biden, shown in polls to be his strongest 2020 opponent.
(Clinton’s impeachment was different because his misdeeds were personal, not political. But a hitherto obscure government employee, Linda Tripp, was the person who exposed his affair with intern Monica Lewinsky.)
The Nixon and Trump cases have one major difference.
It took nearly two years, three major investigations and countless court hearings before the smoking gun tape emerged among the 64 recordings of presidential conversations that the Supreme Court ruled had to be turned over to the Watergate special counsel and congressional investigators.
By contrast, it took barely a week for the White House’s release of two damaging documents to precipitate the Trump impeachment effort — the summary transcript of the president’s phone call with Zelenskiy and the whistleblower’s detailing of White House efforts to conceal it.
Their release forced the long-simmering discussion of possible impeachment proceedings onto the front-burner and ensured enough House Democratic support to make impeachment likely. The release may also have turned around the views of a public previously reluctant to support impeaching Trump.
The public way this unfolded will make managing Trump’s impeachment easier than pursuit of Nixon 45 years ago.
The White House itself, and the whistleblower, have provided the raw material delineating the wrongdoing that will be at the heart of any impeachment articles.
The administration may well resist House Democratic efforts to speed the process to keep ahead of the 2020 presidential campaign calendar. On Tuesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, himself subpoenaed for key documents, ordered officials cited in the account not to testify later in the week.
However, since the questioners will already know many of the answers, White House and Trump lawyers may face the burden of having to disprove allegations, rather than forcing the lawmakers to prove them.
Judging from the administration’s resistance to other House oversight hearings this year, its witnesses could well be less cooperative than the Nixon administration and campaign officials who testified before the Senate Watergate Committee as it developed the scandal’s key facts.
Finally, there is this:
A long-standing Washington maxim is that the cover-up is often worse than the crime. That was true with Nixon’s order directing important federal agencies to hide the break-in by his campaign operatives into the rival party’s headquarters. (And it was true with Clinton’s lies about his relationship with Lewinsky).
With Trump, however, the events that precipitated the inquiry, notably Trump’s phone call asking the Ukrainian president to investigate Joe Biden at a time he was withholding promised military aid, may prove worse than any efforts to hide them.