I was in law school during the Watergate years, watching in horrified fascination as the Executive Branch, under President Richard Nixon, attacked the very foundations of our constitutional system. Over a period of years, investigations, indictments, resignations, and impeachment revealed a law-breaking administration riddled by corruption and contempt for the Constitution. Today I see attacks that may be even more serious and damaging to our country and Constitution. Now, as then, every day brings new revelations in a seemingly endless cascade of outrages.
Today’s revelations seem even worse than those of Watergate. Clearly unconstitutional actions followed by attacks on the independence of the judicial branch lead the list.(DeVos and Perry), who cheerfully admit law-breaking in the very areas they would oversee (Puzder’s failure to pay employment taxes); or who have a clear history of hostility to the very missions of their cabinet departments (Sessions, Pruitt.)
And then we come to the Russians. Trump’s National Security Advisor Michael Flynn had secret discussion of sanctions with the Russian government after the election. An unknown number of others on Trump’s team had frequent communications with Russian intelligence and other Russian government officials during the campaign. Trump denied that he knew about Flynn’s contacts. Intelligence agencies report that they told him – weeks ago. Nothing was done until the news leaked this week. Then Flynn resigned.
Do secret communications with Russian intelligence by Trump’s team – both during the campaign and after the election – constitute treason?
Is secret communication with a foreign power as damaging as the open, public attacks on the constitution that have taken place every day since the inauguration?
I do not know the answer to these questions, but all of it looks worse than Watergate.
Nixon’s Plumbers burglarized Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist in September 1971. They weren’t caught until they burglarized the DNC offices in June 1972. Then it took more than half a year for them to be convicted in January 1973. Bringing the dirty deeds home to the White House took even longer, with Senate Watergate hearings and appointment of a special prosecutor beginning in May 1973.
Then a little detour: In October, the Vice President resigned because of tax evasion and corruption dating back to his tenure as governor of Maryland.
A few days later came the Saturday Night Massacre: Nixon ordered his Attorney General to fire the special prosecutor investigating White House criminal conduct. The Attorney General and assistant Attorney General resigned rather than carry out his orders, but eventually he found someone to do so.
Impeachment hearings began on May 9, 1974, more than six months after the Saturday Night Massacre and more than three years after the White House set up the Plumbers burglary squad and adding names to its official Enemies List.
After the House Judiciary Committee approved Articles of Impeachment at the end of July, after Senate Republicans told him that the Senate would vote to convict, Richard Nixon resigned. From the formation of the Plumbers unit and the Enemies list through the crimes and cover-ups to the resignation: more than three years. And that was with overwhelming Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate
We need to push forward with investigation and with defense of the constitution. We need to call on Republicans, in Congress and among our neighbors and community members, to join us. We need to put aside our past political enmities and ask them to stand with us to defend the country and the Constitution.
This has happened before. Attorney General Elliott Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus were Nixon appointees. They stood up against him to defend the Constitution.
The House resolution giving the Judiciary Committee authority to launch the impeachment investigation against Nixon passed by a 410-4 vote. That meant all but four of the Republican House members agreed that an investigation should go forward. At the end of the process, seven Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee joined the Democrats in voting for one or more of the three Articles of Impeachment. Some Republicans took a principled stand against Nixon and defended the country and the Constitution against him. Other Republicans must do the same today.
Now as in the Watergate era, no less than the Constitution and the country are at stake.