Trump, Russia and a Watergate Veteran's Deja Vu
Here are two cardinal Washington rules. When a politician declares that something is "much ado about nothing," it's about something. And when politicians lie, it's because they're trying to hide something.
This brings us to the Trump-Russia connection, which President Donald Trump charges has been distorted by "fake news" manipulators conducting a political witch hunt. It's neither; it's raised serious issues that will cast a shadow over his presidency for the foreseeable future.
"If there is nothing there, nothing to hide, you open the doors and invite them in," says John Dean, of Watergate fame. "When you start seeing a big pushback and blaming it all on the media, you know there's something there."
Dean, who has followed Trump-Russia revelations closely, brings unique insight. He was President Richard Nixon's White House counsel as the Watergate scandal began to break in 1973, and he helped mastermind the coverup that ultimately brought Nixon down. He later pleaded guilty to obstructing justice and was a witness against some of the Nixon aides who were convicted in federal conspiracy trials.
Dean and other Watergate veterans have a sense of deja vu watching the Trump White House dissembling, enlisting accommodating Republicans to knock down credible stories and reacting to a drip, drip, drip of revelations.
Last week came more reports of contacts between Russian officials and Trump backers, along with the news that Attorney General Jeff Sessions met privately with the Russian ambassador in September and denied it during his confirmation hearing. Thus Sessions became the third Trump insider to be caught in evasions about Russia connections, after former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and campaign foreign-policy adviser Carter Page.
On Thursday, Sessions removed himself from any investigation of charges that Russia tried to sway the presidential election.
When Dean heard Republican Intelligence Committee Chair Devin Nunes declare recently that there's "no evidence" of wrongdoing, he says he thought of Hugh Scott. Scott was the Senate Republican leader who in 1973 repeatedly said he'd spoken to the White House and concluded that Watergate was much ado about little.
U.S. intelligence agencies have already concluded that Russians were behind the hacking of emails from accounts of the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman, John Podesta, and that Russia gave the emails to WikiLeaks for dissemination of embarrassing particulars. In a public report, the intelligence agencies concluded that President Vladimir Putin directed the "influence campaign" to help Trump.
That much is already clear. What's at issue is whether this was done in collusion with Trump operatives, something that might raise questions about criminality and the validity of the election result. Trump and his team vehemently deny this. Numerous news reports, citing intelligence sources, say there's clear proof of multiple contacts though not of active coordination.
In contrast to ham-handed past episodes of Russian cyber hacking, last year's interventions showed a nuanced understanding of U.S. politics. An example: On the eve of the Democratic National Convention in July, leaks surfaced showing that the party chair tried to tilt the nominating process against the insurgent challenger, Senator Bernie Sanders, infuriating his followers. The timing was exquisite and the impact strong.
Then there's Oct. 7. That was the day that 17 U.S. intelligence agencies released a joint statement saying that the Russian government directed the theft of emails connected to the election. It was also the day when a videotape appeared in which Trump was caught making coarse boasts about groping women.
WikiLeaks, which usually released its material during morning hours, made an exception that day by posting private remarks that Clinton once made to Goldman Sachs executives just a few hours after the lewd video emerged.
Political pressure to investigate the connections is building. Republican lawmakers were pressed during the congressional recess last month to pursue formal probes. There's a chance that the Senate Intelligence Committee will do so because of prodding by the senior committee Democrat, Mark Warner of Virginia, and a few Republicans led by John McCain of Arizona.
Dean thinks there should be both a congressional inquiry and a law-enforcement investigation led by a special counsel.
"These investigations need something to feed it," Dean said."The press can't crack this by itself, but if there are real investigations, there will be leaks."
Trump, he added, "is right on this: his problem is leaks."
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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