Official Senate photographer / Sam Ervin Library watergate testimony...
Official Senate photographer / Sam Ervin Library

Journalist James Fallows wrote a piece in the The Atlantic titled Five Reasons Why the Comey Affair Is Worse Than Watergate.

Fallows had joined the staff of Washington Monthly upon leaving graduate school in 1972, and thus:

Over the next two years, until Richard Nixon’s resignation, I was living in D.C. and tracking the daily progress in clue-following and domino-toppling via stories in The Washington Post and elsewhere—and then the riveting, televised Watergate hearings…

Which as he notes made national figures of “Senator Sam” Erving, Howard Baker, John Dean, and others.  He writes of that time

Anyone of conscious age in that time can probably remember the jolts to national sentiment that the near-daily revelations evoked.

Perhaps some who like Fallows and me lived through those times can look at idea of “near-daily revelations” and find some similarities with our time.

Fallows decided to examine current events, especially post-Comey firing, and compare them with that time 40+ years ago:

As with anything involving Donald Trump, we have no idea where this will lead, what is “true,” and when the next bombshell will go off.

But based simply on what is known so far, this scandal looks worse than Watergate. Worse for and about the president. Worse for the overall national interest. Worse in what it suggests about the American democratic system’s ability to defend itself.

Here are the five reasons Fallows lists:

The underlying offense

Fallows looks at the nation that the coverup is worse than the crime.  But what about this case?  What is alleged this time?  Let me offer a longish selection of what Fallows writes:

Nothing less than attacks by an authoritarian foreign government on the fundamentals of American democracy, by interfering with an election—and doing so as part of a sustained effort that included parallel interference in the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and elsewhere. At worst, such efforts might actually have changed the election results. At least, they were meant to destroy trust in democracy. Not much of this is fully understood or proven, but the potential stakes are incomparably greater than what happened during Watergate, crime and cover-up alike.

The next point from Fallows is The blatancy of the interference.  Fallows briefly reminds us of the Saturday Night Massacre, but also points out that Nixon at least

Paid lip-service to the concept of due process and checks-and-balances.

He wanted to survive, but at least give the appearance of having done so by following the rules.   And now?

Nothing Donald Trump has done, on the campaign trail or in office, has expressed awareness of, or respect for, established rules. Nixon’s private comments could be vile, but nothing he said in public is comparable to Trump’s dismissing James Comey as a “showboat,” or the thuggishly menacing tweet that Trump sent out today…

That tweet being the implied threat about “tapes.”

The nature of the president  —  Fallows talks about how complicated Nixon was, including being very knowledgeable about some things even while paranoid and bigoted, and somewhat progressive on some domestic issues, yet Trump?

Well, read the transcripts of his two most recent interviews, and weep. He is impulsive, and ignorant, and apparently beyond the reach of any control, even his own.

The resiliency of the fabric of American institutions  —  this is something that should concern us all.   Fallows goes through the Saturday Night Massacre and write

Within the space of a few hours, three senior officials—Richardson, Ruckelshaus, and Cox—had all made a choice of principle over position, and resigned or been fired rather than comply with orders they considered illegitimate. Their example shines nearly half a century later because such a choice remains so rare.

He then turns to Rod Rosenstein and makes clear how much may depend upon how this gentleman chooses to act going forward (to which I add he should STRONGLY come down after today’s interviews on promoting the Acting Director of the FBI to permanent status and not agree to a Republican hack, as well as consider seriously the appointment of a special prosecutor).

Finally, Fallows points at The cravenness of party leaders  comparing the likes of McConnell and Ryan quite unfavorably to the actions of some Republicans, including Charles Wiggins of CA, during Watergate.  Then the willingness of key Republicans to go along with the Dems gave a bi-partisan nature to the charges against Nixon.  I think of Hogan and Cohen and Butler in House Judiciary helping draft the Articles of Impeachment and Barry Goldwater in the Senate telling Nixon to his face that not only would the President be overwhelmingly convicted, but that among the votes to remove him from office would be Goldwater’s.

Fallows writes

On the merits, this era’s Republican president has done far more to justify investigation than Richard Nixon did. Yet this era’s Republican senators and congressmen have, cravenly, done far less. A few have grumbled about “concerns” and so on, but they have stuck with Trump where it counts, in votes, and since Comey’s firing they have been stunning in their silence.

Indeed.  And given current Republican control of both chambers of Congress, much of what happens going forward will depend upon Republican leaders.

Which is why Fallows concludes:

I hope some of their choices, soon, allow them to be remembered as positively as are the GOP’s defenders of constitutional process from the Watergate days. But as of this moment, the challenge to the American system seems more extreme than in that era, and the protective resources weaker.

Go read the entire piece.  And then hope and pray that Fallows fears will be proven wrong, and that MAYBE, just maybe, Rosenstein will act forcefully and the Republican leaders will finally put country over party.

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This is a Creative Commons article. The original version of this article appeared here.


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