Flynn-Russia scandal ‘is Trump’s Watergate’
Details of the Trump administration’s ties to Russia are continuing to emerge after a high-profile resignation. Some are comparing the episode to the biggest political scandal in US history.
‘What did the president know, and when did he know it?’
In 1973, a Republican named Howard Baker uttered these words in the US Senate. They would be immortalised in the history of the USA’s greatest political scandal ever: Watergate.
The answer to Baker’s question brought America’s first — and so far only — presidential resignation. Now President Trump’s opponents are asking it again. On Tuesday the Russian human rights campaigner Garry Kasparov quoted it on social media — and was retweeted nearly 7,000 times.
A day earlier Mike Flynn, Trump’s national security adviser, had resigned. Flynn breached procedure by discussing sanctions with Russia’s ambassador to the USA before he took his post. He then misled Mike Pence, the vice-president, about the conversation — prompting Pence to defend him incorrectly in public.
The scandal is growing. We now know the president was told Flynn could have lied two weeks before he resigned. A Trump tweet which praised Putin the day after Flynn’s phone call is under scrutiny.
And there are bigger questions about his links with Russia. Yesterday it was reported that his senior aides were in contact with Russian officials throughout last year’s presidential campaign. The FBI is already investigating Russian interference in that election and representatives from both major US parties have called for a wider investigation.
Dan Rather, the vaunted former CBS news anchor, has raised the spectre of the biggest scandal of all. ‘Watergate is the biggest political scandal of my lifetime, until maybe now,’ he said. ‘It was the closest we came to a debilitating constitutional crisis, until maybe now.’
In 1972 five burglars tried to bug the Democratic party’s offices at the Watergate hotel — helped by some of President Nixon’s senior advisers. Nixon resigned in August 1974 after trying to cover up embarrassing details.
Watergate has become the mark which other scandals are measured against. It inspired the classic film All the President’s Men. The suffix ‘-gate’ has been used to describe countless incidents since.
The comparison is valid, say some. The president has shielded a senior official who may now face criminal charges. Trump’s senior advisers may have colluded with the government of a foreign adversary — perhaps with his blessing. America’s democracy is in peril. Who knows what an investigation may uncover?
An over-reaction, others respond. Trump’s opponents are milking this story because it confirms their prejudices and convinces them they live in extraordinary times. In reality most of the allegations are based on conjecture from unnamed sources. The comparisons with Watergate are as inevitable as they are lazy.
- Does the behaviour described in this article worry you?
- Are comparisons between Watergate and the current Trump scandal reasonable?
- Write down five questions which this story makes you ask. Compare your questions with a partner and discuss why you chose them.
- Write a 500-word newspaper report giving details of the current scandal centred on Trump and Russia. Then do the same with Watergate, dating your report on August 9th 1974. Discuss as a class: how similar are the two episodes?
Some People Say...
“History never repeats itself; we just think it does.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- Do these shady contacts between people I’ve never heard of mean anything to me?
- The people involved in this scandal are or have been close advisers to Donald Trump. They can influence his decision-making and their behaviour helps us to understand what the most powerful person in the world thinks is important. This is also about those in power following the rules — and if you cannot trust them to do that, can you trust them to make laws which affect your life?
- But why does the comparison with an event from the 1970s matter?
- Watergate brought down a president and shook the USA’s faith in its leaders — so if the comparisons are fair, this scandal could have serious consequences. But you may think they are tenuous — if so, perhaps they teach us how limited our understanding of the present is.
- Baker was in the same party as President Nixon. He initially asked the question to shield Nixon from criticism, though he later became more critical.
- Trump’s press secretary has said the president knew on January 26th that the FBI had interviewed Flynn. The intelligence agencies had a transcript of Flynn’s call with the ambassador and suspected his account of events was untrue.
- On December 30th, Trump tweeted: ‘Great move on delay (by V. Putin) — I always knew he was very smart!’ This referred to Putin’s decision not to respond to American sanctions with sanctions of his own.
- As stated by both The New York Times and CNN.
- Carter Page (a foreign policy adviser to Trump’s campaign) and Paul Manafort (Trump’s former campaign manager) are said to be under scrutiny.
- American intelligence has found that Russia helped to release hacked files to damage Hillary Clinton’s candidacy.
- Nixon’s opponents.
- Nixon faced impeachment for obstruction of justice. He would have been removed from office if convicted of the offence.