If there is one lesson to be learned from the Watergate scandal, it is that the cover-up is almost always more serious than the crime. Richard Nixon probably didn’t even know that a small group of ‘plumbers’ broke into the Democratic National Committee’s offices on behalf of his re-election campaign – although he was well aware of a number of other dirty tricks, such as bugging his opponents – but members of his staff knew, because they had orchestrated the burglary. And when the investigation came too close to the Oval Office the president tried to use federal officials to deflect it, and abused his power to get a special prosecutor fired. Facing impeachment because of his role in the cover-up he was forced to resign. In 2016 there was another burglary. Russian hackers broke into the computer files of the DNC and the email account of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta. By subsequently leaking the stolen information to the press via Wikileaks Russian agents, apparently directed by Putin’s office, tried to influence the US election in Trump’s favor.
On February 14th the New York Times wrote that members of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and other Trump associates had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election. That information came from interviews with current and former American officials, who were familiar with communications intercepted by the intelligence agencies around the same time they were discovering that the Russians were disrupting the presidential election. In spite of that correlation, at the time of the New York Times article the intelligence agencies had seen no evidence of collusion by the Trump campaign with the Russians, but they had not yet finished their investigation. Assuming that there was nothing to be found, the White House could have left the issue alone until a final FBI report had been produced, and then triumphantly celebrate its proven innocence with attacks on those who had dared to question its integrity. But that is not how this thing will go down.
Last week White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus asked the deputy FBI director to publicly dispute that Trump’s advisers had been in touch with Russian intelligence agents. The FBI refused, but the White House instead got the chairmen of the House and Senate intelligence committees to make phone calls to journalists with the same message, with the predictable result that journalists asked “who got you to make this call?”
Priebus’s attempt to make the FBI draw a conclusion before its investigation has been completed is totally inappropriate, but his involving the intelligence committees is no less than absurd. They have to conduct a congressional investigation into the Russian contacts, and now are so compromised that an independent special committee or prosecutor becomes inevitable.
You have to wonder if it’s just stupidity on the part of the White House, resulting from Trump’s paranoia about everything that questions the legitimacy of his presidency, or if there is more to be discovered. One way or the other, we’re bound to find out in due time.