By Arturo Castañares / Publisher and CEO
For over 40 years, most political scandals are quickly given a -gate name to denote a potentially damaging story, deriving its name from coverup that led to the only resignation of a U.S. president.
That story, of course, involved embattled president Richard Nixon desperately trying to coverup a politically-motivated break-in at the Democratic headquarters in the Watergate building. The exposed coverup orchestrated by Nixon eventually led to his resignation just before the House of Representatives took up a vote on articles of impeachment. The date was August 8, 1974.
In the 42 years since, several scandals have been called by Watergate-type names, including Jimmy Carter’s “Billygate”, when the President’s brother, Billy, was acting as a paid agent for the Libyan government; “Irangate” when it was revealed that the Reagan Administration had sold weapons to Iran and diverted the proceeds to fund Nicaraguan Contra rebels; and, who can forget “Monicagate”, when Bill Clinton’s relationship with intern Monica Lewinsky led to the closest another president ever got to impeachment when the House of Representative passed Article of Impeachment against Clinton, but he would then be acquitted by the Senate.
Some of the -gate scandals ruined political careers, some ended potential political careers before they started, and some made people more famous than they were before the scandal. But, in each case, at some point in the arc of the story, the target denied the allegations and vowed to fight on, even in the face of overwhelming evidence against him.
During the past few weeks, more and more information has surfaced in the growing story about interactions between campaign surrogates of Donald Trump’s campaign and Russian officials and operatives. What, at first, seemed like just another political story, has now turned into a potential criminal investigation.
And, thus, Russiagate was born.
After several contradicting stories about Trump’s then-National Security Advisor Michael Flynn’s communications with Russians, including their Ambassador, himself a suspected spy, Congressional committees in both the House and Senate began holding hearings to investigate.
Then the FBI revealed it was investigating allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential elections, too.
That was all good fodder for political theatre, but, then things got really crazy.
Last week, while the FBI is actively investigating the connection between the Trump campaign and Russians, President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey. At the time, it seemed like a way to hinder the investigation, but, worse news was still to come.
This week, sources inside the FBI revealed that Director Comey wrote a detailed report after a February 14th meeting with Trump. During that meeting, Comey says Trump asked others in the Oval Office to leave, including Vice President Mike Pence and Attorney General Jeff Sessions. When they were alone, Comey reports that Trump asked him to drop the investigation of Michael Flynn’s interactions with Russians.
That’s textbook obstruction of justice.
During the Watergate scandal, recordings in the Oval Office revealed that President Nixon approved a plan for his staff to ask the Director of the CIA to get the FBI to back off investigating the Watergate burglary. Nixon then forced the Justice Department to fire the independent counsel that was investigating the break-in. One of the four article of impeachment against Nixon was for obstruction of justice for his attempt to interfere with the investigation.
Does that sound familiar?
The criminal elements of obstruction of justice require a person to knowingly impede, obstruct, or interfere with an investigation. But, in an impeachment process, the less-defined scope of what constitutes a “high crimes or misdemeanors”, as stated in the Constitution, is a lower standard set forth for those in positions of power, including the President. In that context, a high crime is an act that can only be done by someone in a unique position of authority, who does things to circumvent justice.
What FBI Director Comey wrote in his report after his meeting with President Trump is very concerning. If the President of the United States asked the Director of the FBI to drop an investigation that included actions of campaign officials of the President’s own campaign, that seems like obstruction of justice, or for the President, a high crime.
And, when Comey did not agree to drop the investigation, Trump fired him in what now seems like an attempt to further impede, obstruct, or interfere with the investigation. Only the President would be in a position to fire the very person investigating him and his associates.
Over the past 40 years, maybe too many small political scandals were labels mini Watergates, but, this week, the growing Russian scandal seems to be snowballing into a story worthy of a -gate reference.
After 42 years, it seems more and more likely that the smoke around this story is leading to some fire, and in that sense, this generation’s Watergate may be coming more clearly into view.