It’s déjà vu all over again.
As the Trump Russia story continues to stutter forward, comparisons to Watergate are everywhere — and justifiably so. The revelations and denials, the slow unraveling of deception, the critical role of a free and independent press challenging the cover-up and digging for the truth are all very familiar, especially to those of us who actually were in Washington back during those peculiar days and nights of Richard Nixon.
But another inside-the-Beltway, historic parallel struck me last week when reports emerged of House Intelligence Committee Chair Devin Nunes (R-CA) suddenly jumping from his Uber car into another and covertly racing to the White House grounds, where he met with who-knows-who about who-knows-what. (The New York Times reported on Thursday that White House officials Ezra Cohen-Watnick and Michael Ellis gave Nunes access to “intelligence reports that showed President Trump and his associates were incidentally swept up in foreign surveillance by American spy agencies.” Early Thursday evening, The Washington Post added to the list John Eisenberg, legal adviser to the National Security Council.)
When it comes to paralleling Nunes and his car switcheroo, there hasn’t been such noteworthy bolting from a vehicle in the District of Columbia since a South American stripper named Fanne Foxx dashed from the limousine of House Ways and Means Chairman Wilbur Mills and jumped into the Tidal Basin. That was in 1974, just a couple of months after Nixon’s resignation. Foxe and Rep. Mills were having an affair and soon after his companion’s 2 a.m. dip, Mills, who was considered by many to be the most powerful man on Capitol Hill, had to give up his chairmanship. Foxe had her 15 minutes of fame, during which her exotic dancer sobriquet was changed from “The Argentine Firecracker” to “The Tidal Basin Bombshell.”
No word as to what Rep. Nunes’ stripper name will be, but I’m open to suggestions. Certainly Devin “D for Dumb” Nunes is a real possibility. Which brings to mind another congressional highlight of 1974, and I’m not talking about the superb work of the House Judiciary Committee passing articles of impeachment against Nixon. It also was the year that a start-up magazine, New Times, made a splash with its cover story naming, “The 10 Dumbest Members of Congress.” It was written by Nina Totenberg, now NPR’s star legal affairs correspondent.
No. 1 on her list was Sen. William Scott, Republican from Virginia, a one termer whose stupid-is-as-stupid-does behavior reportedly included racist and anti-Semitic remarks.
During a defense briefing that included information about missile silos in Russia, Scott is alleged to have said, “Wait a minute! I’m not interested in agriculture. I want the military stuff.” Nor did he seem to know the difference between the Suez Canal and the Persian Gulf, so thank God he never was anywhere near the nuclear codes.
To make matters worse, when the article appeared, Scott called a press conference in his office to angrily denounce the story, giving it even wider coverage and proving once and for all that he really was exactly who Totenberg and the magazine said he was.
Which brings us back to Devin Nunes. Certainly, in this current Congress he already has a lot of competition for dumbest. The Texas House Republicans alone include an impressive array of top-tier candidates. (And I say that as a Yankee who nonetheless received half his chromosomes from a smart and capable Texan.)
Or maybe Nunes is dumb like a fox. Between his feckless dashing about Washington like a barely housebroken Scooby-Doo and his postponement of more open hearings that might further reveal the administration’s culpability, he has done his best to obfuscate and obstruct. He’s certainly a tool, his fumbling mistakes and misrepresentations thoroughly mucking up his committee’s investigation, probably beyond redemption. Which doubtless is just what his White House pals wanted.
Hard to believe he wants to go out this way (and he should resign, recuse himself or be replaced by House Speaker Ryan). There are even those who say that when the committee room doors are closed, in private he has been a helpful colleague — until now.
Apparently, Nunes been played and played big-time, a cog in the Steve Bannon machine designed to subvert the current investigations. That classified — and said to be anonymous! — information about which Nunes insisted he had to brief President Trump but at the same time hide from the eyes of his committee turns out to have been leaked to him by the supposedly leak-averse White House itself. In other words, he was briefing the White House on documents he got from the White House. Huh?
And what was in those documents? According to The Times:
“The intelligence reports consisted primarily of ambassadors and other foreign officials talking about how they were trying to develop contacts within Mr. Trump’s family and inner circle before his inauguration, officials said…
“Mr. Nunes has acknowledged that the incidental intelligence gathering on Trump associates last year was not necessarily unlawful, and that it was not specifically directed at Mr. Trump or people close to him. American intelligence agencies typically monitor foreign officials of allied and hostile countries, and they routinely sweep up communications linked to Americans who may be taking part in the conversation or are being spoken about.”
Shocker — not. And far removed from the myth of Barack Obama “wiretapping” Trump Tower, as the current president claimed.
Now, how about the men who allegedly handed off the info to Rep. Nunes? There’s Michael Ellis, who’s in the White House Counsel’s office. He used to work for Nunes at the intelligence committee and now reports to the aforementioned National Security Council attorney John Eisenberg.
And you may remember Ezra Cohen-Watnick — he’s the guy who national security adviser H.R. McMaster recently wanted to bounce from his position as the National Security Council’s senior director for intelligence. Cohen-Watnick, 30, went running to his protectors, Steve Bannon and presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner. They then went to Trump, who overruled McMaster and saved the kid’s job. After Trump sent his scurrilous tweets about wiretapping, Cohen-Watnick apparently wanted to pay his debt to the boss and seems to have set about trying to find something, anything, that might be interpreted as supporting his president’s fantasy.
Cohen-Watnick is a protégé of McMaster’s short-lived predecessor as national security adviser, the notorious Michael Flynn, who lost his job for, among other sins, purportedly lying to Vice President Mike Pence and others about his conversations with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak. At least that was the cover story. He also may have been involved in a private, half-baked scheme to kidnap Turkish opposition leader Fethullah Gulen from exile in Pennsylvania and turn him over to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and certain death, thus avoiding formal extradition.
Still with me? Earlier reports had indicated that Flynn might be cutting a deal with the FBI, copping a plea in exchange for telling everything he knows about Donald Trump’s team and Russia, including possible collusion in that country’s interference with the 2016 election. Now The Wall Street Journal reports that according to officials, Flynn has offered to be interviewed by the agency and the congressional intelligence committees in exchange for immunity, “but has so far found no takers.” His lawyer wrote, “Gen. Flynn certainly has a story to tell, and he very much wants to tell it, should the circumstances permit.” I’ll bet, but it may take a while; no one seems anxious to grant Flynn’s request anytime soon. And it’s pretty funny coming from a fellow who last September told Meet the Press, “When you are given immunity, that means you probably committed a crime.”
Which brings us back to Watergate. When Woodward and Bernstein started writing their articles in June 1972, there was frustration, because while they were on the front page of The Washington Post almost every day, their reporting was buried in other newspapers around the country and the story got little traction — much as the Russia story has been ignored or denied by Trump’s base. Richard Nixon won re-election in a landslide.
In my memory, Watergate finally began to really crack open months later when the burglars appeared for sentencing in March 1973. One of them, James McCord, had written a letter to Judge John Sirica and then met with him in chambers, begging for a deal and singing like the Vienna Boys Choir about who at the Nixon White House had asked the burglars to take the rap and remain silent in exchange for a payoff.
So maybe now a similar agreement eventually will be reached with Flynn. Add to that the seeming seriousness of Republican Richard Burr, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who as of this week — and unlike the hapless Nunes — seems committed to getting honest answers, much as his fellow North Carolinian, Democrat Sam Ervin, sought when he chaired the Senate Watergate Committee. (That said, the apparent commitment of Burr — and Democratic vice chair Mark Warner of Virginia — does not yet negate the real need for an independent, bipartisan inquiry and a special prosecutor.)
Senators of both parties serving on the intelligence committee were stunned Thursday when Clinton Watts, a senior fellow at the George Washington University’s Center for Cyber and Homeland Security, told them in a public hearing that not only had Russia hacked Hillary Clinton but also other GOP presidential candidates who ran against Trump in the primaries, including Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush and Lindsey Graham. What’s more, Watts said, “the commander in chief has used Russian active measures at times against his opponents.”
In part, he noted, that’s why Russia was so successful — Trump played such a willing (if possibly unwitting) role in their scheme: “… Part of the reason these active measures work, and it does today in terms of Trump Tower being wiretapped, is because they [Trump’s associates] parrot the same lines.”
Sure, there’s a chance this will all lead to naught. But we have to find out. Every piece of this puzzle inexorably leads us to the big looming questions one longs to ask Trump and his cohort under oath: If there’s really nothing going on, why are you working so hard to keep the truth from coming out? What exactly are you hiding?
Or is this a knee-jerk authoritarian response to anyone who dares challenge the leader, a dictatorial reaction that will only worsen with time and the consolidation of power? That may be the most frightening question of all.