Some politicians and pundits have drawn parallels between President Donald Trump and his team’s connections to Russia and the Watergate scandal that resulted in former President Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974.
Three Raleigh lawyers who served on the Watergate Committee say that while there are similarities between the two situations, it’s too early to make a fair comparison.
Rufus Edmisten was the deputy chief counsel for the committee and served the subpoena to the White House for the Watergate tapes. He went on to become the North Carolina attorney general and secretary of state.
Eugene Boyce, who served as the lead investigator on the committee, conducted interviews that uncovered Nixon’s secret taping system in the White House. He’s currently an attorney with Nexsen Pruet, a Raleigh-based firm.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The News & Observer
Lacy Presnell worked alongside Boyce on the committee and is an attorney at Burns, Day & Presnell in Raleigh.
Edmisten, Boyce and Presnell shared their thoughts on Watergate and Russia.
Watergate began when several people connected to Nixon were caught breaking in and attempting to bug the offices of the Democratic National Committee in 1972.
The government investigations that ensued and reporting by The Washington Post eventually unearthed abuses of power by the Nixon administration, including the installation of secret microphones that recorded conversations in the White House.
Nixon resigned after a recording was revealed of him talking about using the CIA to hinder the FBI’s investigation.
The FBI is investigating whether Russia hacked the Democratic National Committee’s computer system last year in an attempt to influence the election. It’s been compared to the break-in during Watergate.
Emails were leaked to and published by WikiLeaks.
A number of Trump’s associates are suspected of having connections to Russia, and former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, White House senior adviser Jared Kushner and Attorney General Jeff Sessions have been accused of failing to disclose communications with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
“We’re drawing comparisons or distinctions knowing how Watergate played out,” Presnell said. “It’s clear there are a lot more leaps (to conclusions) at this early stage than there were in Watergate.”
The main queries during the Watergate investigation were what Nixon knew and when he knew it, especially about the break-in, Boyce said. The tapes and legal proceedings helped provide answers to these questions.
With Trump, there’s also a need to know what he has said and why, Boyce said. Did Trump or his associates talk to foreign officials or others about possible dealings with Russia?
Talks and tweets
Nixon mostly communicated with those inside the White House, Presnell said. Some of Trump’s conversations have taken place with individuals outside the White House.
Social media didn’t exist in the 1970s. Today, Trump regularly uses Twitter to share his thoughts.
“During Watergate, there was a lot of silence from the White House,” Presnell said. “Trump has been talking and tweeting a lot already, and investigators will have his statements to compare to what they find.”
Tape recordings and documents provided concrete proof of the Nixon administration’s misdeeds, Edmisten, Boyce and Presnell said.
“We kept thinking, ‘This thing is getting very close to the president,’ ” Edmisten said of Watergate. “It was almost like this huge fog was choking Washington.”
Little concrete evidence has surfaced in Trump’s case so far, the lawyers agreed. The Watergate Committee investigated for months, and it’s still early on in the Trump-Russia probe.
“You have smoking guns, but you don’t have any real proof yet,” Edmisten said.
“People are entitled to the truth, but we don’t know what that is yet,” Boyce said.
Trump’s firing of former FBI director James Comey in May has been compared to Nixon’s “Saturday Night Massacre.”
Nixon asked Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor in charge of the Watergate investigation who pressed for recordings and documents from the White House. Richardson refused and resigned. Nixon then asked Richardson’s deputy, William Ruckelshaus, to fire Cox, but Ruckelshaus also refused and resigned. Finally, Solicitor General Robert Bork fired Cox.
Trump said he fired Comey because he lost confidence in him over the investigation last year into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server. The firing occurred shortly after Comey reportedly asked for more money for the investigation into Russia’s meddling in the U.S. election and ties to the Trump campaign.
More evidence about Comey’s firing needs to be revealed to make an accurate comparison, Boyce said.
“One of the lessons to take from Watergate is how many of the White House aides were blinded by their loyalty to the president,” Presnell said.
In Trump’s White House, members of the staff and sources close to the president have leaked information to reporters.
Immediately after the Watergate break-in, GOP senators and members of Congress supported Nixon, a Republican.
Trump has struggled to maintain support among some Republican senators and members of Congress. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and others have expressed concerns about Russia influencing the election or the Trump campaign’s affiliations with Russia.
During Watergate, the Democrat and Republican parties were more collaborative, whereas now they’re sharply divided, Edmisten said.
Democrats controlled both the Senate and the House of Representatives at the time of Watergate. Now Republicans have control of the Senate and the House.
“There was a congeniality,” Edmisten said. “Now the parties don’t seem to know how to get along. It’s a hard environment to get the truth, as long as people hold on to their partisan views.”
Madison Iszler: 919-836-4952; @madisoniszler