The conservative media got the memo: Whenever the Russia probe comes up, get outraged and say that it—as in the probe itself, not what it may be uncovering about Trump—is “worse than Watergate.” After all, that’s what Democrats have been saying for months about what the probe may be uncovering about Trump.
The questions now are how did this become a talking point on the right, and what do they mean by “worse than Watergate?”
“Always hit back… never say you’re sorry… never admit you’re wrong,” were the words Cohn lived by as he made his name defending Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s communist witch hunt. He moved on to the Manhattan party scene where he befriended Trump, seeded gossip items about friends and foes, and represented Mafia crime families before his death in 1986 of complications from AIDS.
An expert on smearing people’s reputations, Cohn would tell his clients that whatever someone says about you, turn it back on that person. You know: “No, puppet. You’re the puppet.”
After Fox News’ Jeanine Pirro got Trump worked up about then-FBI Director James Comey using hardball tactics more often associated with Mafia cases, the president exclaimed: “Roy Cohn was my lawyer!”
When Trump’s defenders say this is worse than Watergate, they are spreading a myth that the government is training more firepower on Trump than it did on Nixon, and for no provable crime. “There is no collusion,” Trump says. The right’s goal is to generate outrage among Trump’s base that he’s bearing the brunt of an unfair and partisan investigation.
“Somebody has learned a lesson from Watergate and that lesson is you hit hard publicly,” says Timothy Naftali, former director of the Nixon Library. “Nixon stonewalled, he lied, he kept quiet. He [Trump] and his allies are trying to delegitimate the entire process publicly by creating a lot of noise. I don’t know if it will work, but it is different.”
To understand what the right is getting at when they say this is “worse than Watergate,” I consulted John Dean, the White House counsel who turned against Nixon, and cooperated with the special prosecutor during Watergate. He says it depends on what standard you use.
“If there’s a conspiracy to influence an election with the help of a foreign government, it’s worse than Watergate because that’s committing a crime,” he says. “Watergate was a bungled burglary by a goofball who thought he was James Bond and he wasn’t quite Maxwell Smart,” but what happened, says Dean, is that “the break-in and cover-up metastasized into Nixon’s abuses of power.” And that’s what led to his resignation.
Fox News hosts led by Sean Hannity, a Trump confidante, are calling for Mueller to be fired, and spreading the idea as though it were fact that a democratically elected president is under threat from a partisan investigation costing many millions of dollars, the likes of which the country has never seen.
They’re wrong, says Dean. The FBI’s investigation into Watergate expended more resources than it did investigating the assassination of President Kennedy, he says. “It was huge. They followed every lead. Watergate went on for 928 days from break-in to the final trial. We haven’t come close to that time frame.”
Naftali learned from his time at the Nixon Library from 2007 to 2011 that there are people, mostly older people, who think Nixon was railroaded, and they might be receptive to the argument that Trump’s defenders make, that the investigation does not fit the crime. Republican pollster John McLaughlin told The Daily Beast that after a year of the Democrats saying the Trump campaign colluded with Russia, there’s no evidence that was true. “Then they say the president obstructed justice, but if there’s no crime what was obstructed?”
He cites GOP efforts to revive various Clinton scandals, and says, “The question may be what did Hillary Clinton know and when did she know it?”
Memories are short, and much of the voting population was not alive or politically aware in 1973 to remember the gavel-to-gavel coverage of the special Senate Watergate Committee day after day. The revelation of a White House taping system came out in those hearings.
“The country was transfixed by Watergate,” says Naftali. By comparison, there are no special committees in the Russia probe, and there’s very little public testimony. “There’s nothing on that scale,” he says. “That alone should put to rest this is worse than Watergate [in terms of the intensity of the probe].”
House Republicans pressed Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein last week about Mueller’s objectivity, a cartoonish effort that did not appear to shake Rosenstein’s commitment to Mueller, who is a Republican and a decorated war veteran. “It was embarrassing,” says Dean, citing Ohio Republican Jim Jordan’s aggressive attempt to undermine Mueller and the probe he leads. “That is not a good old Buckeye Boy. Sounded like he’s trying to get over to Moscow to find his constituency.”
Partisans in Congress can of course say what they want. The speech and debate clause in the Constitution protects them in that setting. “But you get on Fox News and start putting out lies, Sean Hannity could find himself in front of a grand jury,” Dean says. “There’s no First Amendment protection for obstruction of justice.”