Forty-five years ago tonight, Frank Wills was making his rounds. Wills was 24, and African American; he’d been raised down South, dropped out of high school, bounced up to Detroit, lost a job there, and then came to the nation’s capital. This night watchman gig was lousy hours, but the money was okay and the risks were minimal. He didn’t even carry a gun. Nothing ever happened.
But on this night, on his first round, he noticed that piece of duct tape was placed over a door latch so that the door wouldn’t shut. He took it off and threw it away. Then, on his second round, he noticed that a new piece of duct tape had been placed over the same latch. Dum-da-dum-dum. He immediately called the police, who arrived quickly and arrested five men inside the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.
And that was the start of Watergate. It was a big story from the beginning—don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. News of the arrest was on the front page of The Washington Post the next day, a Sunday. That day, Ben Bradlee put Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein on the story. The next day, June 19, the duo broke a story that opened like this: “One of the five men arrested early Saturday in the attempt to bug the Democratic National Committee headquarters is the salaried security coordinator for President Nixon’s reelection committee.” That was James W. McCord Jr., and the web spun out from there.
Watergate was not yet of course a constitutional crisis. That didn’t fully happen for another 15 months, until Richard Nixon ordered the firing of special prosecutor Archibald Cox in the Saturday Night Massacre. That night; oh my. I remember it so clearly. I had turned 13 the week before, and as was customary on a Saturday night then, I was sitting with my parents (and special guest star Aunt Vicky, down for a visit from Queens) watching the formidable Saturday night CBS line-up: All in the Family, M*A*S*H, Mary Tyler Moore, The Bob Newhart Show, The Carol Burnett Show. I remember Dan Rather cut in, reporting from the White House. White as a sheet, trembling. Elders screaming at the television.
I see I’m getting ahead of myself. I wondered, as I reread those old Post clips I linked to above: What was the Watergate break-in of our current constitutional crisis? I don’t know that there was one. You could say it was when the story broke that Michael Flynn had met with the Russians on December 29, whenever that was (hard to keep these things straight anymore). You could say it was the day Donald Trump fired James Comey. You could choose any number of dates.
I offer a different one: January 20, 2017. At right about 12:02 p.m. Right when, in other words, Donald Trump spoke those words about how he would “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States to the best of [his] ability,” so help him God. Anybody who knew anything about the man’s character knew that those words meant no more to him than promises he once made to pay a carpet vendor.
But whatever you date the crisis to, there’s little denying that we’re deep into one. It’s not Watergate—yet. Trump hasn’t fired Robert Mueller. That will be the flashing siren that will make the mainstream media say: Ah, now it’s Watergate!
Almost everyone thinks it’s only a matter of time before we get there. I’ve seen some people predicting that it’s just a matter of days. But even if he shocks us and doesn’t fire Mueller, it’s not as if that’s the only Constitution-corrupting play he can make.
The scenarios are numerous and mortifying. Here’s one I’ve been contemplating. Let’s say he doesn’t fire Mueller, and Mueller issues a report that provides evidence of various high crimes and misdemeanors, documents certain grounds for impeachment, and recommends same. Then let’s say some elder GOP statesmen—Lindsey Graham, Lamar Alexander, John McCain, if he wasn’t up late the night before watching a Diamondbacks game—go to him and say, “Mr. President, the gig is up.”
Will Trump do as Nixon did and obey, for the sake of the country? Or will he say “fuck you—you’ll have to throw me out”?
What then? Will the House, this supine House, indict? And if it does, will the Senate convict, an action that would require 19 Senate Republicans to go locate and reassemble the consciences that they stuffed through the shredding machine from the moment Trump began his march to their party’s nomination, as they did nothing?
Say the Senate musters only 63 votes to convict. Then we will have a first in the history of this country. A criminal sitting in the Oval Office, and one whom our coequal branch utterly failed to check and balance as the Constitution expects. And don’t say it’s not possible. With this man, anything is possible.
Unlike Watergate, this constitutional crisis has no common-man hero like Frank Wills (who, incidentally, went on to live a life of the kind of immiseration all too common for men with his bad luck in the ovarian lottery and who died of a brain tumor at 52). It has only anti-heroes so far. The closest we come to heroes are Jim Comey and the major mainstream media outlets. But Comey gave us President Trump, and the press is making up for a job it didn’t do adequately before last November 8.
But like Watergate, this crisis has a definite start point. You might even call it a “third-rate burglary”: the day we let that man steal our Constitution.