The accusations of impropriety are out, the leaks are bursting through the White House gates, the West Wing is in a state of apprehension, and the president is begging the Coast Guard cadets to love him. It’s been a rough week for Donald Trump and it’s only going to get worse. The sharks in Congress have begun circling the White House, ready to start issuing the subpoenas.
Kind of sounds like we’re trekking into Watergate territory, doesn’t it?
Without getting too much into the Nixon analogies, it’s important to note that what really forced the country to focus on possible criminal conduct inside the Nixon administration was the Senate Watergate Committee. There were so many allegations swirling around Washington about possible criminality that senators from both parties decided it was best if a special committee was established to probe exclusively into the Watergate affair. Democrats viewed it as the only way the truth would come out, and Republicans considered it a forum whereby Nixon’s top aides could defend themselves in public and prove that they didn’t do anything illegal.
We all know how that story ended. The Watergate Committee compelled witnesses like John Dean, H.R. Haldeman, and Alexander Butterfield to testify. Their testimony was so compelling and so disturbing that the Senate and the special prosecutor subpoenaed the tapes that Nixon kept to record his conversations in the Oval Office. Those tapes would prove to be Nixon’s downfall.
Nobody is saying that Russiagate, Flynngate and Comeygate will follow the same path as Watergate. To start with, House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell aren’t interested in creating a special congressional committee. As long their calculations remain the same, we won’t be seeing a Watergate-like hearing process with special counsels grilling administration officials close to the president.
That, however, doesn’t mean Congress shouldn’t be aggressive in its investigations. Reports that Trump asked James Comey to shut down the FBI’s investigation into former national security advisor Mike Flynn could be obstruction of justice. An increasing number of lawmakers view the New York Times story—if true—to be such a serious breach of public trust that multiple committees are now demanding that the FBI hand over all communications that Comey had with White House officials. Even House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz wants answers. The White House will either have to comply with their requests or face likely subpoenas from these committees—an event that would be significant in and of itself.
What will come from the documents and the testimony is anybody’s guess, but James Comey looks like somebody who knows where the bodies are buried. The fact that he reportedly kept meticulous records about his conversations with the president is bad news for the White House, because Comey is miles more credible than Trump and his administration. If Comey testifies—and it’s likely he wants his version of events out there—an already damaging story for the administration could get even worse.
Special committee or not, Comeygate is the best opportunity that Congress has had in a while to be a bipartisan overseer of the executive branch. Whether they’ll take that opportunity is another question.