Since President Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974, the English-speaking world has had the tendency of equating every major political scandal to Watergate—the foiled bid to bug the offices of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate office complex and the related underhand activities planned by a Nixon administration aiming for re-election. Newsrooms have enthusiastically attached the suffix “gate” to the core word of a scandal to convey its potential for damage to the ruling regime. In the context of the United States, perhaps, this has been a bit of an overkill.
“For almost half a century, wannabe Woodwards and Bernsteins have compared every unflattering revelation to Watergate, without a shred of perspective, leaving entire generations of younger Americans confused as to what they were talking about,” observes political commentator Matt Bai.
But recent, explosive political developments that suggest the slow brewing of an internal resistance and growing resentment to President Donald Trump’s ideas, policies and style of functioning among close aides and key members of his team, have led commentators to wonder if this was the real McCoy: a countdown for Watergate II.
Quite fittingly, this was put in motion by Bob Woodward’s damning account of the Trump administration in his new book, Fear: Trump in the White House, followed by a soberly excoriating, anonymous Op-Ed column in The New York Times by a “senior official” in the administration. It spoke of an internal pushback within Trump’s office.
Significantly, even former president Barack Obama, who until now had refrained from naming Trump, has now broken his silence and weighed in to name the current incumbent of the Oval Office in his stinging public criticism.
“The joke’s on us, though,” says Bai. “Because now that there’s a growing crisis in the White House that really does eerily echo, in profound ways, the cataclysmic events of Nixon’s re-election campaign and his aborted second term, we don’t really have a way to do it justice.” He quotes Nixon’s biographer John A. Farrell, and claims that he told him recently, “By an exponential factor, this is the gate that really deserves to be a gate.”
In his book, Woodward narrates how former chief economic advisor to the President steals key papers from the Oval Office desk to stop Trump from pulling out of a crucial free-trade deal with South Korea, a key US ally. It also quotes a number of advisors and staff members—many of whom have since left—calling him names ranging from ‘idiot’ and ‘moron’ to a ‘sixth-grader’ and a congenital ‘liar’.
More alarmingly, Woodward claims that Trump had asked for the assassination of Syrian President Bashar-al-Assad, enraged at Damascus’s alleged use of chemical weapons against its own people, overturning a policy adopted by seven of his predecessors. It was different before that: a senate committee report found that the US from the time of Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency till well into the Cold War had tried to assassinate heads of ‘adversarial’ regimes, including (famously) Cuba’s Fidel Castro, Congo’s Patrice Lumumba, South Vietnam’s Ngo Dinh Diem, Chile’s army commander Rene Schneider and Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo. Many attempts were not ordered directly by the White House, but the American hand was suspected in most. However, when Gerald Ford replaced Nixon as the occupant of the White House, he issued an executive order stipulating that no employee of the United States government shall “engage in, or conspire to engage in, political assassination”. Subsequently, US presidents either toughened that order or stuck by its guideline. According to Woodward, Trump bayed for the blood of Assad and senior members of his team.
Concurring with Woodward on the silent, sedulous resistance against Trump, the anonymous op-ed writer tried to assure Americans, saying: “We fully recognise what is happening. And we are trying to do what’s right even when Donald Trump won’t.”
This, nevertheless, is a unique situation, as a New Yorker article quoting Brookings scholar Thomas Wright says, “It’s the first time, maybe in history, that key advisors have gone into the administration to stop the president, not to enable him.”
Referring to Woodward’s book, some critics like Dwight Garner points out that “if this book has a single point to drive home, it is that the president of the United States is a congenital liar”. Others point out that Trump-ian prevarications have been a thoroughly covered territory ever since his arrival on the public stage, as much of it has happened, as it were, in open view. This, say some commentators, could be a crucial difference between Watergate and the carryings-on in the Trump administration.
“The Watergate tapes stand as one of the stunning, implausible twists of American history. Nixon confessed his crimes and recorded himself in the process,” writes Ezra Klien in Vox. The system of taping presidential conversations (for accuracy) was started during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s time; the exist
ence of the Nixon tapes emerged during the Senate Watergate Committee hearings. According to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s book, The Final Days, the single thread that linked the problem was the presidential tapes. Nixon’s lawyers had not seen the tapes and were unaware of their existence. “The Watergate scandal became about those tapes—the battle to make them public and expose Nixon’s private confessions. Without any tapes, a resignation would have been unlikely,” points out Klien.
He adds, “The White House today has no internal taping system. But it has, perhaps, something serving the same purpose: Donald Trump.” Unlike Nixon, who made his confessions on tape in private, Trump makes his outrageous policies public through tweets, interviews, or wildly populist addresses to his supporters.
Even months after Trump took office, many observers expected the elder, seasoned members of his team—sharers of his hardline ideology they might be—to act as a check on the president’s impetuosity, and his extreme views and policies that were harmful to America’s interests. Many have left since; some who are left are seemingly beavering away in a battle to check Trump’s extremism.
“It’s just so similar to what so many of us hear from senior people around the White House three times a week,” Republican senator from Nebraska, Ben Sasse, a known Trump critic, said in a recent interview. “So it’s troubling, and yet, in a way, not surprising.”
While speculations are still on about the real identity of the NYT opinion piece writer, several likely names were posted in the CNN website. It ranged from the names of a number of key aides who had already left, Vice- President Mike Pence to Trump’s daughter Ivanka, her husband Jared Kushner and first lady Melania.
Many whose names figure have since denied either being the author of the op-ed piece or being Woodward’s source for the condemnatory quotes. The Republican Party has also refrained from making any statements.
Perhaps the crucial mid-term November elections could bring about a change in their stand on whether to rally behind Trump or support a possible impeachment motion. The extreme option is for Pence and other members in the Oval Office team to invoke the 25th amendment and declare the president ‘unfit to rule’.
Despite the comparison with the corrosive drama involving Trump and Watergate, there seems no early respite for Americans and, perhaps, the rest of the world.