For decades, Watergate has served as the benchmark against which all other presidential scandals are measured. One sign of its continuing importance in the popular imagination is the use of the “-gate” suffix to indicate scandal: “Billygate,” “Lewinskygate,” “Plamegate,” and far too many others to mention here.
But Watergate’s time as the gold standard of presidential malfeasance might well be coming to an end. If the multiple charges against President Donald Trump prove out, he’ll easily displace Richard Nixon at the top of the Crooked Modern Presidents list. Here’s why.
The Original Sin: The underlying crime in Watergate was a break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters, part of a plot to steal documents that might have offered a slight edge in what turned out to be a landslide victory for Nixon. The closest post-Nixon, pre-Trump scandal in terms of severity was surely Iran-Contra, in which high-level officials in the Ronald Reagan administration circumvented Congress to secure military assistance to Nicaraguan rebels. The legal violations were considerable but, as partisans insisted and much of the public believed, the scandal stemmed from a sincere policy position held by the administration rather than the self-interest of individuals. President Bill Clinton’s scandal seemed the inverse: It was deeply personal—an extramarital affair with a White House intern—but the crimes that resulted from it were small-bore.
Although the allegations against Trump are still just that—allegations—they’re far more serious. At the heart of the matter is the possibility that his campaign conspired with a foreign government to influence the 2016 presidential election.
Congressional investigators are also looking into whether the president has made policy decisions based on campaign favors. The president’s critics are suspicious of his relationship with Vladimir Putin and wonder if his financial ties to countries in the Middle East—including Saudi Arabia—affected the administration’s positions on serious matters such as the brutal murder of the Washington Post reporter Jamal Khashoggi.
The attorneys general of Maryland and Washington, D.C., have now piled on by filing a suit against the administration for having violated the Emoluments Clause. They argue that Trump has accepted foreign money through his hotels, where countries such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have been renting large blocks of rooms at considerable costs.
Personal Crimes: In addition to the alleged original sin of foreign influence, Trump now faces serious accusations that he personally broke the law. Nixon, too, was accused of numerous crimes, including violating campaign-finance rules, evading taxes, and using federal monies for personal gain. These charges were serious enough to warrant a full-throated response from Nixon, including his infamous insistence that “I am not a crook” and his release of his tax returns, a precedent that every succeeding presidential candidate followed (until Trump). But Trump’s alleged personal crimes seem even more substantial. The president is now suspected of committing a felony by directing campaign payments to the adult-film star Stormy Daniels and the former Playboy Playmate Karen McDougal to keep them quiet about sexual affairs.
That’s not all. The New York Times uncovered a long history of corrupt tax practices in which a younger Trump and his father, Fred Trump, attempted to evade their tax obligations through false assessments of properties and other shell games to protect their money. According to the report, these actions went far beyond the normal mechanisms wealthier families have long used to protect their assets and strayed into criminal territory.
What’s more, the U.S. Attorney of the Southern District of New York, the prime mover behind the campaign-finance investigations, is also looking into the practices of the Trump Foundation. Here the scent of wrongdoing is extremely strong, with evidence mounting that the tax-exempt foundation misused funds for the personal benefit of the family, and even for the purposes of the 2016 campaign. Facing such serious charges, the Trump Foundation has shut down its operations, but the reckoning over its spending practices will likely continue.
Obstruction: One of the chief conclusions of the Watergate scandal—“It’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up”—has been repeated so many times that it’s become a cliché. But like many clichés, it has the ring of truth.
A cover-up has stood at the center of all modern presidential scandals. The “smoking gun” in Watergate was recorded evidence that Nixon secretly ordered the CIA to shut down the FBI’s investigation. Reagan officials such as Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger were charged with lying and hiding information in an effort to block the inquiry into the Iran-Contra scandal by Special Prosecutor Lawrence Walsh. Likewise, Clinton was accused of turning to his friend Vernon Jordan to employ Monica Lewinsky and coaching his secretary about how to answer questions.
To varying degrees, all three of these presidents found obstruction of justice looming large in debates over their potential impeachment. That debate fizzled out in Reagan’s case, but both Nixon and Clinton faced an article of impeachment based on that charge.
Trump and his advisers are being investigated for obstruction now, too. Indeed, some officials, such as former National-Security Adviser Michael Flynn, have already confessed to misleading investigators. This administration’s pattern of obstruction is especially shocking because it has been so obvious and open. Trump has harassed investigators and undermined the public standing of every single person—including members of his own Justice Department—who has been trying to get the story straight.
The Watergate investigation ultimately boiled down to the famous question that Republican Senator Howard Baker asked: “What did the president know, and when did he know it?” When the secrets came to light, Nixon’s fate was sealed. Conversely, in Iran-Contra, the president’s aides insisted that Reagan had never known of their scheme to subvert Congress; no counter-evidence ever surfaced, and Reagan escaped unscathed. In this case, the president has actually bragged—on television and on Twitter—about his efforts to shut down the investigation into his relationship with Russia. Investigators don’t need a “smoking gun” tape in 2019, because everything has played out on the public stage.
The country is entering a fraught new legislative session. America spent decades recovering from the wreckage of Watergate, which shattered public trust in government. If the charges against the current administration turn out to be true, an even more drastic reckoning lies ahead.