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25 May 2017 15:10
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  •   Home > News > International

    Donald Trump: Shades of Watergate in US President's week of scandal

    A clandestine theft, key officials sacked and rumours of tapes in the Oval Office — it's no wonder the word "impeachment" has been uttered in Washington this week as the parallels between Richard Nixon and Donald Trump grow.

    President Donald Trump calls it a "witch hunt" but some on Capitol Hill say the scandal engulfing Washington bears an eerie resemblance to Watergate.

    A clandestine theft, sackings, rumours of taped conversations in the Oval Office and claims of obstructing the course of justice.

    The parallels between the investigation into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 US election and the drama which brought down president Richard Nixon in 1974 are many.

    And they were not lost on prominent Republican senator John McCain of Arizona earlier this week.

    "I think we've seen this movie before," Mr McCain said. "I think it's reaching the point where it's of Watergate size and scale."

    A scandal starts with a theft

    For a refresher on all things Watergate, it might be worth watching All the President's Men.

    Based on the book of the same name by Washington Post star reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the movie opens with a break-in at the Watergate office building.

    Men wearing gloves are arrested at the offices of the Democratic National Committee. The reporters soon discover there is much more to this story.

    The thefts at the heart of the Russian investigation are of the 21st century kind — cyberattacks.

    Remember those WikiLeaks? In October of 2016, a month before the presidential election, the US claimed the Russians had stolen emails from the Democratic Party.

    By January 6, 2017, the CIA and Office of the Director of National Intelligence went much further.

    "We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election," they said in a report.

    "We also assess Putin and the Russian Government aspired to help President-elect Trump's election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavourably to him."

    We now know the FBI is investigating whether some of those connected to the Trump campaign might have had links to Russia.

    On Thursday night, Mr Trump was adamant "there is no collusion".

    "Certainly myself and my campaign — I can always speak for myself and the Russians, zero," he tweeted.

    Conservative commentator Bill Kristol, founder of the Weekly Standard, responded by Twitter: "If @reallDonaldTrump really believes it's a witch hunt, he can end it. He can fire Rosenstein and fire Mueller. Maybe on a Saturday night?"

    Controversial firings of key investigators

    That's a reference to "The Saturday Night Massacre" — an infamous night in October of 1973.

    President Nixon fired Archibald Cox, the Independent Special Prosecutor looking into Watergate. Nixon's attorney-general and deputy attorney-general promptly resigned as a result.

    A disgruntled Mr Trump has said he will support the appointment of widely respected former FBI director Robert Mueller as special counsel to lead the Russia investigation.

    It was Mr Trump's decision to fire FBI director James Comey which is under scrutiny.

    Originally, the White House said the decision to fire Mr Comey was because of his handling of the Clinton email investigation.

    But in an interview with NBC News anchor Lester Holt, the President said he was "going to fire regardless".

    The Russia case was a "made-up story", he said, and Mr Comey was a "showboat".

    Taped conversations in the Oval Office

    Then on May 12, Mr Trump fired off this tweet:

    "James Comey better hope that there are no "tapes" of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!"

    Tapes? What tapes? We still don't know. The White House won't confirm or deny whether there are any tapes of the president's conversations in the Oval Office. Congress wants them, if they exist.

    As any student of Watergate knows, it was a collection of secret tapes which doomed Nixon's presidency. Ultimately, he was compelled to turn them over to Congress.

    Those recordings provided a "smoking gun" that he was trying to shut down the FBI's investigation into that Watergate break-in, which could be considered obstruction of justice. Mr Nixon resigned before the House could vote on impeachment resolutions.

    Little things might be big things. Or they might not

    But it seems there may be a different kind of recording of a contention meeting between the President and the former head of the FBI. A memo.

    According to the New York Times, the former FBI director wrote a memo after a meeting in February in which he allegedly felt pressure from the President to shut down the investigation into one of the President's men, Mike Flynn.

    Mr Flynn had just resigned as National Security Adviser amid reports he misled the administration about his contact with Russia's ambassador to the US. The White House rebuts this contention.

    While there are interesting parallels, there are clearly differences. Most importantly, Watergate is history. The Russia investigation led by special counsel Mueller is only just beginning.

    Follow the evidence

    But if there is a crucial lesson from Watergate, it is this: follow the evidence. Wherever it leads. We don't have all the facts; we don't know how everything fits together. That is why deputy attorney-general Rod Rosenstein appointed a special counsel.

    In Washington, there is widespread agreement on one thing — there is perhaps no one better equipped to lead this sensitive, complex investigation than Mr Mueller.

    Mr Comey's predecessor led the FBI for a dozen years — the longest tenure of any FBI director except for J Edgar Hoover. He is respected, indeed revered, in Washington.

    And it's hoped he will be the one to finally discover, once and for all, just how deep the similarities between two stories of scandal in American politics really go.

    Sara James is NBC News's Australasia correspondent


    © 2017 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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