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I covered Watergate. The Jan. 6 Committee has a lot in common with that.


This week’s January 6 Committee hearings concern the most serious allegations of presidential wrongdoing since Watergate. They come almost exactly 50 years after the break-in that spawned the scandal leading to President Richard Nixon’s resignation. And they carry some striking similarities.

Hopefully, clarity will emerge from the first public testimony to the House committee that has been examining the insurrection that halted for some hours the congressional certification of the 2020 election results. That hearing is scheduled for 7 p.m. Thousands will be watching, a few of us old enough to remember Nixon.

The details of the two scandals are very different. In essence, however, both reflected serious abuses of power by presidents with an inflated view of their authority.

In Watergate, President Nixon sought to use key government agencies, notably the CIA and FBI, to cover up the involvement of key White House aides and campaign committee staffers in the June 17, 1972, break-in of Democratic party headquarters at the Watergate Office Building.

Also, it developed, he was protecting an array of other illegal actions including “dirty tricks” against his Democratic rivals, and burglarizing the office of the psychiatrist treating Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked a secret Pentagon study of the Vietnam war.

Uncovering the scandal’s full scope took months of hearings by a special Senate committee, the pressure of a federal judge, a 15-month probe by two special prosecutors and the House Judiciary Committee’s impeachment inquiry. The crucial evidence stemmed from the July 1973 disclosure that Nixon had taped his White House conversations. After investigators won a series of court battles for the tapes, they proved his guilt and forced his resignation.

At one point, seeking to mitigate the damage, the White House released edited transcripts of the conversations. Though specific expletives were deleted, the rawness of Nixon’s language and his willingness to flout the law gave Americans an insight that undercut his public support.

The Jan. 6, 2021, demonstrations preceding the invasion of the Capitol climaxed President Donald Trump’s weeks-long propagation of unproven fraud claims and a series of failed efforts to pressure key state officials to reverse the results.

Members of the House panel hope to determine to what extent Trump was directly responsible for the most serious assault on the nation’s democratic institutions since the Civil War, and to decide if there are grounds for the Justice Department to prosecute him.

As a journalist who wrote about the political aspects of both scandals — I headed the Senate staff of The Associated Press during Watergate — I see one essential similarity and two basic differences.

The similarity is that both involved presidents willing to go beyond the law to keep themselves in office.

As Garrett Graff points out in his massive new history Watergate, the scandal stemmed from the paranoia Nixon brought to the White House. It prompted aides to undertake all sorts of illegal acts to damage political “enemies” and maintain secrecy, lest they be called to account.

Despite some dogged reporting, primarily by The Washington Post, they largely succeeded until after Nixon’s 1972 re-election. But, in the end, the truth came out.

Trump tried to persuade officials in key states to reverse Joe Biden’s popular vote victories. Failing that, he sought to pressure Vice President Mike Pence and Congress to reject Biden’s electoral vote triumph.

Both Nixon and Trump suggested there were no constitutional constraints on their presidential powers. “When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal,” Nixon said in a post-presidential interview with David Frost. “I have the right to do whatever I want as president,” Trump said in a 2019 speech.

The major difference is that, in the end, Nixon was an institutionalist who accepted the verdict of the courts and Congress. When he lost a close 1960 presidential election, he rebuffed aides urging him to challenge the results. When congressional leaders told him in 1974 he no longer had enough votes to survive, he resigned.

Trump refused to concede his 2020 defeat, contending without any factual basis that millions of fraudulent votes were cast in both his 2016 victory and 2020. Seventeen months after Congress affirmed Biden’s triumph, he still says it was rigged, spreading widespread doubt about an election in which 158 million Americans voted without significant irregularities.

By accepting the verdict against him, Nixon enhanced public support for our governmental system. By making repeated unproven claims, Trump is weakening it.

Perhaps the biggest difference is that today’s more partisan landscape protects a charged president.

In 1974, a crucial factor was that some Republicans and conservative Southern Democrats, allied ideologically with Nixon, acknowledged his guilt and withdrew their support. When the House Judiciary Committee voted on articles of impeachment, seven Republicans and three Southern Democrats joined the majority.

Facing the same prospect in the Senate, he resigned.

In today’s more partisan politics, Republicans face party-wide pressure to back Trump publicly, regardless of any private doubts. After the House impeached him for his Jan. 6 role, all but seven GOP senators voted to acquit him.

Afterward, Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said, in essence, that Trump was guilty but that a former president couldn’t be impeached.

Still, determining the facts remains important.

While reasons for the Watergate break-in remain hazy, subsequent probes answered Republican Sen. Howard Baker’s oft-repeated question: “What did the president know and when did he know it?”

Hopefully, the current inquiry will answer the crucial Jan. 6 question: “What did the president do and when did he do it?”

Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of The Dallas Morning News and a frequent contributor. Email: carl.p.leubsdorf@gmail.com

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