Almost reflexively, the comparisons with Watergate started flying after President Trump fired FBI director James B. Comey on Tuesday. The massive scandal that brought down Richard M. Nixon in 1974 looms large in American politics, and still provides the vernacular for discussing political malfeasance (terms like “smoking gun” and “coverup” owe their prominence to Watergate). Trump’s abrupt firing of Comey, who was leading an explosive investigation into potential Russian efforts to help Trump’s presidential campaign last year, immediately provoked analogies to the “Saturday Night Massacre,” when Nixon went on a firing spree to dislodge Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox.
Watergate comparisons, though, may impose too limiting a perspective on the scandal engulfing the Trump administration and let this president off too easy. The hackneyed media tradition of putting “-gate” after every political scandal is symptomatic of a larger problem that has been on full display in Washington this week. By default, the severity of American political scandals is measured by how closely they resemble the ur-scandal of modern Washington. Stories of political wrongdoing are expected to unfold along a similar trajectory as the two-year Watergate saga, with a steady drumbeat of investigation and revelation leading to a climactic outcome.
But those conventions can quickly become blinders. To state what should be obvious, a president’s conduct doesn’t have to look anything like Nixon’s, or be revealed to the public in the same piecemeal way, to be just as egregious — or worse. Yet much of official Washington still seems to treat Watergate as the yardstick.
An example of the Watergate legacy was offered on Capitol Hill on Thursday, when Comey’s replacement testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee. “There has been no effort to impede our investigation to date,” said interim director Andrew G. McCabe. The statement barely raised an eyebrow in Congress, even among Democrats, but to an outsider unschooled in Watergate precedents, his statement must have seemed incomprehensible: The president just fired the agency’s head, and then dispatched his spokeswoman to say the White House wanted the Russia investigation wrapped up. If that’s not impeding, then what exactly is? What McCabe seemed to mean is that Trump hasn’t impeded the investigation in the Watergate sense of the word. Trump has already abused his power, and the only thing that seems to prevent anyone from noticing is the fact that he did it differently than Nixon.
Meanwhile, Democrats have been clamoring for an independent investigation of Russian meddling. It’s a good request to make, and reflects the almost automatic assumption that an investigation into secrets is part and parcel of identifying wrongdoing. Information about Watergate had to be extracted from the White House by dogged reporting and congressional inquiries. But calls for further investigation may also risk creating the wrong impression about where the country stands right now. What is already public — what Trump has made no effort to hide — is damning in its own right. In his letter firing Comey, Trump said the director had assured him three times that the president was not under investigation, an admission of inappropriate contact that nobody needs an investigation to prove. Trump frankly acknowledged on Thursday that he had initiated one of the calls to Comey. The fact that he’s not trying to hide those communications, the way that Nixon certainly would have, doesn’t make it somehow okay.
Decades after the Watergate scandal, reporter Bob Woodward wrote a book about the “shadow” it cast on all of Nixon’s successors, and the many ways its lessons and legacies shaped their presidencies. Watergate cast a shadow on the larger political world, too, creating unexamined expectations and assumptions. As Washington comes to terms with one of the most disturbing weeks in recent history, those old ways of thinking shouldn’t blind officials to other ways a president can err. Sometimes the crime is worse than the coverup, not vice versa. Sometimes, there’s no need to find a smoking gun, because the obstruction of justice was announced publicly. Sometimes it doesn’t take a special prosecutor, or even any prosecutor, to expose what members of Congress should already be able to see with their own eyes.
Trump’s Russia scandal may never look like Watergate. But it might already be worse.