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Trump's Comey memo: A 21st century Watergate?

© Olivier Douliery / AFP | US President Donald Trump returns to the White House, on May 17, 2017 in Washington, DC.

Text by Sam BALL

Latest update : 2017-05-20

Is Donald Trump the new Richard Nixon? That is the question being asked by media commentators and politicians of all stripes following Tuesday's explosive allegations that he asked the head of the FBI to drop an investigation into one of his aides.

“I hope you can let this go,” were the words Trump allegedly used when asking then FBI director James Comey, in February, if he could put a stop to a probe into his national security adviser Michael Flynn and his ties with Russia - ties that forced Trump to fire Flynn less than a month after appointing him to the post.

Comey could not "let it go" and, three months later, he himself was dismissed by the US president.

Within moments of reports of that February conversation surfacing, the term "Watergate" was across social media and news sites.

"It's reaching the point where it's of Watergate size and scale," said Republican senator John McCain. His Democratic colleague Patrick Leahy called it "nothing less than Nixonian".

Watergate for the modern age

Certainly there are uncanny similarities between the turmoil currently engulfing the White House and the events that led to Nixon's downfall more than 40 years ago, in a scandal so shocking that its name is still used as shorthand for impropriety to this day.

It was indeed Nixon's own ill-fated entanglement with the FBI that eventually led to his resignation to avoid almost certain impeachment. The infamous "smoking gun" that finally brought Nixon down was a tape recording of him plotting to use the CIA to block the FBI's investigation into the Watergate break-in.

Ultimately, it was not the break-in itself that formed the basis for Nixon's impeachment, but the charge that his use of presidential power to hinder the investigation constituted an obstruction of justice.

This is the same accusation now facing Trump: that he has attempted to prevent an FBI probe into something that could prove damaging to his presidency, in this case the ever-growing web of suspicion and speculation that are his administration's ties with Russia.

Like Nixon, this all stems from accusations of a break-in ultimately aimed at disrupting Democratic rivals, though in the case of Trump with a 21st century spin. In Trump's case it was a virtual break-in -- the hacking of Hillary Clinton's emails allegedly by Russian agents. The question now, as it has been since the start, is how much the Trump campaign knew about it.

This is also a scandal being played out at hyperspeed, at least compared to what politicians and the general public in Nixon's time would have been used to. Accusations and counter-accusations are made in real time by key players in the glare of the public eye on Twitter - often by the president himself. Nixon was more than five years into his presidency when he was forced to step down, Trump is barely months into his.

"With Watergate, the break-in happened in June of 1972 and the whole story played out until '74 - that's a long time period," notes professor of history emeritus at Wayne State University Melvin Small, author of the 1999 book, The Presidency of Richard Nixon.

"With Trump, everything has been speeded up by the 24-hour news cycle, the big cable news channels, Facebook, Twitter and social media. In '72 there were three television stations - that was it."

But while this could seem like a modern-day retelling of the Watergate scandal - tape recordings replaced by emails, hushed conversations with menacing tweets - it may be one with a few plot twists still to come.

Trump's 'smoking gun'?

According to Small and others, the Comey memo is not enough in itself to be considered Trump's "smoking gun".

"Whatever Trump's done so far that we know about doesn't match up to Nixon," he says. "Nixon clearly obstructed justice, trained his aides to lie in court, ordered the CIA to shut down the FBI investigation.

"What we have with Trump so far is just the hint of obstruction - the suggesting, not ordering, for the FBI to lay off Flynn."

That there is something to investigate, but nothing yet conclusive, seems to be the view of legal experts too.

"Firing Comey gives the suggestion of obstruction of justice, the same as with Nixon, but we don't yet know exactly what happened," Erwin Chemerinsky, a constitutional law professor and dean of the University of California, Irvine School of Law, told FRANCE 24.

"There needs to be an independent investigation, Comey needs to testify."

One thing such an investigation will need to establish is whether there was intent on Trump's behalf, something that needs to be present for an obstruction of justice charge to stick, Chemerinsky said.

But there is one final element that separates Trump from Nixon and it is a crucial one: the former has the relative security of a Republican-controlled Congress, even if some of those Republicans, like McCain, are far from Trump supporters.

"If Nixon had had a Republican-controlled Congress, would they have voted to hold an independent investigation, would they have voted to begin the impeachment process?" said Small. "Things probably would have gone very differently."

Date created : 2017-05-18

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