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Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Why this isn't like Watergate

by digby

For those of you interested in the Watergate precedents to this current crisis, this podcast is illuminating.

Bob Bauer, Jack Goldsmith and David Kris join Benjamin Wittes to discuss the sequence of events between the Justice Department, the FBI, the House intelligence committee and the White House over the last few days and the resolution arranged at the White House on Monday afternoon.

Marty Lederman answers one of the major questions about the differences between the two scandals in a tweetstorm (which I've translated below):

In this excellent podcast, all the participants agree that the POTUS is egregiously breaching many important norms. Jack wonders, however, how much we should worry about the danger of a longterm breakdown of those norms, rightly citing the example of Nixon's misdeeds, which only served to entrench the norms still further in the fallout. The huge difference here, as I believe Bob B. alluded to, is that in 1973/74, as soon as it became clear that Nixon had probably sinned, a significant part of the GOP caucus in Congress turned on him--and did so decisively once he moved to breach norms of prosecutorial independence, so much so that, less than two weeks after the SN Massacre, *everyone* concurred that the new special counsel (Jaworski) would have far *greater* independence than Cox ever had. There wasn't even a debate, not only among GOP in Congress, but even w/the new AG nominee (Saxbe) and Bob Bork. (The Saxbe confirmation hearing, w/Jaworski at his side, is amazing, and instructive.)

And that was in a case where the POTUS had, just *months* earlier, garnered 61% of the popular vote and in which he won by more than 8% in all but three states! Here, by contrast, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that the POTUS was a popular vote loser, he is not only supported by his party in Congress, but virtually none of them--or other members of the GOP establishment who once held office--have condemned him, and he's even working hand-in-glove with Congress to destroy DOJ/FBI norms! *That* is the huge sea-change from 1973, without which I would share Jack's tentative sanguinity, but because of which I am deeply concerned for the future health of the Republic--or, at a minimum, of the norms that were once respected by virtually all. For the modern GOP, *everything* is secondary to retention of power, which means not only that the norms are worthless, but that breaching them is celebrated as a virtue, not a bug (it was, after all, the centerpiece of Trump's victory).

Why the differences from 1973? In large part, it might be that the alt-right and "new right," which were always out there and which never cared much for the institutional norms, not to mention science, facts, and the demographic changes in the U.S., had relatively little influence on mainstream attitudes--and certainly not on the establishment figures who were once elected by the GOP. With the advent of FoxNews, however (and to a lesser extent, I suppose, Limbaugh/talk radio), they now have a forum, and they thus have now become the bellwether of the GOP proper. See Fishkin/Pozen at 952-959. Meanwhile, the establishment types within the Federalist Society are silent--word is that Trump's pathologies are barely even mentioned at FedSoc conferencesI assume because of the "But Gorsuch" phenomenon. In other words, appears that they've sold their souls for the (perhaps understandable) aim of securing SCOTUS dominance for the *next* 50 years.

One other thing, simply as a matter of electoral calculus: In late '73, Nixon had approx. the same level of popular support that Trump does now. But then, GOP political success depended on securing the voters from 39-61%, which they had done for the presidency just months earlier. Today, the GOP depends on the 39%, who are (for various reasons)sufficient, or at least necessary, to sustain GOP control of Congress (and on rare occasions the WH, too). So they have to play to the 39% voter, not the next 20-25% in the middle, who they've already lost.

I've said for a while that I think people overestimate the degree to which Nixon era Republicans actually turned on him, but we do seem to have hit one of those moments where some did and we're seeing no sign of it yet. Trump is a different animal than Nixon, who cared about his place in history and understood the stakes. Trump only cares about getting through the day and his party is thoroughly corrupt and extreme. There is no guarantee that this will end well all on its own.