The Watergate scandal remains in America’s collective conscious as being one of – if not the – most infamous U.S. political scandals. Though it took place in the early 1970s, Watergate immediately came to mind during and after the 2016 presidential election, when suspicions – and subsequent confirmation – of Russian meddling surfaced, as well as accusations of – and a two-year investigation into – possible Trump campaign collusion. Though collusion has been ruled out, the public continues to wonder if the comparison between Watergate and Russiagate is accurate.
Here are three reasons why Watergate and Russiagate are entirely different from each other and three reasons why they’re similar.
How Russiagate differs from Watergate:
The players involved
The burglars caught and arrested for wiretapping phones and stealing documents in the Democratic National Committee (DNC) office in the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C., were solely and directly connected to President Nixon’s Republican reelection campaign. It was later revealed that Nixon, himself, took aggressive steps to subsequently cover up the criminal robbery and other related illegal activities. Watergate was an entirely domestic affair.
In contrast, U.S. intelligence officials confirmed that there was a massive effort by the Russians to intervene in the 2016 presidential election through cyberwarfare. (While Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report did not find evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia’s election meddling, it did not fully exonerate Trump of obstruction of justice during the Justice Department’s subsequent investigations into the matter.) While questions still remain, which the newly released Mueller report may finally answer, what is known for sure is that a foreign power – in fact, to a large extent, a hostile foreign power – did interfere with US domestic issues for its own purposes.
Watergate began with Nixon campaign employees committing an actual physical crime. It then continued with a cover-up by President Nixon, including hush money from his campaign funds. Plenty of incriminating evidence surfaced throughout the investigation.
With Russiagate, there was only circumstantial evidence of alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian hacking and leaking of the DNC emails and other election-meddling activities (although former campaign manager Paul Manafort has been implicated in having ties to Russian intelligence during the 2016 campaign and faces jail time). There is also no evidence that any money ever changed hands between Trump officials and the Russians, except for former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn.
Though Nixon led Republicans to a landslide victory in the 1972 presidential election, the Democrats kept control of Congress. Following the January 1973 Watergate burglary trial, Democrats called for the creation of the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities to investigate Nixon’s campaign activities and, specifically, his connection to the Watergate break-in. But even before the Watergate break-in, Democratic opposition to Nixon was already submitting a resolution for his impeachment.
Meanwhile, President Trump had overwhelming support from a Republican Congress after his election. (And even after the 2018 mid-terms, though Democrats took the House of Representatives, Republicans increased their majority in the Senate.) While there were GOP-controlled Senate and House intelligence committees investigating Trump-Russia links at the beginning of this saga, there was little headway due to missteps and lack of urgency from most Republicans to exert extra pressure on resolving the situation. This culminated in a then-Republican-led House intelligence committee clearing Trump and his campaign of suspected Russia collusion. Unlike the calls for impeachment surrounding Nixon, today’s Senate is still, overall, on Trump’s side. Before the release of the Mueller report, Democrats were squashing talks of impeachment. (This may change or may not change, now.)
How Russiagate is Similar to Watergate:
The DNC Breach 2.0
Both Watergate and Russiagate began with the Democratic National Committee (DNC) headquarters in Washington, D.C., being compromised. In 1972, prowlers connected with President Nixon’s reelection campaign were caught wiretapping and stealing documents from the DNC headquarters. Fast forward to 2015, when the DNC’s computer servers were burgled from afar, this time by Russian hackers using spear-phishing emails to steal private emails, opposition research and other Clinton campaign correspondences. Regardless of whether data was stolen from a 1970s filing cabinet or a high-tech computer server, in both cases, the DNC was breached.
In May 1973, President Nixon was forced to agree to the appointment of independent special prosecutor Archibald Cox. He was hired by U.S. Attorney General Elliot Richardson at the request of the House Judiciary Committee to investigate the events surrounding the June 1972 DNC break-in. Cox was brought in amid charges that the Justice Department, whose top officers were Nixon appointees, could not objectively investigate the president. Similarly, U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod. J. Rosenstein appointed Robert. S. Mueller III as a special counsel to oversee the Russia investigation. This was after a series of actions by President Trump, including the firing of the FBI director leading the investigation, gave rise to uncertainty about the government’s ability to objectively investigate ties between President Trump’s campaign and Russia.
When it became apparent that special prosecutor Archibald Cox would not drop his demands for documents and potentially incriminating taped White House conversations relating to Watergate, Nixon ordered his dismissal. The controversial Saturday Night Massacre that transpired made it seem like the president was using his power to make the scandal go away. Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey showed a similar pattern of a president ousting a high-ranking government official working for the Justice Department to investigate presidential campaign matters. (The president said his decision to fire Comey was because of his mishandling the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server.) Comparisons to Watergate are understandable, given that Comey was also leading an investigation into a presidential campaign. Another element to consider is Nixon and Trump’s relationship with their respective Attorneys General. While Nixon forced his to quit over the firing of Cox, Trump publicly derided Attorney General Jeff Sessions for his decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation.
The Bottom Line: While the players involved and degree of evidence may differ in Watergate and Russiagate, in both scandals, the DNC was breached and the presidents’ behavior was called into question. So, is Russiagate Trump’s Watergate? You decide.