The Comey Firing is Worse Than Watergate


As so often, James Fallows explains, clearly and patiently, reminding us what Watergate was and was about, and exploring how the current goings-on are like – and unlike – that precedent.

Five Reasons the Comey Affair Is Worse Than Watergate

Senate Watergate Committee members and staff gather around Chairman Sam Ervin

The tangled affair now known as Watergate began 45 years ago, before most of today’s U.S. population had even been born. (The median age of Americans is about 38, so most people in the country were born in 1979 or thereafter.) Thus for most people “Watergate” is a historical allusion—obviously negative in its implications, since it led to the only presidential resignation in American history, but probably hazy in its details.

For me, Watergate is anything but hazy. I’d left graduate school and begun my first magazine job, with The Washington Monthly, in the fall of 1972, as news of the scandal emerged. Over the next two years, until Richard Nixon’s resignation, I was living in D.C. and tracking the daily progress in clue-following and domino-toppling via stories in The Washington Post and elsewhere—and then the riveting, televised Watergate hearings that made national celebrities of politicians like Senators Howard Baker and Sam Ervin, and of White House aides like Alexander Butterfield (who revealed the existence of Nixon’s secret system for taping White House conversations) and John Dean (who as White House counsel had told Nixon, “there is a cancer on the presidency”). Anyone of conscious age in that time can probably remember the jolts to national sentiment that the near-daily revelations evoked.

So I’ve been thinking about comparisons between Watergate and the murky, fast-changing Comey-Russia-Flynn-Trump affair. As with anything involving Donald Trump, we have no idea where this will lead, what is “true,” and when the next bombshell will go off.

But based simply on what is known so far, this scandal looks worse than Watergate. Worse for and about the president. Worse for the overall national interest. Worse in what it suggests about the American democratic system’s ability to defend itself. Here is a summary of some reasons why:

  • The underlying offense
    • <click through to the full James Fallows argument>
      • “…the worst version of what Nixon and his allies were attempting to do—namely, to find incriminating or embarrassing information about political adversaries ranging from Democratic Party Chairman Lawrence O’Brien to Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg—was not as bad as what came afterward. … what is alleged this time? Nothing less than attacks by an authoritarian foreign government on the fundamentals of American democracy, by interfering with an election …”
  • The blatancy of the interference
    • <click through>
      • “…Nixon’s private comments could be vile, but nothing he said in public is comparable to Trump’s dismissing James Comey as a “showboat,” or the thuggishly menacing tweet that Trump sent out…”
  • The nature of the president
    • <click through>
      • “…Richard Nixon was a dark but complex figure. … Donald Trump, by contrast—well, read the transcripts of his two most recent interviews, and weep. He is impulsive, and ignorant, and apparently beyond the reach of any control, even his own.”
  • The resiliency of the fabric of American institutions
    • <click through>
      • “…What would it take for today’s institutions to show that they are as healthy and resilient as they were even during the troubled Watergate era?…”
  • The cravenness of party leaders
    • <click through>
      • “The Republicans of the Watergate era stuck with Richard Nixon as long as they could, but they acted all along as if larger principles were at stake. … On the merits, this era’s Republican president has done far more to justify investigation than Richard Nixon did. Yet this era’s Republican senators and members of congress have, cravenly, done far less. A few have grumbled about “concerns” and so on, but they have stuck with Trump where it counts, in votes, and since Comey’s firing they have been stunning in their silence. …”

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