Trump’s Ukraine Scandal: Is It Watergate 2.0?

This article appeared on DC Examiner on October 30, 2019.
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Even though he quit before the full House could vote, Richard Nixon remains the only president in American history to be driven from office through the impeachment process. Little wonder, then, that we’ve been drowning in Watergate analogies ever since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced an impeachment investigation last month.

So, is the Ukraine imbroglio Watergate 2.0? Not exactly, but there’s enough similarity between the two scandals to give President Trump’s supporters agita. There are close parallels in Trump’s conduct to at least two of the three articles of impeachment that forced Nixon’s resignation.

Ukraine-gate’s central charge is that Trump engaged in a third‐​rate shakedown of a foreign government in order to get dirt on a leading political rival. The readout of Trump’s July 25 call with President Zelensky shows the “quid” — a direct request to investigate Joe Biden. If a “pro quo” is necessary, the emerging evidence powerfully suggests that Trump held up $391 million in security aid to Ukraine as leverage.

A president might legitimately slow‐​walk foreign aid to induce security cooperation or a better trade deal. But in this case, the motivation smacks of “us[ing] the available federal machinery to screw our political enemies,” as Nixon aide John Dean put it in a 1971 memo. Screwing Trump’s political enemies isn’t a legitimate policy priority of the United States government. Wielding the powers of the presidency for such purposes is — as the Nixon case shows — an impeachable offense.

Trump’s call for Zelensky to “look into” Biden echoes one of the charges against Nixon that led to his second article of impeachment. Article 2, passed by the House Judiciary Committee in July 1974, focused on abuse of power, and the first offense it enumerates is Nixon’s attempt to turn the IRS against his political rivals. In September 1972, for example, Dean gave the IRS commissioner a list of several hundred people the administration wanted audited — all of them staffers with or contributors to Senator George McGovern’s presidential campaign.

Nothing wrong with asking for an investigation, Nixon diehards might have argued. After all, some of McGovern’s people probably were tax cheats, and you’ve got to start draining the swamp somewhere! Few at the time seem to have found such rationalizations compelling.

There are further echoes of Watergate in Trump’s recent decision to stonewall the House impeachment proceedings. Defying lawful congressional subpoenas was the basis for Nixon’s third article of impeachment. If, as some have speculated, this president actually wants to be impeached, he’s found a good way to go about it.

Even so, a key difference with Watergate is how comically inept the cover‐​up attempt is here. Forty‐​five years ago, it took work to ferret out the answers to “what did the president know, and when did he know it?” But Trump can’t seem to manage a “modified, limited hangout” — repeatedly, he lets it all hang out: releasing the damning summary of what he terms a “perfect call,” or blurting to reporters that “China should start an investigation into the Bidens.” Imagine Nixon attaching the Enemies List to a press release or publicly declaring: “I am a crook. So what?”

Claims that the current scandal is “worse than Watergate” are overblown. Trump’s ineptitude and lack of control over his own administration have limited the damage — so far. True, Nixon also found himself stymied by unwilling vassals, like the IRS commissioner, who flatly refused his demand for political audits. But Nixon was competent enough to bring at least some of his schemes to fruition.

Still, “our guy is too incompetent to pull off high crimes” isn’t what you’d call an inspiring impeachment defense. It’s also unlikely to work.