Friday, December 7, 2018

An Overlooked Legacy Of Watergate

Sadly the only prison Nixon went to was the one in his mind

Today brought the clearest evidence yet that not only has Donald Trump committed felonies (we all knew that already, of course), but that federal prosecutors are willing to say that he did, and that in addition to this his team was petitioning Russia for help as far back as 2015. The president signaled this was coming with an epically unhinged temper tantrum on Twitter this morning. This day he also finally put forth a name for a new AG, a man who will presumably try to curtail investigations into his behavior. His former Secretary of State also gave an interview where he basically said that Trump constantly wanted to commit illegal acts and seemed unaware of legal restrictions.

A felonious president flying off the handle and desperately filling the Justice Department with lackeys to protect himself against an ever-growing criminal investigation sounds an awful lot like Watergate. (This is not an original observation.) As Marx said, history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.

A lot of other people have been thinking so, too. Rachel Maddow's excellent Bag Man podcast did a deep dive into the wrongdoings of Spiro Agnew, which are oft forgotten in the shadow of Nixon's greater malfeasance. Listening to that podcast I thought a lot of how the ghosts of Watergate keep coming back to haunt us.

Decisions were made by politicians and prosecutors at the time that we are still living with. Agnew's criminality was truly staggering. Not only had he taken kickbacks as governor of Maryland, he was still getting cash-filled envelopes in the White House! He also directed federal contracts to the men paying him off. In order to get him out of office as quickly as possible so that he would not succeed his criminal boss Nixon, prosecutors allowed Agnew to resign without going to jail.

The precedent that members of the White House not pay the true price of their actions was solidified when Gerald Ford granted Nixon a full pardon before he had been convicted or even tried of something. While Ford thought that he was removing a distraction from a paralyzed nation beset by economic decline and the end of Vietnam, he essentially established that presidents and their operatives would never actually be held accountable for their illegal actions in a court of law.

Just consider the Iran-Contra affair of the 1980s. This was another clear-cut case of presidential law-breaking. While it was done on behalf of policy goals instead of maintaining political power, selling arms to Iran to give money to the Contras was illegal on its face. Reagan and Bush never really had to face the music, and Bush would issue pardons for those involved. The nation mostly moved on.

In the 2000s the George W Bush administration lied the country into war in Iraq and engaged in torture. There was never even really an attempt to do much to punish those responsible. By that time the immunity of the White House to prosecution was pretty much accepted. Trump's crimes present an opportunity to break this cycle.

We talk a lot about the legacy of Watergate being that Americans do not trust the government, but the more consequential legacy is that America is a country where the president's quasi-monarchical status goes beyond expensive state funerals and ceremonial frippery to being above criminal prosecution. This thought must be in the back of Trump's mind today as he prepares a defense against the coming legal onslaught.

America desperately needs to get over this taboo of locking presidents and their minions up. Other democracies do not have this hang-up, and they are all the better for it. Just witness the recent imprisonment of Park Geun-hye in South Korea. The prospect of Trump's imprisonment is no mere legal fantasy, it actually might be crucial to ensuring the future health of our democracy.

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