When Donald Trump insists that his Democratic rival’s private email server is “the worst scandal since Watergate” or even “worse than Watergate” — slogans that he screams at every rally — he depends on his followers to believe him blindly and on the media to let him spew unchallenged absurdities. He loves the poorly educated, by which he means the utterly ignorant, because they have no idea that he is lying to them.
But to anyone who remembers Watergate, or any of the real scandals that have roiled Washington in the following decades, understands why Trump’s claims are such a vile distortion of history. Those assertions are a classic example of the “big lie” — and can only continue to spew forth in an atmosphere of historical amnesia and media compliance.
The Clinton email “scandal,” as everyone knows by now, involves the use of a private email server and raised questions about whether Clinton had used that system in a way that violated federal secrecy laws. After a lengthy investigation, the FBI found that she had committed no intentional violations, that there had been no cover-up or attempt to conceal information from law enforcement, and that there was no plausible reason to file criminal charges against Clinton. As FBI director James Comey said last summer, in explaining why he would not indict her, “It wasn’t even close.”
Many other high-level federal and military officials had done much the same (or much worse), and the issue of whether she had exposed “classified” material boiled down in many instances to an ongoing argument between the State Department and other agencies over what must be labeled top secret.
Their bureaucratic wrangling was far less dramatic than Watergate, a saga that began with the discovery of a “third-rate burglary” at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in a Washington hotel but soon exploded into a mind-blowing criminal operation at the highest levels in the White House, the Justice Department, the CIA, and the FBI itself. The term “Watergate” was journalistic shorthand for a series of criminal conspiracies based in Richard Nixon’s Oval Office, which included more burglaries, warrantless wiretaps, illegal spying, campaign dirty tricks, election tampering, money-laundering, and the use of thugs to assault antiwar demonstrators.
To conceal that vast felonious enterprise, the Nixon crew immediately implemented a cover-up scheme that relied upon still more crimes, committed by lawyers and officials who collected corporate bribes, and then handed out hush money in cash to the perpetrators. Unlike Clinton’s mundane email problems, that outbreak of presidential gangsterism represented a direct threat to the constitution, democracy, and the rule of law.
It is amusing, if your sense of humor is dark enough, to hear Trump babble about Watergate while flanked by all the grinning Nixon loyalists who have tried to excuse or erase that enormous crime against the republic over the past 40 years.
During those years, this country has seen plenty of turmoil in Washington over a wide variety of scandals, both serious and silly. In the latter category, by the way, are several controversies once expected to bring down Bill and Hillary Clinton, including a few with the “gate” suffix added for emphasis. (For a more complete treatment of all that nonsense, see The Hunting of Hillary– it’s available free here.)
Among the real scandals, however, were a series of remarkable rackets undertaken by officials of the Reagan administration that were — need I say this again? — a thousand times more troubling than anything Clinton ever imagined doing with an email server.
Consider the Iran-contra affair, if you remember the constitutional tumult that transfixed the nation for almost two years. In August 1985, Ronald Reagan authorized the first of several secret arms shipments to Iran, a lunatic deal that Republicans would have denounced as high treason if enacted by a Democratic president. The monetary proceeds from those arms sales were then used illegally to aid “contra” rebels in their attempt to overthrow the government of Nicaragua.
After a Lebanese newspaper exposed that outrageous crime, Reagan lied to the entire nation and authorized a wide-ranging cover-up. According to the final report of the special prosecutor who spent years investigating Iran-contra:
“In the Iran initiative, President Reagan chose to proceed in the utmost secrecy, disregarding the administration’s public policy prohibiting arms sales to nations supporting terrorism. He also chose to forgo congressional notification under the National Security Act and the Arms Export Control Act…
“When the Iran initiative was exposed on November 3, 1986, the president convened a series of meetings with his top national security advisers and permitted the creation of a false account of the Iran arms sales to be disseminated to members of Congress and the American people.”
Among the dozen or more figures who were indicted and/or convicted of serious crimes by the Iran-contra special prosecutor were two of Reagan’s national security advisors, top officials of the CIA, and the secretary of defense. It was a little more serious than Hillary’s damned emails.
But the scandals of the Reagan era ranged well beyond that dirty arms deal, in almost every direction. The attorney general was implicated in an influence peddling scheme at the Pentagon. The corruption uncovered at the Department of Housing and Urban Development was rampant and lucrative — as Trump could have learned from Paul Manafort, his former campaign chief, who was among the sleazy lobbyists who profited most heavily from the HUD practice of rigging multi-million-dollar contracts to favor Republican developers. Several top officials and a number of civilians were convicted of felonies including bribery, conspiracy, perjury, and obstruction of justice.
Under Reagan, several scandals erupted at the Environmental Protection Agency, where Republican officials sold policy decisions to corporate lobbyists, misused Superfund and other federal money to reward their political cronies, lied and covered up their misdeeds.
The Reagan administration also endured major corruption scandals at the Pentagon as well as in the savings and loan industry (and the subsequent crooked bailout under George H.W. Bush), which was among the largest thefts of assets in US history up to that time.
So is Hillary’s email server starting to look a bit…small? As smart as he is — or as he constantly tells us he is — Trump ought to be able to work this difference out for himself. So should any literate American with a functioning brain.
But just because Hillary’s email controversy is insignificant, don’t assume that we won’t have a scandal to rival Watergate and Iran-contra, perhaps someday soon. At this very moment, evidence is mounting of an attempt by an adversarial nation to influence an American presidential election, in possible collusion with agents of a presidential candidate whose rhetoric, campaign personnel, and business affairs enmesh him with that country’s authoritarian leadership.
A plot by a foreign power to rig an election in tandem with US political operatives? Yes, that would be worse than Watergate.
IMAGE: Richard M. Nixon resigning the presidency as he faces impeachment for Watergate crimes, August 9, 1974. File photo, Wikimedia Commons.