The circumstantial evidence that Donald Trump, his campaign, his family, and his businesses have unsavory ties to Russia has grown to near-undeniable levels. Still, criminal offenses have yet to be uncovered. Currently, the Trump Administration’s only crime is lying by Michael Flynn and Jeff Sessions about non-criminal communications with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak. Now, the news that Jared Kushner and disgraced former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn met with Kislyak together suggests Flynn’s interactions with Russia were undertaken with Trump’s knowledge. When a leader runs Play #7 in the Dictator’s Playbook: Let a Henchman Take the Fall, the involvement of multiple close advisers almost always means that the leader was involved in the relevant high jinks. The problem with calls for impeachment and consistent comparisons to Watergate is that Watergate started with an actual crime committed by Nixon’s associates; when it comes to Trump and Russia, his henchmen are behaving as if he is covering something up, but we don’t know what it is, or how we could possibly prosecute it.
Watergate and Russiagate have a lot of similarities . . .
Both scandals started with attacks on the DNC. The DNC has got to get its act together on the security front. In 1972, Tricky Dick and his (apparently quite poorly trained) henchmen kicked off the Watergate scandal by getting caught in flagrante delicto bugging the DNC offices in the Watergate hotel. In 2016, the Democratic primary and general election were thrown into turmoil, much to the detriment of the ultimate democratic nominee, by the hacking and leaking of private DNC e-mails. Its offices were apparently bugged again as well.
The immediate culprit indicated a larger conspiracy. While it took much longer to link the President and his men to the burglary and its perpetrators, it was quickly discovered that one of those men was a security consultant for the Republican Party. Likewise, in 2016, three days after the first DNC e-mails were released by Wikileaks, analysts had already discovered the DNC servers were hacked by individuals using a Cyrillic keyboard in Moscow.
The sabotage was undertaken in favor of the Republican candidate. In October 1972, the Washington Post reported the FBI’s conclusion that the Watergate break-in was part of a widespread campaign of political sabotage undertaken on behalf of the Committee for the Reelection of President Nixon. Mr. Trump has received a similar assist, if from a different actor. In December 2016, 17 US intelligence agencies concluded that Vladimir Putin ordered Russian operatives to hack the DNC in order to get Donald Trump elected.
Henchmen have lied about their contact with conspirators. In the Watergate scandal, the first lying henchman to be unmasked was John Mitchell, former US Attorney General and the Director of Nixon’s reelection campaign. Mitchell initially denied that the campaign had anything to do with the Watergate break-in, and was contradicted by evidence found by the FBI and Washington Post (See above link to the Post’s chronology of Watergate). Obviously the dominos fell from there. Dominos seem to be teetering among Trump’s cronies. Michael Flynn had to resign for lying about his communications with Kislyak, and now Jeff Sessions has had to recuse himself from future investigations as penance for his fibbing. The problem is, both mens’ actions, while somewhat irregular, weren’t illegal. We only see a cover up because they are acting like they are conducting a cover up (which makes them pretty terrible conspirators).
But it’s the differences that count . . .
Russia changes the ballgame. The involvement of a hostile foreign power makes Russiagate a whole different animal from Watergate or any other Presidential scandal. Watergate started with a petty, prosecutable crime committed within the jurisdiction of the United States. Within a couple of months the authorities had hard evidence linking Richard Nixon’s reelection campaign to the burglary. After that, reporters and the FBI just had to prove the intuitively obvious notion that someone in the White House knew about the crime. Nixon’s henchmen went to jail for obstructing justice in association with a burglary. They were covering up a simple crime. Russiagate is not going to be that simple.
Russian hacking won’t take Trump down. Starting at square one, to do anything about Trump’s ties to Russia, we would need to impeach, and for impeachment, we need a “high crime or misdemeanor.” The impeachment of Bill Clinton for perjury and obstruction of justice actually sets the bar for what constitutes a “high crime or misdemeanor” pretty low. However, we only know about one crime so far: the hacking of the DNC, and we know that was committed in Moscow by the Russian government or agents thereof. In order to prosecute Trump or any of his advisers on that charge, we would have to prove that they knew about it and conspired to enable it in some fashion, or covered it up afterward. This seems improbable. Vladimir Putin does not need the Trump campaign to figure out how to hack a server, nor does Wikileaks need help leaking it. On top of that, in order to prosecute Trump and his henchmen for a crime committed by a foreign government, a prosecutor would pretty much have to prove treason, and that seems like a stretch, given that the hack was against the DNC, a private political organization, not the US government.
How do we get a conviction for Russiagate? We may not. This may just be a seedy association that looms over the administration like a bad smell. For all the strange praise of Putin and lying henchmen, the very diligent Press has yet to find any concrete favoritism or quid pro quo granted to Russia (though with time, Trump may be foolish enough to supply one). The Steele dossier (the one with the peeing prostitutes) alleged that a Trump adviser was bribed with 19% of the Russian Rosneft corporation in exchange for the US lifting sanctions on Russia and its oligarchs, but there has been no quid pro quo, so no one has done anything provably wrong – yet. We know the Trump Organization has extensive financial ties to Russia, but can’t prove it. However, I think financial misconduct is where to look for a cover up. A group of legal scholars has filed a suit demanding that Trump open his books. If and when that lawsuit succeeds, we will be able to follow the money, and if there is anything we know, it’s that Trump has been extremely shady with money his entire career. Like Al Capone, I think Trump’s horrible financial practices are most likely to bring him down, whether he is conspiring treacherously with Russia or not.