Dan Rather: This Trump thing could be bigger than Watergate

When the man who blew the lid off the Bush National Guard memos tells you the country is facing a mega-scandal, you can take that to the bank.

How are these people going to last four years with their sanity intact when they’re already at DefCon 2 after 26 days?

Watergate is the biggest political scandal of my lifetime, until maybe now. It was the closest we came to a debilitating Constitutional crisis, until maybe now. On a 10 scale of armageddon for our form of government, I would put Watergate at a 9. This Russia scandal is currently somewhere around a 5 or 6, in my opinion, but it is cascading in intensity seemingly by the hour. And we may look back and see, in the end, that it is at least as big as Watergate. It may become the measure by which all future scandals are judged. It has all the necessary ingredients, and that is chilling.

When we look back at Watergate, we remember the end of the Nixon Presidency. It came with an avalanche, but for most of the time my fellow reporters and I were chasing down the story as it rumbled along with a low-grade intensity. We never were quite sure how much we would find out about what really happened. In the end, the truth emerged into the light, and President Nixon descended into infamy.

This Russia story started out with an avalanche and where we go from here no one really knows. Each piece of news demands new questions. We are still less than a month into the Trump Presidency, and many are asking that question made famous by Tennessee Senator Howard Baker those many years ago: “What did the President know, and when did he know it?” New reporting suggests that Mr. Trump knew for weeks. We can all remember the General Michael Flynn’s speech from the Republican National Convention – “Lock her up!” in regards to Hillary Clinton. If Hillary Clinton had done one tenth of what Mr. Flynn had done, she likely would be in jail. And it isn’t just Mr. Flynn, how far does this go?

The Times has run at least three stories since late October on the FBI investigation into contacts between Trump’s campaign and Russian agents and each one has come to the same conclusion — no evidence of cooperation so far. Even the now famous phone call between Flynn and the Russian ambassador in December has failed to produce clear evidence of wrongdoing. It was the ambassador, not Flynn, who allegedly made the call, and it was the ambassador, not Flynn, who allegedly raised the topic of sanctions. Flynn’s response to the ambassador was reportedly noncommittal, and among the many, many leaks about the call over the past week, none has provided evidence of exactly what Flynn said — a curious omission.

Flynn is guilty of having misled Mike Pence, apparently, but that’s not the mega-scandal Document Dan has in mind here. The scandal he’s imagining is Flynn, and Trump, having been secretly on the take from Russia throughout the campaign and engaged in a conspiracy to take down Hillary Clinton through illegal hackings of the DNC and John Podesta. Federal investigators have spent months looking into that, loads of anti-Trumpers scattered throughout the intelligence bureaucracy are willing to leak what they know, and the nation’s reporters are salivating for a scrap of proof to show that everyone’s worst fears are true. And yet, still, somehow no hard evidence of a conspiracy has been produced. By all means, continue investigating, but under the circumstances it’s time to consider the possibility that … there’s no smoking gun after all. Write up the “WORSE THAN WATERGATE” piece, but put it in a drawer until at least, let’s say, Day 41 or whatever. Let’s try to get a month out from the inauguration before concluding that this is the “Manchurian Candidate” redux.

As tends to happen when one side is in hyper-outrage mode, a race begins to prove one’s ideological virtue by reaching for the most dramatic, hysterical analogy yet. For Rather, that’s Watergate and “worst scandal evah” rhetoric. For tools like Tom Perriello and Tom Friedman, it’s 9/11 analogies. “Ladies and gentlemen,” wrote Friedman yesterday, “we were attacked on Dec. 7, 1941, we were attacked on Sept. 11, 2001, and we were attacked on Nov. 8, 2016.” Perriello made the 9/11 point even more explicitly:

He later apologized after a staffer undoubtedly reminded him that he’s running for governor in a purple state and that comparing anything to 9/11 usually doesn’t work out politically. This is what DefCon 2 looks like, though. Barring the Rather hypothesis playing out and Trump being indicted, there’s next to no chance that there’ll ever be 67 votes in the Senate to have him removed from office, but there’s a fair chance if his popularity doesn’t improve that Democrats will retake the House in 2018. And if they do, given the fever pitch at which the left is already at, it’s almost a cinch that Trump will be impeached. If they can’t get the goods on a conspiracy with Russia, they’ll impeach him for business conflicts of interest and Emoluments Clause violations or for something else. But they’ll do it, if only for the mental health of people like Rather, Friedman, and Perriello. I hope Trump, Priebus, Bannon and the rest realize the stakes for the midterms already, even just 26 days in.