Here’s how things get out of hand.
Start with a scandal, the Watergate break-in or Russian hacking, take your pick. How do you get from there to a presidential resignation?
First, you engage in some wrongdoing, slight or major. In Watergate, the Committee to Re-Elect the President developed a plan to infiltrate the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate, in the hope of finding dirt to use in a presidential election. What did the White House know about it? Through subordinates to Bob Haldeman, Nixon’s chief of staff, it would appear at the least Haldeman had an inkling. Nixon likely did not.
But John Mitchell, former attorney general and back in the position as the director of the president’s re-election campaign, not only knew about the political intelligence gathering, he approved it in advance.
So the next step in the deepening scandal is for a loyalist to the president, like Mitchell, to have dirty hands. This creates pressure in the White House to deny everything, in part to protect the president’s friend, here John Mitchell.
The denials then come from all voices in the administration.
Then a resignation—Mitchell resigned just weeks after the Watergate break-in, but no charges were brought—at least not yet. Drip, drip.
And here is the problem. Too many people know what happened and it is now necessary to keep all of them from breaking. People at the Committee to Re-Elect, people at the White House, burglars arrested—everyone needed to keep quiet and someone or some entity had to start paying lawyers’ bills and provide support—so-called hush money; this is obstruction of justice, a federal crime.
Then the whole thing slowly ratchets up for one reason: people are going to lie to investigators like the FBI and now they face jeopardy, perhaps prison terms if their false statements come to light.
And the pressure increases with congressional investigations and more FBI interviews. If people broke the law, or if they start lying about it, they eventually feel the need to get their own lawyers to save their necks. Will they go down with the ship as Gordon Liddy did in Watergate and refuse to talk?
Very few will.
And who feels such lifetime loyalty to Donald Trump that they would risk their very personal freedom to protect him? Who won’t have a lawyer who counsels, “save yourself, make a deal”? And once one horse is in the barn, bar the door as the rest seek refuge in plea bargains.
With Watergate, a young man named Jeb Magruder was the Deputy Campaign Director, working for John Mitchell when the Watergate break-in was authorized at the end of March 1972. The fateful break-in was in June 1972 and a grand jury began investigations after the burglars were arrested.
Magruder, as a top campaign official, was interviewed by the FBI and called before the grand jury in August 1972 and he lied about what he knew, creating a cover story. In John Dean’s new book, The Nixon Defense, What He Knew and When He Knew It, Dean presents convincing proof from new tapes that President Nixon knew that Magruder was going to lie to the grand jury.
The lies worked initially. The grand jury only indicted the burglars and Liddy and Hunt, but none of the higher-ups like Mitchell. Nixon won a sweeping re-election in November 1972, taking every state except Massachusetts.
Then things began to unravel—as Nixon’s chief of staff had predicted—the “drip, drip, drip” of a scandal that would not go away.
In 1973, the Senate voted to investigate campaign abuses from the 1972 election. John Dean, White House Counsel, who had been involved in the cover-up, began reporting up to Nixon. On March 21, 1973, Dean warned the president that there was a “cancer growing on the presidency” and that if it was not cut out, it would kill the president. Dean told Nixon that there were just too many people who knew too much to hold the scandal. Nixon decided to double-down and stonewall.
Dean, feeling that he might be thrown to the wolves, finally hired a lawyer, Charlie Shaffer, a savvy former federal prosecutor, who counseled Dean to seek immunity.
Once Dean started talking to prosecutors (what criminal attorneys call a “proffer”), he let Magruder know and Magruder, who also hired a lawyer, reacted as expected—he too started cooperating. Magruder faced over a hundred charges of lying under oath, so he gave up John Mitchell.
Once these two broke with the White House, it was a matter of time and some luck that the taping system was discovered.
But the pressure came from lying to investigators.
Today, the question is whether General Flynn lied to the FBI and whether he will lawyer up and protect himself from prosecution? Are there others who know about improper contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia? Can they all keep quiet as some jump ship? And are there intercepts, like the ones that brought down Flynn, that will act in this scandal like the White House tapes did in the Watergate scandal?
Only time will tell, but if this matter has legs, it sure seems that it will expand into a greater problem for the Trump presidency as more and more people face potential criminal jeopardy.