Russiagate—How Donald Trump could become the new Nixon

Richard Nixon announces his resignation from the White House, August 9, 1974.
Dirck Halstead | Liaison | Getty Images
Richard Nixon announces his resignation from the White House, August 9, 1974.

With the revelation that Attorney General Jeff Sessions had contact with Russian officials during the Trump campaign—and even Republicans calling for an independent investigation—we are going to hear more comparisons between Donald Trump's Russian ties and the mother of all American political scandals:


If you weren't alive for Watergate and wonder how it compares to the early days of Trump's Russian scandal, here's what you need to know.

1. It will take a while to get to the truth.

On June 17, 1972, five men were arrested for breaking into the DNC headquarters, located in the Watergate hotel complex in Washington, D.C. On an intelligence-gathering mission during a presidential election, these burglars were essentially engaged in hacking when hacking meant prying open a locked filing cabinet with a crowbar.

More than two years later, on August 8, 1974, Richard Nixon became the first President to resign.

A two-year fall from a historic landslide reelection in 1972 to leaving public life in disgrace is a rapid descent. That said, if you believe the President engaged in a criminal conspiracy to win an election, two years can feel like a long time.

Americans in 2017—and millennials in particular—are not known for their patience.

However, investigating a potential constitutional crisis requires thoroughness and caution.

Sit back. This will take a while.

2. Trump will have good moments, even if the investigation heats up.

The seven months following the arrest of the Watergate burglars saw Richard Nixon at the pinnacle of his popularity and power.

He won reelection with 520 electoral votes and 60 percent of the popular vote. In fact, no candidate since Richard Nixon has won 60 percent of the popular vote. And in January of 1973, Nixon signed the Paris Peace Accords, ending the Vietnam War.

Clearly, Nixon had some good moments even as Watergate started to gain traction.

Trump will have some good moments, too. His address to Congress received positive reviews from Republicans and even some Democrats.

Trump's address was less an achievement and more reassurance that the President can at least appear restrained and cooperative. In the context of the early Trump administration, restraint and a nod to cooperation were welcome sights. There will be more welcome sights, and possibly some genuine achievements from the Trump administration.

But even as Watergate unfolded, some Nixon-friendly outlets used the President's good moments to argue the administration had moved beyond Watergate.

We know how that turned out.

3. Journalists will overreach, and the administration will try to use that overreach to discredit the entire story.

In their early reporting on Watergate, famed All the President's Men authors and Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein made a critical error. They incorrectly reported that a witness had given testimony to a grand jury about Nixon Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman's involvement in the burglary.

Though they would become arguably the most famous reporters in American history, and their reporting would uncover the full scope of the scandal, Woodward and Bernstein's mistake nearly stopped their investigation in its tracks.

The Nixon administration used this error to try and discredit all the Post's Watergate coverage.

Journalism is far more competitive now than it was in 1973. That fierce competition will cause a reporter or outlet to try and scoop his or her competitors, and an inaccuracy or unverified piece of information will get published. The Trump administration will use the existence of that inaccuracy to try and discredit the entire Russian story.

Arguably, Buzzfeed's January publication of the infamous "dossier" fits this exact pattern.

4. In the end, the system will work—but there can be enormous collateral damage to the country.

During Watergate, there were rumors that no matter what happened, Nixon wouldn't leave office. His ego, his love of power, and even an infamous 1970 decision to dress White House Secret Service in uniforms resembling a royal guard were all cited as evidence Nixon would not step down, even if he were impeached.

Then, in August 1974, Republican Senators Hugh Scott and Barry Goldwater and Republican House Minority Leader John Jacob Rhodes met with Nixon and told him he faced sure impeachment in the House and conviction in the Senate.

The system worked.

Three days later Nixon resigned—but in a way Watergate never really ended.

According to the Pew Research Center, in October of 1972, 53 percent of Americans trusted their government all or most of the time.

In October of 2015, 19 percent of Americans trusted their government all or most of the time.

Ironically, one of the biggest legacies of America's distrust of its own government may be the election of Donald Trump, a candidate whose main argument for election was a lack of experience in the Washington, D.C.

Will Russia become Donald Trump's Watergate?

No one knows—yet.

But if you're a millennial, you should know that 2017 is starting to sound a lot like 1973.

Commentary by Dustin McKissen, the founder and CEO of McKissen + Company, a strategy, marketing, and public relations firm based in St. Charles, Missouri. He was named one of LinkedIn's "Top Voices" in 2015 and 2016, and is currently pursuing a PhD in Organizational and Industrial Psychology. Follow him on Twitter @DMcKissen.

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