Watergate has long been the standard by which other political scandals are judged. Commentators use the suffix “-gate” and talk about how contemporary events mirror those that occurred during the Watergate investigation.
But the country is now confronted with a presidential scandal that presents an unprecedented danger to American democracy and national security. Evidence that has been released—by the White House no less—shows that President Donald Trump abused his authority to attempt to extort a foreign country to intervene in the 2020 election. And recent reporting shows that he withheld vital military aid to Ukraine as part of his unlawful pressure campaign.
While Trump’s actions follow the basic arc of President Richard Nixon’s misconduct—abusing authority to attack political opponents followed by a desperate cover-up attempt—there is a critical difference. Trump’s misconduct is worse because it involves an effort to pressure a foreign country to interfere in American democracy, undermining our national security.
The basis for Nixon’s impeachment
In understanding the scandal that brought down Nixon, perhaps the best place to look is the three articles of impeachment that were approved in the House Judiciary Committee shortly before Nixon resigned. The first was for obstruction of justice for:
… using the powers of his high office, [to engage] personally and through his subordinates and agents in a course of conduct or plan designed to delay, impede and obstruct investigations [of the Watergate break-in]; to cover up, conceal and protect those responsible and to conceal the existence and scope of other unlawful covert activities.
The second article was for abuse of power for:
… repeatedly engag[ing] in conduct violating the constitutional rights of citizens, imparting the due and proper administration of justice and the conduct of lawful inquiries, or contravening the laws governing agencies of the executive branch and the purposes of these agencies.
The final article was for contempt of Congress because Nixon:
… had failed without lawful cause or excuse, to produce papers and things as directed by duly authorized subpoenas issued by the Committee on the Judiciary of the House of Representatives…and willfully disobeyed such subpoenas.
In short, Nixon faced impeachment for abusing his power to go after political opponents and then engaging in a cover-up by hiding misconduct from federal investigators, Congress, and the American people.
Trump has abused his power to attack political opponents in ways that surpass even Nixon
Nixon’s abuse of power involved domestic actors targeting his political opponents. By contrast, the content of the notes the White House released of the phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky show the president of the United States asking a foreign country to interfere in a U.S. election to undermine his political opponent.
Trump first makes clear to Zelensky that he expects his assistance given U.S. support for Ukraine:
I will say that we do a lot for Ukraine. […] the United States has been very very good to Ukraine. I wouldn’t say that it’s reciprocal necessarily because things are happening that are not good but the United States has been very very good to Ukraine.
After Zelensky asks for U.S. assistance, Trump tells him, “I would like you to do us a favor though.” Subsequently, he asks him to investigate Biden, along with another conspiracy theory, even offering the assistance of Attorney General Bill Barr in those efforts:
I heard you had a prosecutor who was very good and he was shut down and that’s really unfair. A lot of people are talking about that, the way they shut your very good prosecutor down and you had some very bad people involved. […] There’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great. Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it … It sounds horrible to me.
This request is all the more disturbing given that the requested “investigation” of Biden has no basis in reality and has been widely debunked.
But the effort to attack Biden extended beyond a simple phone call. Since at least 2018, and possibly earlier, Trump’s adviser and sometimes attorney Rudy Giuliani has met with numerous Ukrainian officials in order to convince them to reopen the investigation. Giuliani has also claimed that he met with Ukrainian officials “at the request of the State Department” and has asserted that the State Department was aware of his actions.
According to recent reporting, Trump also sought to withhold hundreds of millions of dollars in security assistance to Ukraine as part of his pressure campaign. The funding was unexpectedly halted by a direct order from Trump just a week before his call with the Ukrainian president. He then “used Pence to tell Zelensky that U.S. aid was still being withheld while demanding more aggressive action on corruption,” which Zelensky would have understood to reference Trump’s previous ask to investigate Biden’s son. The funding was released the day after Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee Adam Schiff demanded the release of a whistleblower complaint that, among other things, suggested the funding delay was connected to Trump’s pressure campaign.
Like Nixon, Trump sought to cover up his abuse of power
After Trump’s call with Zelensky, his administration began taking extraordinary steps to cover up what had transpired.
First, the transcript of the call was moved to a special “code word” server that severely limits access to the information. The whistleblower said that one White House official considered this an “abuse” of the system “because the call did not contain anything remotely sensitive from a national security perspective.” As Kelly Magsamen—former White House National Security Council member and current vice president for National Security and International Policy at the Center for American Progress—noted, “the move was highly suspicious” because “such special protections are typically reserved for material of the gravest sensitivity: detailed information about covert operations, for example, where exposure can get people killed.”
Then, when the whistleblower complaint was presented to the Intelligence Community Inspector General (ICIG), the administration sought to bury it. After conducting a preliminary review of the complaint, the ICIG determined “that there were reasonable grounds to believe the urgent concern appeared credible.” It then transmitted the complaint to the Acting Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Joseph Maguire, who is required by law to send the complaint to congressional intelligence committees within seven days. But the Department of Justice (DOJ) Office of Legal Counsel issued an opinion saying the reporting requirement did not apply in this circumstance, and thus there was no obligation for DNI Maguire to provide the information. Eventually, after the ICIG alerted Congress to the existence of the complaint, the administration bowed to public pressure and released it.
The DOJ also appeared to engage in only a cursory review of the potential crimes referred to it by the ICIG and the DNI before dismissing them. Department lawyers reviewed the potential campaign finance violations, but not any other legal concerns. They also did not consider Trump’s direction to hold up Ukrainian military assistance in their analysis. As reported by CNN:
The narrow approach and decision to close the probe in three weeks without much investigative follow-up makes the matter much more like the department’s handling of an everyday inquiry rather than one with a top political figure or the President at its center.
Furthermore, the DOJ appears to have failed to alert the Federal Election Commission (FEC) to the existence of the complaint, despite a federal government memorandum that requires them to do so. Moreover, Attorney General Barr did not recuse himself from the investigation, although the DOJ knew that Trump had offered Barr’s assistance in the efforts to interfere in the 2020 election.
In addition to trying to hide information, the administration has taken actions likely to discourage witnesses from coming forward. Trump himself has sought to intimidate and discredit the whistleblower. He announced he was trying to “find out about” the individual; implied that the individuals who gave information to the whistleblower were spies; and even made “a veiled reference to execution” regarding the whistleblower. Yet Trump’s own DNI has said, “I think the whistleblower did the right thing” and that “the whistle-blower and the inspector general have acted in good faith throughout. I have every reason to believe that they have done everything by the book and followed the law.”
Even other Republican elected officials noted that Trump’s behavior was beyond the pale. Republican Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE) said, “The administration ought not be attacking to whistleblower as some talking points suggest they plan to do.” Rep. Paul Mitchell (R-MI), a member of House Republican leadership, said, “Whistleblowers are protected by law, even if we don’t necessarily like what they say. We must respect that law.” Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) said the whistleblower “appears to have followed the whistleblower protection laws and ought to be heard and protected.”
In addition to attacking the whistleblower, the Trump administration has sought to undermine Congress’ investigation. Giuliani has suggested he will not cooperate with the investigation. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has sought to prevent State Department employees from telling Congress what they know, claiming that congressionally scheduled depositions for five State Department officials are “an attempt to intimidate, bully, and treat improperly” these officials and that he would “not tolerate such tactics.” The administration also sought to hide from Congress the true reason for the funding delay: “Administration officials were instructed to tell lawmakers that the delays were part of an ‘interagency process’ but to give them no additional information.”
In addition to hiding information from the executive branch and Congress, Trump and his team have misled the American people. Trump has been repeating false claims about Biden and his son ad nauseam. He repeated them on the call with Zelensky and has tweeted numerous times about these falsehoods; in a recent press conference, Trump stated “Biden and his son are stone-cold crooked.”
Trump has also given contradictory explanations for why he held up the Ukraine military assistance. After his administration told agencies to say the hold was the result of an “interagency process,” Trump shifted to claiming that he withheld the aid over concerns about corruption in Ukraine, and then changed his story again, claiming that the decision had to do with a need to ensure that other European countries were contributing to Ukraine as well. This is despite the fact that his own Department of Defense said Ukraine had taken the necessary steps to combat corruption and his claims regarding European funding are unfounded.
Giuliani has kept up a steady stream of lies about Biden’s role in the removal of an allegedly corrupt Ukrainian prosecutor general. He’s also lied about his involvement in pushing Ukraine to investigate Biden on live television. When asked by Chris Cuomo on CNN whether he pushed for this investigation, Giuliani replied, “No, actually I didn’t.” Later in the segment, Cuomo asked again, “So you did ask Ukraine to look into Joe Biden?” Giuliani replied, “Of course I did.”
Pompeo, too, has misled the American public about his role in the incident, claiming in an appearance on ABC News in late September, “You just gave me a report about an IC whistleblower complaint — none of which I’ve seen.” After reporting revealed he was actually on the call, he confirmed that he had participated in it.
The Ukraine crisis poses a greater threat than Watergate to American democracy and national security
Trump’s actions raise profound concerns for our democracy. While Nixon’s efforts to attack his political opponents were an affront to core American values, Trump’s betrayal of the public trust is even worse. He is not only seeking to undermine our elections—he is doing so by pressuring a foreign actor to intervene in them. Now Trump has called on China to investigate Biden too. Foreign interference in domestic affairs was one of the primary concerns of the founders and one of the reasons they provided a mechanism for Congress to impeach and remove a president. Seeking to extort another country to interfere in U.S. elections strikes at the heart of the country. It cheats the American people out of the free and fair elections that are a cornerstone of American democracy.
Trump’s actions also threaten U.S. national security. First, leveraging Ukrainian military funding for his pressure campaign undermines the United States’ common interest with Ukraine in defending against Russian aggression. In 2014, Russia illegally seized and annexed Crimea, and Ukraine has been fighting against an increasingly aggressive Russia ever since. The military aid is intended to help Ukraine strengthen its military and stand up to Russia. As former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Evelyn Farkas noted, “We are supporting Ukraine to stop Putin.”
Trump has also undermined national security by suggesting that American foreign policy is driven by Trump’s corrupt political interests. As CAP Senior Fellow Michael Fuchs notes, “US foreign policy increasingly looks like that of a mafia state, wielded at the behest of, and for the benefit of, one man’s personal interests, and for sale to the highest bidders. This is devastating America’s role in the world.” Trump’s misuse of the instruments of our national security as political weapons puts U.S. allies in a challenging position that jeopardizes the long-term health of their relationships with the United States.
Trump has taken the core aspects of the Watergate scandal and injected his unique brand of corruption, threatening to weaken our democracy and national security in the process. This is not a modern-day Watergate; it’s something far worse.
Sam Berger is the vice president for Democracy and Government Reform at the Center for American Progress.