War Stories

This Was No Watergate

Congressional hearings helped uncover Nixon’s crimes. In the Trump era, they’re about getting politicians on TV.

Robert Mueller at a hearing room table.
Robert Mueller testifies on Wednesday.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

President Donald Trump, his supporters, his critics, and every news network had high hopes, or nervous fears, about former special counsel Robert Mueller’s testimony on Wednesday, likening its possible impact to that of the 1973 Watergate hearings, which resulted in the toppling of Richard Nixon.

It was clear, less than halfway into the seven hours of hearings before the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees, that the predictions, on all sides, were way overblown.

If the Democrats intended the hearings to be the prelude to a full-blown impeachment investigation, Mueller proved to be a less-than-compelling witness. Rep. Adam Schiff, the intelligence committee chairman, had promised that Mueller would bring his dusty, thick report—which few Americans have read—“to life.” Instead, he made it dustier still.

Mueller had already said, at a press conference in May, that, if called to testify, he would say nothing beyond the text of the report. The warning turned out to be more literal than anyone could have expected. On a few occasions, a lawmaker asked him to explain some obscure bit of legalese in plain English; one of these bits would have amounted to a suggestion, if not quite an endorsement, of impeachment as a possible measure that Congress could take. But Mueller declined to do even that.

The Democrats did eke a few headlines from the proceedings, mainly in the opening exchanges led by Schiff and, in the earlier hearing that morning, Rep. Jerry Nadler, the judiciary committee chairman. Mueller affirmed that the Russians did interfere with the 2016 election, that they did so to help Donald Trump win, that the report did not exonerate Trump from wrongdoing, and that Mueller did not indict Trump—or even consider doing so—not because of exculpatory evidence but because the Office of Legal Counsel had determined that a sitting president cannot be indicted.

Finally—and this came, surprisingly, in answer to questions from Republican Rep. Ken Buck—Mueller said the president could be indicted after he leaves office.

None of these statements was new. All of them appeared in the report; some of them were stated by Mueller himself at his May press conference. Then again, the Democrats weren’t seeking new information; they simply wanted Mueller to recite those conclusions on television—not only to the millions who tuned in to the hearing live, but to the millions more who would later watch clips on news shows and YouTube.

But except for those few exchanges, the hearings—while intermittently interesting—came off as ramshackle. No coherent story was told. The few times Democrats started to unfurl a narrative, Mueller cut it off by saying he couldn’t comment on where they were going or even on their premise, either because the topic was out of his purview or the subject of other investigations. (Sometimes, he declined to discuss an incident, even though the report went into it in some depth.)

Meanwhile, the Republicans tried to throw cold water on the whole business, questioning Mueller’s integrity, his staff’s political bias, and the report’s legal logic. A few times in the Judiciary hearing, Mueller interrupted to answer the charge, but the Republican asking questions wouldn’t let him, saying his time was limited. More startling, when the accuser’s time ran out, Nadler didn’t give Mueller a chance to answer the charge either. Some other Democrat could have said, “Director Mueller, do you want to deal with the question you tried to answer?” But no one did.

As is true of many congressional hearings these days, the main point—for many members on both sides of the dais—was to get time on camera: the Democrats, to show their constituents that they were serious players, challenging Trump; the Republicans, to display their loyalty to their one pertinent viewer—Trump himself.

In every way imaginable, this hearing bore no resemblance to the Watergate hearings of 46 years ago—and neither chairman seemed to have absorbed any lessons from what those earlier, more potent hearings could have taught them.

The Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, chaired by the folksy Southern Democrat, Sen. Sam Ervin, was formed after it became clear that the four men charged with breaking into the Democratic Party offices at the Watergate had not acted alone—and, in fact, had connections with officials in the White House and the CIA.

As Scott Armstrong, a staffer on the Watergate committee, detailed two years ago in a New York Times op-ed, the committee cooperated with the special counsel of the day in sharing information and expanding the array of witnesses. Many of the questions during the hearing were asked not by senators but by the committee’s experienced counsel, Samuel Dash.

More critically, the committee called witnesses who had actually observed—in some cases, colluded in—Nixon’s crimes, and the staff interviewed those witnesses ahead of time, to see what they’d be saying. The star witness, in this respect, was White House lawyer John Dean, whose elephantine memory and sudden cringe of conscience traced the first full outlines of Nixon’s role in the conspiracy.

The committee’s vice chairman, Republican Sen. Howard Baker, became famous for asking various witnesses, “What did the president know, and when did he know it?” But, few outsiders knew at the time, when Baker was asking that question, he was assuming that Nixon had known nothing. Armstrong revealed in his op-ed that, in the committee’s early phases, Baker served as a White House mole, informing Nixon’s aides of the panel’s activities.

This collusion ended—and Baker went through his own change of heart—after the discovery of Nixon’s secret tapes. The committee and the counsel subpoenaed the tapes; Nixon refused to turn them over; the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that he had to release them (would today’s court do the same?); Nixon turned them over (would Trump burn them on the White House lawn, as some urged Nixon to do?); and the evidence of a cover-up became indisputable. The House Judiciary Committee drew up a resolution of impeachment soon after; Nixon resigned, on Aug. 9, 1974, before the bill went to the full House.

The discovery of the tapes happened almost by accident. The White House had provided the committee with notes of a conversation between Nixon and Dean, purporting to show that Dean’s account was mistaken—that he, not Nixon, was the author of the cover-up. Soon after, in a pre-interview with a Nixon aide named Alexander Butterfield, the committee staff casually asked how the White House kept such precise notes. Butterfield revealed that Nixon had a taping system in his office. Butterfield was called to testify to that effect in public. The rest, as they say, is history.

The point here is that, without careful preparation and staff work, the existence of the tapes might never have been known, and Nixon might have served out his second term.

It is unimaginable that the Watergate committee—or, really, any investigative committee back then—would have called not just as a witness, but as its star witness, someone whose testimony and willingness to cooperate was not known in advance.

Everybody, throughout this process, has pinned far too many hopes and fears on Mueller. His rugged, no-nonsense demeanor—satirized, though at the same time lionized, by Robert De Niro on Saturday Night Live—has been misread and mythologized as the sign of a principled warrior who will surely defend the Constitution from its ravagers. Mueller turns out to be highly principled but mainly—like many prosecutors—as a protector of his institution: a strictly by-the-book player, wavering not an inch from the official guidelines.

One of the few times Mueller turned a little bit passionate at Wednesday’s hearings occurred when a Republican referred to his staff as partisan Trump-haters out to avenge Hillary Clinton’s defeat. Mueller spoke up, interrupted the line of questioning, defended his staff as purely professional, and said that he had never, in 25 years as a prosecutor, asked staff anything about their political leanings.

Aside from that, Mueller didn’t say much more than he needed to—arguably less than that. He’d made it clear he didn’t want to testify, viewing his report as the final word. No doubt he understood the role that the Democrats wanted him to play—to outline the report’s narrative, clarify its conclusions, underline its broad implications—but he had no interest in going along. His refusal stemmed not from some political motive, but from precisely the opposite: he did not want to get enmeshed in politics, on one side or the other.

It’s unclear where Nadler and Schiff go from here. They could call—and could compel testimony from—Don McGahn, the former White House lawyer, who was in the thick of whatever it was that Trump was doing to interfere with the investigation and who revealed much to Mueller’s staff. He may be the one person who could most grippingly bring the Mueller report to life. They could also order the arrest of some of the officials and ex-officials who have defied subpoenas to testify; that might get some of them to take this business seriously. They could, more to the point, run a real investigation, one designed to reveal to the public what they already know—and unlock secrets they don’t yet know—rather than simply put their colleagues on television.