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Hacking the Election: We Should Call Trump’s Bluff for a Watergate-Style Inquiry

Posted on Mar 12, 2017

By Bill Blum

Evan Vucci / AP

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At precisely 3:35 a.m. EST on March 4, President Donald John Trump—who has long boasted of his ability to function on just a few hours of sleep per night—launched perhaps the most incendiary tweet-storm of his tweet-filled career from within the gilt-encrusted confines of his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Fla.

“Terrible!” Trump typed on his trusty smartphone. “Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the [November election] victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!”

After posting two more tweets claiming that Obama’s plan to wiretap him had been “turned down” by a court and that “a good lawyer” could “make a great case” against Obama—and roughly an hour before taking to Twitter again to blast Arnold Schwarzenegger for his ratings failures as the new host of “Celebrity Apprentice”—Trump compared Obama’s conduct to “Nixon/Watergate.”

The next day, Trump’s dutiful press secretary, Sean Spicer, followed up on his boss’ pre-dawn meltdown, sending out a news release to underscore the “very troubling” nature of Obama’s alleged malfeasance. Spicer urged Congress to expand its existing probes into Russian interference in the election to include the question of whether “executive branch investigative powers were abused in 2016.”

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For once, I couldn’t agree more with President Trump. Although I suspect the last thing he, Spicer and the rest of the West Wing gang really want is a high-profile, Watergate-style investigation—note that Spicer concluded his March 5 announcement with the declaration that “[n]either the White House nor the president will comment further until such oversight is conducted”—this time we should support the chief executive, or, more accurately, call his bluff.

Anyone who needs a refresher course on Watergate should look at the Senate’s final report on the scandal, which was released in June 1974. The document still stands, by any measure, as one of the landmark texts of our constitutional history.

Comprising nearly 1,300 pages and another 26 volumes of testimony, the report reflects the extraordinarily broad mandate that the Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, chaired by North Carolina’s Democratic Sen. Sam Ervin Jr., received to investigate the June 1972 break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office building in Washington, D.C., and the subsequent cover-up by the Nixon White House.

Beyond the break-in and cover-up, the committee also was given the go-ahead to probe, in the words of the report, “all other illegal, improper, or unethical conduct occurring during the Presidential campaign of 1972.” For additional historical context, the committee went even further, exploring the Nixon administration’s political practices dating back to 1968, including the creation of the former president’s infamous “enemies list” and his obsession with opposition to the war in Vietnam.

The select committee held its first public hearing May 17, 1973, and maintained an exhausting schedule, convening as often as five times a week, with only two brief recesses until August of that year. Many hearings were televised, attracting record viewing audiences. When the final gavel came down, a total of 37 witnesses had been called, ending, as the report indicates, what was then the longest uninterrupted congressional hearing in the country’s history.

The Watergate hearings were instrumental in bringing about Nixon’s resignation. They were also a civics lesson writ large in a time of grave national disunity, as well as a collective search for political truth and an exercise in speaking truth to power.

We need an inquiry of the same magnitude today, convened by either a new select committee modeled after the one led by Ervin or an independent commission armed with full federal subpoena power.

At present, both the House and Senate Intelligence committees are investigating possible Russian influence in the elections. The committees also are looking into Trump’s charges against Obama, with Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham and Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff taking the initiative on that score. The House panel is slated to take testimony from FBI Director James Comey on March 20.

Neither chamber’s probe, however, is adequate. The existing committees are too restricted in their jurisdiction to get the job done and conduct too much of their most important work behind closed doors. The House panel also is overstaffed with Trump loyalists and lackeys.

In the meantime, questions surrounding the election continue to haunt the body politic, much as Watergate constituted, according to Nixon’s White House counsel John Dean, a “cancer on the presidency.”

The probe we need should be directed at the entire issue of undue influence, cyber and otherwise, in the 2016 election. It should be a no-holds-barred affair, offering maximum transparency, with no preconceptions, and guided by an abiding commitment to follow the evidence wherever it leads, no matter whose reputations are sullied, or whose misconduct or crimes are exposed.

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