Comeygate Is Not Watergate

Craig Shirley President, Shirley & Banister Public Affairs

Ever since President Donald Trump fired FBI Director James Comey – abruptly and without any beating around the bush, at least by DC standards – the media and the establishment have been howling with rage and shock. “How dare he do that?” “Doesn’t he know who the FBI Director is?” “This is exactly what happened during Watergate!” “‘Nixonian’ or uniquely ‘Trumpian’?,” asked a headline in The Washington Post. With all the comparisons, you’d think the entire government was about to crumble to its knees. In the first day the major liberal cable systems used the word “Watergate,” 107 times according to one study, even as most of the cleavage cable commentators probably don’t know John Dean from Dean Martin. That the Post would hearken back to a 43-year-old story is understandable; it was the last time the error-strewn paper was relevant. Meanwhile Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, now in their late 70’s, have been dining out on this story for nearly half a century. But is Watergate really Comeygate?

Well, not exactly. To compare any scandal or presidential hoopla to Watergate has become a tired cliché.  “Watergate” is a catch-all term now, losing all meaning to the actual political ramifications against President Richard Nixon. Democrats hurl around Watergate and impeachment like they are eating breakfast. The use of the word “impeachment” used to be invoked cautiously. No longer. Both parties use it with impunity now. Democrats against Ronald Reagan and later, the Bushes. Republicans again Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton—had she won.

The comparisons aren’t historically accurate either. President Nixon fired special prosecutor Archibald Cox along with the Attorney General, Elliot Richardson and his deputy, William Ruckelshaus  on October 19, 1973, after a six-month tenure investigating the break-in to the Watergate Hotel. It was deemed the “Saturday Night Massacre.” Cox released a statement that day, stating in part “Whether ours shall continue to be a government of laws and not of men is now for Congress and ultimately the American people.” Watergate was Watergate because it resulted in the resignation of an American president, the first in our history. Let’s see how this thing plays out, huh? Show us the newspapers of the future and then we can say. Until then, however, no one can say.

The decision to fire Cox destroyed Richard Nixon’s already-spiraling down popularity, and within a week nearly half of Americans polled supported the president’s impeachment. It did not help that Cox was fired soon after requesting Nixon’s recorded tapes and refusing to budge on compromising, only supporting many who believed that Nixon was, indeed, covering something up. Both Richardson and Ruckelshaus refused to fire Cox (leading to the both of them resigning), and only until Solicitor General Robert Bork intervened did Cox get the boot. The President claimed it was because he “refused to comply with instructions.”

President Donald Trump, on the other hand, unceremoniously fired Director James Comey after months of inability to do anything. It was a pattern of misdeeds from non-prosecution of Hillary Clinton, to a weak pursuit of classified leakers between the election and the inauguration. He has become a laughingstock – to both Democrats and Republicans, depending on who he was defending – of an ineffective agency. Trump said to NBC News soon after, “Look he’s a showboat, he’s a grandstander. The FBI has been in turmoil. You know that, I know that. Everybody knows that. You take a look at the FBI a year ago, it was in virtual turmoil – less than a year ago. It hasn’t recovered from that.” Trump would know something of showboating and turmoil. Still.

Comey was responsible for much of this. His unusual—some may say—favoritism to some politicians was less than subtle. “Although we did not find clear evidence that Secretary Clinton or her colleagues intended to violate laws governing the handling of classified information, there is evidence that they were extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information,” he had said in July of last year, announcing no indictment for the former secretary of state. For all our lives, we’ve been taught that ignorance of the law is no excuse. Except for Hillary Clinton, who has the Hillary standard to observe.

Trump additionally has the power to fire the head of the FBI. That is legally more legitimate than Nixon’s firing of Cox, a judicial branch official. The FBI, on the other hand, is federal executive, within full authority of the president. Is it politically smart to fire the director? Perhaps not. But it’s legal.  Just ask Bill Clinton, who fired Jeff Sessions early in 1993 with little to no criticism.

Bernard Goldberg made a salient point on Fox: “Now I’m noticing that a lot of reporters who were too young to cover Watergate, they want part of that glory too, and finally they found it. [This] is their Watergate.” It’s possible, and likely, that the reporters, still thinking of themselves as the Bastion and Holder of Truth, and the Fifth Estate and Fifth Column, which brought down a president, want a juicy story on Trump. Just enough to bring them from “Fake News” to “The News.” There’s plenty of material there, no doubt, from Trump. But every single item is now scrutinized and reported to millions.

Finally, let us not forget the plethora of Democratic leaders that called for his firing when he briefly reopened the case against Clinton. “I do not have confidence in him any longer,” Chuck Schumer had said. “Maybe he’s not in the right job,” accused Nancy Pelosi. Even today, Hillary thinks it was Comey – and not an ineffective and pompous campaign – that led to her defeat in November.

Comey can’t catch a break.  No wonder he’s mildly nauseated. And Vichy Republicans—who cut and run on Ronald Reagan and other Republicans—are up to their old tricks, cutting and running again.

President Trump is many things, but he is not doing Watergate. At least not yet. Maybe it would be a good idea to examine the facts and let things play out. It’s almost hysteria. For one example, Trump’s comments and animosity toward the press were also touted as Watergate-esque. So we have to ask ourselves: if everything is Watergate, then what is Watergate?