John Yoo, a Bush-era Justice Department official and prominent legal scholar, cautioned against comparing the scandals dogging the Trump White House to Watergate in Thursday’s New York Times.
Instead, Yoo argues that the fact posture more closely resembles the Iran-Contra affair, and offers President Donald Trump advice as to how his administration should proceed.
The most important distinction between the two scandals, he claims, is that Watergate directly implicated the behavior of President Richard Nixon, while President Ronald Reagan was absolved of complicity in Iran-Contra.
As Watergate unfolded, Congress and special prosecutors established definitively that Nixon had repeatedly sanctioned attempts to cover up the criminal behavior of members of his staff. Where the Russia and Comey scandals are concerned, there is no evidence that Trump himself has sanctioned or engaged in criminal activity.
“Unlike in the Watergate case, there is no evidence that the president ordered witnesses to lie, destroyed evidence or tried to block F.B.I. agents from doing their job,” he writes.
“At least, no evidence yet,” Yoo hastens to add.
Instead, Yoo points out there are meaningful parallels between the Russia/Comey probes and Iran-Contra, wherein senior members of the president’s national security team secretly — and illegally — facilitated the sale of arms to Iran. The profits from those sales funded an anti-communist insurgency in Nicaragua that Congress refused to support.
Though Reagan escaped direct implication in the scandal, many of his senior aides left the administration in disgrace, and the political fallout nearly crippled his presidency. Today, several Trump aides, including former National Security Advisor Gen. Michael Flynn and former campaign manager Paul Manafort, follow Reagan’s trajectory, having left the president’s side under the taint of the Russia scandal.
Therefore, Yoo suggests that Trump should emulate Reagan and dismiss those members of his staff who may have had undisclosed communications with Russians officials, as well as those who failed to effectively manage the White House’s response to the ongoing crisis. He also urges the formation of an independent commission to investigate to oversee the Comey/Russia probes, along the lines that existed during the Bush years with regard to Iraq’s alleged nuclear program. He writes:
President Trump should emulate Reagan. He should fire his chief of staff, Reince Priebus, and his chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, and all the others who brought the chaos of the presidential campaign into the White House. He can replace them with more experienced government hands, much as he replaced Mr. Flynn with H. R. McMaster. He can appoint an independent presidential commission to get to the bottom of the Russia affair, copying the Bush inquiry into Iraq’s W.M.D. program.
Yoo’s analysis also tracks that of other legal experts, who have concluded that Trump’s alleged remarks to Comey with respect to Gen. Flynn were inappropriate and unethical but do not rise to the level of criminality.
“[S]tanding alone, Mr. Trump’s comments do not unambiguously show an intent to obstruct justice,” Yoo states. “While he set out his favorable opinion of Mr. Flynn, he stopped short of ordering Mr. Comey to drop the investigation. Mr. Trump’s words carried an implicit recognition that Mr. Comey would make the final call.”
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