Watergate was a watershed moment in American political history, so much so the suffix “gate” has been applied to nearly every political scandal, major and minor, since President Richard Nixon resigned from the presidency more than four decades ago.
But really, Watergate was about burglary, dirty money, dirty politics and covering up a petty crime. Compared what we are seeing now, Watergate is small potatoes. Compared to President Donald Trump’s kissyface with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Watergate is going to remembered as vividly and shamefully four decades from now as the Teapot Dome Scandal of the 1920s.
What was the Teapot Dome Scandal? My point exactly.
The retirement of “gate” is long overdue, but if we persist in using it—”Kremlingate” is popular on Twitter—we risk minimizing the magnitude of this moment. This is going to be very big. There is little question in my mind it will be. How big is the question. In any case, the size of this scandal may be enough to “break the fever” that has plagued the Republican Party since the election of the first African-American president. Only when the party faces possible complicity in acts of treason will that fever finally break.
I don’t use the T-word lightly, because no one should. But we are getting close. As I noted in a recent column, I suspect everything needed to impeach and remove this president is probably already known, and it probably was known within weeks of Trump’s surprise victory in November. The problem for those with this knowledge was what to do with it after the country had completed a process of choosing a new leader. Only by leaking this information, drip by drip, were they able to expose Trump without jeopardizing the constitutional integrity of our democracy.
Time will tell if they succeeded. I suspect it will be years before public trust in Washington is restored. For now, we are getting closer to seeing a picture in which Trump may have struck a deal with Putin, a deal that may be as treasonous as it was boneheaded: Help me win the election and I’ll drop sanctions against Russia.
We don’t know if that happened.
What we do know is that almost immediately after taking over, the Trump administration began a series of steps to drop or ease sanctions against Russia. Economic sanctions have blocked Russia from investing and expanding abroad. They were imposed after the Kremlin broke international law by invading Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. More sanctions were levied after US intelligence officials concluded that Moscow had interfered with the 2016 election.
Even so, senior Obama administration officials and staffers at the Department of State told Michael Isikof of Yahoo that, after the inauguration, the Trump White House demanded “proposals for the lifting of economic sanctions, the return of diplomatic compounds and other steps to relieve tensions with Moscow.” This so alarmed them that they “immediately began lobbying congressional leaders to quickly pass legislation to block the move.”
This set off a flurry of activity resulting in a bipartisan measure to force Trump to go through Congress before lifting sanctions. The White House eventually backed off the issue, but that hasn’t stopped Trump from seeking ways to please Russia. The Washington Post reported this week that the administration is “moving toward” with returning two Russians compounds vacated after President Obama sanctioned Russian diplomats for meddling in the 2016 election.
All of this may have been above board—in the interest, as Trump officials claim, of better combating terrorism and the Islamic State in the Middle East. What’s vital is understanding Trump’s motive in its fullest terms. For that, we need to go back to April 27, 2016.
We already know that Attorney General Jeff Sessions met with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington on that day. Sessions said the meeting was part of a reception, brief and public. What we didn’t know is that Trump himself might have been there along with his son-in-law Jared Kushner. NBC News reported this bombshell Thursday: “Classified intelligence [suggests] there was some sort of private encounter between Trump and his aides and the Russian envoy.”
Why were they all there on the same day having a private meeting, and what did they say? Nothing is public yet, but what we do know is the Democratic National Committee announced in June that it was hacked by Russian operatives (we didn’t know then that Putin was personally running Russia’s influence campaign). By July 24, before the Democratic National Convention, WikiLeaks unloaded a trove of documents suggesting Bernie Sanders was sabotaged.
That was just the beginning.
As Time magazine’s Massimo Calabresi reported last month: “In 2016, Russia had used thousands of covert human agents and robot computer programs to spread disinformation referencing the stolen campaign emails of Hillary Clinton, amplifying their effect.”
Correlation is not causation, I should be quick to add. To explain Trump’s inexplicable affinity for Putin, we need to know more about what happened on April 27, 2016 at the Mayflower.
This is why “Kremlingate” is inadequate. It doesn’t capture the fact that Russia has established a beachhead on our democracy. There’s a better way of describing this historic scandal. Say it with me.
It’s “The Mayflower.”