Trump Is Right, This Is Bigger Than Watergate

Some things are so unintentionally ironic that they defy simple description. Let me give you Exhibit A.

If there was an informant on the Trump campaign, that informant presumably gathered some incriminating evidence. Following this informant’s leads could indeed lead to a scandal more serious than Watergate. But that’s obviously not what the president meant to convey when he wrote that tweet.

What he was suggesting is that he was a victim of a crime more serious than the 1972 burglary of the Democratic National Headquarters, which was then located in the Watergate complex. The government was spying on his campaign.

And, it’s true that it would a problem if the government was in the habit of embedding informers in the campaigns of people who are challenging them or their party’s power. David Frum has a pretty concise response to this line of thinking.

I think Frum gets right to the heart of this issue here. From all the evidence we’ve seen so far, it looks like the FBI did not go looking into the Trump campaign’s Russian connections until after they were tipped off by the Australians that there was a problem. Specifically, the Australians told the FBI that George Papadopoulos knew the Russians had thousands of hacked emails that would be damaging to Hillary Clinton’s campaign long before any of those emails were released to the public.

That caused them to investigate. And when they started to investigate, they noticed Russian connections everywhere they looked. We know the bigger names on the list, like Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, Rick Gates, and Carter Page, but there many more connections. There were people like Tevfik Arif and Felix Sater and Michael Caputo and Boris Epshteyn. There was the Agalarov family. There were curious meetings between campaign leadership and the Russian ambassador and between members of Trump’s family and oligarchs close to Vladimir Putin. It was noticed that the Republican platform was changed to make it more amendable to Russia.

In retrospect, the FBI went to great lengths to limit their investigation, for example, by refusing to directly interview anyone under suspicion lest they tip off that an investigation was under way at all. But they did investigate, as that was their responsibility in a situation where a hostile foreign power was interjecting itself heavily into our election and potentially siding with one candidate over another. The counterintelligence folks are supposed to be on the lookout for attempts by foreign intelligence agencies to recruit or compromise American political figures, so some of this investigation could be considered an effort to help protect a potential Trump administration from compromise or blackmail.

An objective observer would argue that the FBI was too timid and complacent because they were operating on the assumption that Hillary Clinton would win the election. They were more concerned about the accusation that they hadn’t been tough enough on her than with the accusation that they’d failed to alert the public about what they knew about Trump. They were more concerned that aggressively investigation the Russia angle would give Trump a talking point (the one is he using now) than they were about blunting Russia’s efforts to assist him.

Yes, this is bigger than Watergate. But not because there was an informant inside Trump’s campaign.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.