The Watergate Road Map and Trump’s Future

The National Archives recently made available the so-called Watergate Road Map, a set of documents officially known as the “Grand Jury Report and Recommendation Concerning Transmission of Evidence to the House of Representatives.” Ordinarily, the public does not get to see testimony and evidence procured by a grand jury, and there are still small parts of this report that are redacted for that reason.

On March 1, 1974, the report was sent under seal from the Watergate grand jury to Chief Judge John Sirica of the District Court for the District of Columbia. In late June 1974, Judge Sirica forwarded it to the House Judiciary Committee–to which it explained the rationale for issuing articles of impeachment against President Richard Nixon. The Road Map is essentially an analysis of the evidence against Nixon collected by Special Prosecutor Leon Jaworski, and a large batch of supporting documentation.

The basic premise of the analysis–which was undertaken before Cox gained access to the “Smoking Gun” Watergate tapes in July–is that the president cannot be indicted for a crime. So, the report is an exercise in demonstrating what the president could be charged with if he were an ordinary citizen.

It’s worth noting that the members of the grand jury ultimately disagreed with the judgment that Nixon could not be tried for his crimes.

In the summer of 1982, seven members of the grand jury choose to break their oath of silence because “they [were] convinced justice was not done” and discussed their 30-month service with the ABC news show “20/20.” They stated they wanted to bring an indictment against Pres. Nixon after hearing the batch of tapes released the Summer of 1974. One grand juror stated that in a straw vote, “There were 19 people in the grand-jury room that particular day, and we all raised our hands about wanting an indictment — all of us. And some of us raised both hands.” However, Jaworski did not favor an indictment, even going so far as saying he would not sign one. In discussions with the grand jury, Jaworski cited “the trauma of the country,” and prior to Nixon’s resignation, the lack of precedent for indicting a sitting president.

Naturally, the members of a grand jury do not get to decide weighty constitutional matters, but I think their opinion still matters. They weren’t told that the president is allowed to commit crimes because he’s the president. They were told that impeachment was the proper way to handle the situation.  They gave their evidence to the House, which then dutifully completed the impeachment process in the Judiciary Committee, leading to Nixon’s resignation. I can only imagine how the grand jurors would have felt if the House had refused to act or if Nixon had refused to resign and was acquitted in the Senate.

The entire premise of this episode was that: if the president would be charged and likely convicted of serious crimes if he were an ordinary citizen, then he surely should be removed from office. Among those serious (or “high”) crimes were, according to the summary of the Road Map, joining in a “criminal conspiracy to obstruct justice, obstruct a criminal investigation, and commit perjury … making and causing to be made false statements and declarations, making offers of clemency and leniency, and obtaining information from the Justice Department to thwart its investigation.” In other words, the cover-up was sufficiently criminal to warrant removal from office irrespective of the underlying or original crimes.

At one point in the Road Map summary, there is a discussion of a period in April 1973 when it was decided that the best way to contain the investigation was to convince former Attorney General John Mitchell and his deputy at the Committee for the Re-Election of the President, Jeb Magruder, to take the fall for authorizing and financing the break-in at the Democratic Headquarters in the Watergate complex.

During an April 14 meeting, Nixon instructed his aide John Ehrlichman to meet with Jeb Magruder and “express his personal affection” for him. Nixon’s Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman then recommended the same message be delivered to John Mitchell.  This was interpreted as suborned perjury even though giving false testimony was never discussed.

Politico is reporting that President Trump may provide his written responses to Special Counsel Robert Mueller as early as Tuesday and certainly before Thanksgiving. Unfortunately, he appears to be refusing to answer any questions related to activities that took place after his election. Meaning, he won’t discuss any possible cover-up.

Trump over the past week has spent several hours with his legal team, including Rudy Giuliani, Jay Sekulow and Jane Raskin, finalizing his answers to questions from the special counsel focusing on his time before he was sworn in as president.

Still unclear is whether Mueller and Trump will reach agreement on any format for responding to the special counsel’s wider obstruction-of-justice investigation involving the president’s time in office, including his May 2017 firing of FBI Director James Comey.

Yet, as the Watergate Road Map makes clear, many of Trump’s actions since he won the election have been criminal in nature and would be charged as crimes if he were an ordinary citizen. Some of this has already been exposed through the Special Counsel’s investigation, but a lot of it has taken place in plain sight or been widely reported in the press.

One example came in April 2017, when Trump’s first National Security Advisor Michael Flynn revealed that he was still in contact with the president despite having been fired for lying about the nature of his December 2016 phone calls with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

Late last month, fired National Security Adviser Michael Flynn — under investigation by federal prosecutors, with his lawyer seeking immunity for him to testify to Congress — met with a small group of loyalists at a restaurant in the northern Virginia suburbs.

Saddled with steep legal bills, Flynn wanted to reconnect with old friends and talk about potential future business opportunities. But one overriding question among those present were his views on the president who had fired him from his national security advisor post.

Flynn left little doubt about the answer. Not only did he remain loyal to President Trump; he indicated that he and the president were still in communication. “I just got a message from the president to stay strong,” Flynn said after the meal was over, according to two sources who are close to Flynn and are familiar with the conversation, which took place on April 25.

As was reported at the time, simply calling Flynn and telling him to “stay strong,” amounted to “an effort to obstruct a federal investigation that might ultimately implicate the president himself.” Certainly by the standards of the Watergate Road Map, what Trump did with Flynn was against the law and grounds for impeachment.

In the wider context of Trump’s actions, this seems like a tacky-tack foul, but it is actually very serious. It’s consistent with his actions throughout, in which he has flattered potential witnesses against him, suggested that they’ll never rat on him, and had discussions on pardons.

In fact, if we look at the Watergate Road Map list of crimes, it’s actually very easy to fill in examples for each that obviously or quite likely pertain to Trump.

“Criminal conspiracy to obstruct justice, obstruct a criminal investigation, and commit perjury…making and causing to be made false statements and declarations, making offers of clemency and leniency, and obtaining information from the Justice Department to thwart its investigation.”

We don’t need recordings from the Oval Office to demonstrate much of this because Trump does most of it right out in the open. In other cases, we simply have to weigh the credibility of witnesses like former FBI Director James Comey or National Intelligence Director Dan Coats against the credibility of the president.

On the infamous Trump Tower meeting alone, Trump fills in most of the blanks on that list. He certainly caused false statements and declarations to be made by concocting the “adoption” cover story, and that was clearly in the service of a conspiracy to obstruct a criminal investigation, obstruct justice, and commit perjury.

Trump’s treatment of Jeff Sessions has been nakedly illegal from the start, as he clearly pressured him not to recuse himself from the case, then tried to get him to reverse his decision, and ultimately fired him for the obvious purpose of “obtaining information from the Justice Department to thwart its investigation.” Even before replacing Sessions as attorney general with Matthew Whitaker, Trump was using Whitaker’s position as Sessions’ chief of staff to try to get information on the investigation.

Of course, Trump and his apologists will have some explanation for every Tweet and blatantly obstructive act. For example, look at the case of Trump asking James Comey “I hope you can let this go” with respect to Michael Flynn lying to the FBI:

But friends of Flynn insist the president’s comment could also be viewed not as a deliberate effort to obstruct justice but a personal plea — however ill-advised — on behalf of a down-on-his luck friend who had stood by Trump throughout his campaign and is now ostracized by former associates and struggling to find new consulting work. “Basically what [Trump] was saying is, ‘Can you take it easy on my buddy?,’” said one friend of Flynn who has stayed in touch with him.

Unfortunately for Trump, it doesn’t matter if obstructing justice and suborning perjury “could also be viewed” in some other way should the evidence point in only one direction.

Evidently, Trump believes he can get away with all of this. In particular, he thinks he can avoid answering all questions about the cover-up and his conduct in office. But the case against him is overwhelming and, at some point in the near future, Mueller’s grand jury may send a road map to the House Judiciary Committee.

If that happens, I think people are too cynical about what may result. I don’t believe the president will survive. If he does, then this country probably can’t be saved.

Martin Longman

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