Mar-a-Lago raid and Watergate have 'obvious parallels' and differences, says expert

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Mar-A-Lago Raid And Watergate Have 'Obvious Parallels' And Differences, Says Expert Mar-A-Lago Raid And Watergate Have 'Obvious Parallels' And Differences, Says Expert
There are obvious parallels between the FBI investigation into Donald Trump taking classified documents to his Florida estate and the Watergate scandal, but also key differences, according to an Irish Watergate expert.
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James Cox

There are obvious parallels between the FBI investigation into Donald Trump taking classified documents to his Florida estate and the Watergate scandal, but also key differences, according to an Irish Watergate expert.

Author and filmmaker Shane O'Sullivan, from Dublin, wrote The Watergate Burglars, which revealed previously unknown details about the burglaries that led to the downfall of former US president Richard Nixon.

The scandal stemmed from the Nixon administration's continual attempts to cover up its involvement in the June 17th, 1972 break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Washington DC, Watergate Office Building.

Mr O'Sullivan, who has also made documentaries about the assassinations of John F Kennedy and Robert Kennedy, was the co-organiser of a recent conference that marked the 50th anniversary of Watergate.

He told BreakingNews.ie that there were similarities between the scandal and the Mueller investigation into possible Russian links to Mr Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, and he thought this would be the end of the parallels after the conclusion of Trump's presidency.

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However, the comparisons have resurfaced in light of the US Capitol riot and the recent FBI raid of Mr Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida over confidential documents he took from the White House after the end of his presidency.

Trump and Nixon parallels

"It just continues on the Trump parallels with Nixon," said Mr O'Sullivan.

However, he pointed out that there are also many key differences, including how the two Republican presidents handled themselves.

"I think one of the big differences is Nixon had great respect for official processes. He played by the book because he saw himself as one of the political elite, and even though he tried to break the rules in certain ways, he understood there was a system he had to adhere to.

"The difference with Trump is he has no respect for that at all, and it seems he broke the rules in terms of classified documents; ripping them up and taking them away without authorisation."

He added: "In one sense Nixon knew what the classified records were and did everything he could to stop the public and investigators from getting their hands on them, whereas Trump saw nothing wrong with taking them to Mar-a-Lago, putting them in a safe and trying to make sure they were never discovered.

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"In Nixon’s case, he wouldn’t have been caught if he hadn’t taped himself. The reason for him in taping himself in the Oval Office and in some of the other spaces in the White House and Camp David was to have a historical record and to have something on which he could base his memoirs."

He pointed out that the smoking gun tape, which ultimately took down Mr Nixon, was a result of the recordings he had ordered.

In it, the 36th US president openly discussed impeding the FBI investigation into the Watergate break-in.

Another key difference, Mr O'Sullivan said, is the make-up of the Republican Party.

When Mr Nixon's actions came to light "they lined up against him and supported the impeachment proceedings", while Mr Trump still enjoys the support of Republicans despite the January 6th committee hearings, and the latest scandal.

"It's a much more partisan atmosphere now where in any investigation into Trump the Republican default is to defend him for political reasons rather than looking at what he's done wrong."

Watergate still fascinates people to this day, with 'gate' synonymous with scandal no matter how big or small ever since.

"It's still held up as the barometer for political malfeasance and political skullduggery,"  said Mr O'Sullivan.

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"Increasingly in terms of the investigation and what happened, compared to some of what Trump's got up to it can seem to be small beans.

"I think the main difference is the atmosphere, Republicans back then, the political debate back then was of a much higher class and calibre. There was much more respect across the board, no matter your political party, for the country and the Constitution and way things should be done.

"Of course they were still suspicious of a witch hunt by the rival party for political purposes, but ultimately if the evidence was of wrongdoing the systems would work as they should. That was the case with Nixon, in terms of the current investigations surrounding Trump... they are in a very partisan atmosphere.

"The January 6th committee, the bipartisan nature of that committee is the first I've seen in terms of both parties together to agree to a threshold of what line was crossed, perhaps with a view to Trump not being able to run in 2024."

Mar-a-Lago

Mr O'Sullivan said the fact the US Justice Department and FBI are carrying out the current investigation into the confidential files at Mar-a-Lago is interesting.

He pointed out that the acting FBI director at the time of the Watergate scandal was Louis Patrick Gray, a supporter of Mr Nixon.

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He resigned in 1973 after admitting destroying documents relating to the break-in. Mr Nixon's Attorney General, John Mitchell, served jail time for his role in the break-in.

"The fact this current investigation is coming out of the Justice Department and the FBI is quite interesting. In the Nixon times, the man who claimed to be the funder and organiser of the Watergate break-in was the former Attorney General John Mitchell, who then stepped down to run Nixon's campaign, he ran them in 1968 and 1972. Between those times he was the chief law enforcement officer in the country.

"Yet he was in favour of these types of election dirty tricks that encouraged break-ins into DNC headquarters.

"At that time J Edgar Hoover had just died and shortly before the Watergate break-in Nixon installed a long-time supporter of his as acting director of the FBI, so it was an organisation that was much more loyal to Nixon at that time. Indeed, a number of the FBI agents investigating Watergate didn't realise that the FBI director had actually kept a lot of evidence from them for months, and he was ultimately found guilty of destroying documents.

"That politicised element of whoever is the FBI director and head of the Justice Department can be very important. In this case we have an FBI director, Cristopher Wray, who was appointed by Trump but has decided the evidence was there to do a search of Mar-a-Lago and follow this."

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Mr O'Sullivan feels no president has tried to "play with the system as Trump is doing perhaps since Nixon, and that's perhaps why the parallels are still there".

"One aspect of this that I think is interesting is that some on the Republican side would say that because the Mueller investigation went on and on and ultimately didn't end in charges, that this is part of a witch hunt, so it will be interesting to see what evidence comes out of this and what hard evidence comes, but there does seem to be something there.

"Back at the time of Watergate you had witnesses, a certain amount of tapping of telephones as a way to try to tap into conversations and to get recordings and find out intelligence of what the other side were doing.

"That's expanded now with digital media where they're retrieving text messages, documents, encrypted messages, mobile phones, there's a lot more variety to commandeer to trace some of the back channel communication between some of the alleged conspirators.

"In some ways with digital media, you don't necessarily need the audiotapes they had with Nixon, the self-incrimination of him saying he did it or trying to cover it up on tape after the fact because they can track some of these conversations on people's phones that took place at the time.

"Though it's very interesting that the Secret Service seems to have destroyed a lot of the mobile phone communications between their agents, very suspiciously, in the days after January 6th... allegedly because they were changing over the phones at the time, and this is how some of the data went missing, and that kind of stunk to high heaven."

While some people only think of the work of famed journalists Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward when it comes to Watergate and the cover-up, Mr O'Sullivan said there is a lot more to the story.

His book focused on the different motivations of the burglars, including the Cubans who took part in the Watergate break-in.

"It's a bit like Oceans 11 or a heist movie, where everyone has their own reasons and agenda, and everyone's telling a different story.

"So on the one hand the Cubans went in there because Howard Hunt told them Castro was funding the McGovern campaign, the Democratic candidate, so they went in there because they thought a Democratic White House would make peace with Castro, with the help of Castro financing, which was a lie and why they went in there.

"Then James McCord went in there partly because he thought Vietnam Veterans Against the War had a spy within the DNC, and that's why he wanted to go in there.

"It's wide open and my book tries to pick apart some of the stuff.

"My main feeling about Woodward and Bernstein is their book, and All the President's Men which is fantastic, are a small part of the story. Follow the money was peripheral to the main investigation of Watergate which was done by the FBI and the prosecutor.

"Woodward and Bernstein were reporting leaks from the FBI investigation, but the work itself was done by the FBI and the prosecutor, they cracked the case, and I think Woodward and Bernstein would admit that.

"The reason I started the book was because the CIA declassified its internal history of Watergate, for the first time we could see what documents they had, how they reacted, the CIA connections the burglars hard.

"The difficult part was the fact I was coming to this 44 years after the facts. Many of the key players had died and got older, you have to be wary talking to people so long after the fact."

Mr O'Sullivan said the declassified CIA material revealed a number of new insights into the Watergate break-ins.

He also interviewed Eugenio Martínez, the last surviving Watergate burglar, who died in 2021.

"In previous books people said Larry O'Brien, the DNC chairman, that his phone was bugged. It wasn't because they didn't know where his office was, so they bugged a phone in an office at the other side of the building, that didn't work and had to be replaced, and they went in a second time and that was one of the reasons they were caught. Basic details about the burglary that have been overlooked.

"People tend to focus on Nixon and the cover-up, but I find the story of the burglary more interesting, I interviewed Eugenio Martinez for another project and his story as a CIA veteran who had 350 trips into Cuba trying to smuggle in American spies, and later was involved in the Watergate burglaries, that was a fascinating story.

"Because of their CIA connections and how the White House tried to use these connections to divert the blame I think none of that has been represented in any film and TV around Watergate, so personally I find that interesting, I'm working on a series of short documentaries about that aspect."

The recent anniversary conference was "unique and historic", as it brought together people directly involved in the Watergate scandal for the first time, according to Mr O'Sullivan.

Some pointed out that a key difference was the American media landscape at the time.

Some historians have argued that a Watergate-style controversy wouldn't be enough to end Mr Trump's political ambitions, or even rank in his top controversies, and Mr O'Sullivan feels American right-wing media would be a key factor in this, and how the January 6th hearings and current investigation will play out.

"There were only a few network channels, the whole nation was gripped, it was hard to recreate that with the January 6th committee, but they've done well with prime time slots.

"There had been nothing on that scale of a presidential controversy until Trump came. The pure hubris of Nixon and Trump pushing it to the edge and not caring if they got caught or not.

"Someone pointed out in the conference how much the media landscape has changed, obviously with Fox News. Let's say the smoking gun tape came out with Trump guilty of similar things, Fox and right wing news channels would portray it a certain way, enraging his base and some Republicans would shrug it off, so it might not have had the impact had it occurred today.

"Ultimately Nixon was a responsible member of the government and had respect for its methodology and the Constitution that Trump didn't have, the way Republicans acted, it would be different today."

You can watch videos from the Watergate 50th anniversary conference here.

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