Are We Headed for a Watergate Moment?

| John McLaughlin
John McLaughlin
Former Deputy Director, Central Intelligence Agency

OPINION — Could there be a Hugh Scott in 2019? I refer to Sen. Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania, in office from 1958 to 1976, who came to mind because as a young Pennsylvanian during the Watergate crisis, he left an impression on me. An old-fashioned centrist Republican, Scott was one of the three senior GOPers who went to the White House in 1974 (with Sens. Barry Goldwater and John Rhodes) to tell President Richard Nixon that the party had lost confidence in him — the game was up, and it was time to resign or be convicted in an impeachment trial.

This is of course not the Republican Party of 1974, but it may be approaching the moment when, as back then, one of its leaders looks in the mirror and has a Hugh Scott moment. Why should we expect that, given the circling of wagons the party has deployed through every scandal, indignity and abuse President Trump has dished out since 2016? Because the transcript the White House released of Trump’s call with the Ukrainian president, followed by exposure of the whistleblower report that mirrored that account, makes it near impossible to deny that Trump was cajoling a foreign leader to find dirt on his most likely challenger. To not see this requires a willful refusal to do so.

The whistleblower who brought the Ukraine matter to light tried to do what we expect people in the intelligence community and elsewhere in government to do: report wrongdoing they witness in the expectation this will get a fair hearing. In this case, the president’s first instinct, however, was to demonize the person and to label those who spoke to this person as “spies” deserving of harsh punishment. Pursued further, this approach would only encourage unlawful leaks of sensitive information and undermine the whistleblower process.

All of this should make it much harder to accept the usual Trump spin, which can be summarized as follows: Believe me, not what you see with your own eyes or hear with your own ears. And for those who see it but remain mum, it brings to mind how the late Czech President Václav Havel, one of history’s most reflective survivors of an authoritarian regime, defined corruption: “To say one thing while thinking another.” How many people are doing that now?

It’s also harder to ignore because this particular crisis has sloshed over into so many arenas — in some way bringing the collateral damage of the Trump era into sharper focus and widening its impact. It has drawn a nonpolitical intelligence community smack into the center of a bitter political fight and will damage the whistleblower process there and throughout the government. It has raised questions about the State Department’s role (thinking of Rudy Giuliani’s contention that State directed him to pressure Ukraine). It has further strained executive-legislative branch relations, particularly as this relates to Congress’ important role in oversight and appropriations. And most importantly, it has dealt another blow to America’s influence and leadership position in the world.

Other nations reading the transcript of Trump’s Ukraine call will skip the hairsplitting in our domestic debate and have no trouble interpreting it — and the tactics will stiffen them against U.S. attempts to build coalitions for other purposes. Most importantly, it will further muddle Ukrainian attempts to deal with the country’s endemic corruption. When I was in Ukraine in 2016, every private and government contact acknowledged this as the core problem standing in the way of a stronger democracy and economy. And public disgust with the problem is the reason an inexperienced entertainer, Volodymyr Zelensky, defeated mainline politicians to capture the presidency.

And for anyone who asks why we should care about Ukraine I refer to a conversation I had with a young committee chairperson in Ukraine’s parliament who told me: “Ukraine is the one country that can change Russia.” What she meant was that Russians think of Ukrainians as close Slavic kin (many trace the idea of Slavic statehood to ninth-century Kyiv); if Russians see Ukrainians enjoying a free, open and prosperous democratic system, they will want it too. So, if we wish for a different Russia that we could deal with more productively, we should want to help Ukraine.

So embroiling Ukraine in our domestic mess, as Trump has done, runs contrary to how we should be dealing with that country. Meanwhile, Russian aggression continues in eastern Ukraine for the very reason my Ukrainian contact explained: The last thing Vladimir Putin wants on his border is a stable and thriving Ukrainian democracy. It would represent the most serious challenge to his system of autocratic control and power in Russia. Rather than focusing in an organized way on that worthy goal, Trump appears to have seen the country mostly through the prism of his personal political fortunes — colored perhaps by his seeming admiration for Putin and the way he governs.

I take no personal position on impeachment. But isn’t it time for everyone to see our situation with clear eyes? Trump frequently likes to say he has restored U.S. leadership in the world and that now everyone respects us. This is plainly not true; it’s hard to lead others when you keep withdrawing from agreements they’ve joined and support — such as the Paris climate agreement, the Iran nuclear agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership — and hurling insults at foreign counterparts.

We may be approaching a time when more leaders in our country can stare that reality in the face and decide whether it is an acceptable situation for the United States of America.

This Opinion piece was originally published at Ozy

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The Author is John McLaughlin

John E. McLaughlin is the Distinguished Practitioner in Residence at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) where he teaches a variety of courses and conducts research.

Mr. McLaughlin served as Acting Director of Central Intelligence from July to September 2004 and as Deputy Director of Central Intelligence from October 2000 to July 2004. He was a US Army Officer in the 1960s, with service in Vietnam. He comments on foreign... Read More

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