Ever since it became clear in June that the Russian government or allies thereof had hacked the Democratic National Committee and obtained internal documents and communications, there has been one natural historical precedent that the press has embraced: Watergate.
"The hackers installed the cyber-version of the bugging equipment that Nixon’s goons used—sitting on the DNC computers for a year, eavesdropping on everything, collecting as many scraps as possible," Slate’s Franklin Foer notes. "It falls into that classic genre, the dirty trick. Yet that term feels too innocent to describe the offense. Nixon’s dirty tricksters didn’t mindlessly expose the private data of low-level staff."
The comparison is tighter than for most scandals that are compared to Watergate. In both cases, there was an illegal breach of the (real or virtual) headquarters of the DNC in the middle of an election year. But the analogy lacked a Nixon. The scandal in Watergate wasn’t merely that there was a breach, but that it was orchestrated by a sitting president, a major party nominee. Russia may prefer a Donald Trump victory, but an intelligence service interfering in another country’s elections is pretty standard-issue espionage, and a tactic that the US has engaged in plenty over the years.
Donald Trump changed all that on Wednesday when he called on Russia or other hackers to find the 33,000 emails Clinton deleted from her private email server during her time as secretary of state. Doing that would probably entail hacking the FBI; while Clinton has insisted she has no copies left of the emails, the FBI was reportedly able to recover some of them through its investigation into her email usage.
So the official nominee of a major American political party called on a foreign government to hack into either the computers of his political opponent or the computers of federal law enforcement officers. Trump is not the president, and this situation will never involve the abuse of presidential power issues that Watergate did, but in most other respects this is like Watergate if Richard Nixon had publicly announced his involvement from the beginning.
This is a modernization of the tactics Nixon and his team used in 1972
To understand Watergate, you have to know a little bit about the broader treatment of political enemies by the Nixon White House. Even before the DNC break-in, Nixon, his team of "White House plumbers" tasked with performing dirty tricks, and employees of the Committee for the Reelection of the President (CRP) were illegally targeting Democratic candidates and other individuals deemed threats to the president.
Many of these incidents were basically attempts at domestic espionage: Nixon and his crew wanted to gain private information about the dealings of their opponents. That’s why in 1971, the plumbers G. Gordon Liddy, Howard Hunt, and three others broke into the offices of Lewis Fielding, the psychiatrist of Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg. They wanted to find and photograph medical files relating to Ellsberg’s mental health and treatment, which could then be used to discredit him.
No one knows precisely what the burglars were trying to find during the Watergate break-ins — both the successful first one on May 27 and the second on June 17 where the burglars got caught — but what’s beyond question is that they wanted to gather intel, to dig up dirt. The five men arrested that night were found with two listening devices and 40 rolls of unexposed film for capturing documents.
This was how you had to accumulate private information back in 1972. No one outside of Bell Labs had digital paper trails. They had literal paper trails. They had phone calls. To know what they knew, and whom they were talking to, and what they were saying, you had to physically enter their offices and bug their phones and photograph their documents.
That was doable — the burglars on May 27 successfully bugged the phones of DNC Chair Lawrence O’Brien and fellow Democratic official Spencer Oliver. But it was risky. When the listening devices failed and needed repairs, the burglars had to break in again, and that time they got caught.
So, what would the plumbers have done if they wanted to break into the DNC in 2016? Well, they probably wouldn’t risk a physical B&E. It’s unnecessary; almost all the information you’d want exists in digital form. So you’d want to hack instead. And why order the hack yourself if there are plenty of other people — either foreign governments or private hackers who happen to hate the Democrats — willing to do it for you, and leak the results?
Of course, being seen asking other people to do this is a risky proposition, and Nixon didn’t seem like the kind of man who’d trust people outside his circle to do the job properly. But Donald Trump has a unique position in American politics, where it’s just sort of expected he’ll say outrageous stuff. If Republican nominee Marco Rubio suddenly declared his wish for Russia to break into Hillary Clinton’s emails, everyone would be appalled, and Rubio would likely be forced to apologize or even drop out of the race.
But Trump isn’t Rubio, and he has a particular Trump license to say stuff like this with seeming impunity. It’s a natural progression of the million other things he’s said this campaign that would normally disqualify someone from the presidency, like his praise of dictators and his attack on John McCain for being captured and his mockery of a disabled reporter. If he can get away with all that, why not this?
I want to be clear: I’m not saying that Trump has some master plan to engineer the hacking of Clinton’s details, of which his most recent comments are just the most recent, well-plotted step. Trump does not act like someone who has master plans of any kind.
But his comments do reveal something disturbing about how the internet has democratized the ability to do dirty tricks. In 2016, you don’t have to secretly plot and hire a team of goons and orchestrate a massive cover-up to get private information about a political enemy. You probably don’t need to do anything at all. It’s possible for skilled, well-resourced hackers anywhere in the world to get the information you want, and if you have the right political persona you can maybe get away with egging them on.
You can, in other words, achieve Nixonian results without Nixonian means. And when, at the end of the day, the only thing that brought Nixon down were his particularly criminal, blatant means, that’s terrifying.