Speculation about a potential massive Trump administration scandal has become rampant since last month’s reports that Trump advisers were in regular contact with senior Russian intelligence officials during the campaign. We’ve already had National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s resignation for lying about contacts with the Russian ambassador, and now it’s been reported that Attorney General Jeff Sessions met with the ambassador too and didn’t disclose it to Congress.
NBC’s Chuck Todd called last month’s New York Times report on the contacts “a class five political hurricane”; former CBS anchor Dan Rather wrote that “Watergate is the biggest political scandal of my lifetime, until maybe now”; and former Hillary Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook has said “the parallels to Watergate here are eerie.”
These comparisons seem premature. There’s a lot of smoke on Trump/Russia matters, and whatever did happen was sufficient to force the resignation of Trump’s top national security aide and get the attention of the FBI. So far, though, there’s very little actual evidence of anything massively damning. What happens next depends, naturally, on what other information emerges.
And while commentators may be tempted to jump to the most memorable and extreme analogy for a political scandal, it’s worth remembering that Watergate, the only scandal ever to force the resignation of a US president, is unique.
Yet past scandals short of that famed one have still greatly damaged presidents, by causing public controversy, entangling top advisers in legal trouble, or swamping the administration’s message and agenda.
Indeed, even if the core of any particular scandal doesn’t end up leading to indictments, it has frequently been the case that when politicians or political aides are compelled to give sworn statements, they get nailed for misstating the facts on something or other — sometimes with very serious legal consequences.
So as we wonder how things will play out for the Trump administration, Watergate shouldn’t be our only model for understanding presidential scandals. Instead, we should consider several others.
1) The Valerie Plame affair: it fired up the opposition, but the consequences weren’t earth-shattering
In July 2003, diplomat Joe Wilson wrote a New York Times op-ed arguing that George W. Bush’s administration had “twisted” some intelligence about Iraq’s nuclear weapons program to make the case for war. Soon afterward, the Washington Post’s Robert Novak wrote a column in which he “outed” Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, as a CIA operative. Many liberals speculated that pro-war Bush administration officials had leaked Plame’s identity to punish her and her husband for disloyalty.
An investigation was launched, and the truth turned out to be more complicated — Plame’s identity had been initially leaked because Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage (no friend of the administration’s hawkish wing) was gossiping to Novak. In the end, no one ended up being charged for the leak itself.
Still, after various Bush administration officials had to make sworn statements about who knew what when and who did what when, Fitzgerald concluded that Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, Scooter Libby, had lied to investigators. Libby lost his administration job, was indicted, and was eventually convicted of perjury, obstruction of justice, and making false statements.
In the end, the Plame investigation ate up a ton of top Bush officials’ time, helped fire up the liberal base in opposition, and resulted in criminal convictions for one administration official even though he wasn’t responsible for the initial leak. But sufficient evidence to implicate the very top officials in the White House never emerged, and the scandal never became a truly all-consuming public matter.
2.) Whitewater: an investigation that sprawled and became very consequential indeed
The Whitewater scandal involved an investigation into a land deal Bill and Hillary Clinton made back in 1978, and the deal’s relationship to a savings and loan association that failed in 1989 — Dylan Matthews explains more here. Several of the Clintons’ Arkansas friends and business associates ended up being convicted of various charges, as was the state’s governor, but no investigator ever concluded the Clintons did anything criminal.
Yet the scandal ended up having enormous implications for the Clinton presidency, for reasons having nothing at all to do with Arkansas land. That’s because Attorney General Janet Reno appointed an independent counsel to investigate the matter, and when her original choice was replaced by conservative Kenneth Starr, the investigation went very far afield.
Indeed, by the time he’d been in the job for several years, Starr began investigating whether President Clinton had perjured himself in a deposition for a sexual harassment lawsuit when he had said that he didn’t have “sexual relations” with Monica Lewinsky. That, of course, was not true, and Starr launched a very detailed investigation into the specific facts of Clinton’s affair with Lewinsky to make that case.
In the end, the affair was proven via DNA evidence (and admitted to by Clinton), Starr issued an unprecedented report chronicling every sexual encounter between Clinton and Lewinsky, and the Republican-controlled House of Representatives impeached Clinton for perjury and obstruction of justice.
But Clinton survived — the Senate voted not to convict him of either charge, perhaps influenced by the facts that his approval ratings were high, the economy was doing well, and the scandal was about the president’s sex life rather than important matters of state.
Overall, Whitewater is a strange case. It was undeniably impactful because it led to an investigation dogged the administration for years and led to the second presidential impeachment in history, albeit on a completely unrelated matter. Yet in the end, Clinton was acquitted in February 1999 and returned to normal presidenting quickly thereafter, serving out his final two years and leaving office quite popular.
3.) Iran-Contra: a big embarrassment with many indictments and convictions, but the president survived
President Ronald Reagan’s second term in office was derailed by the late-1986 revelation of the Iran-Contra scandal, which did not result in his impeachment but did result in a swath of indictments and eventual convictions for administration officials.
The root of Iran-Contra was that people in Reagan’s National Security Council wanted to fund the right-wing Contra rebels against the left-wing socialist government in Nicaragua, even though Congress had passed a law saying they couldn't. Meanwhile, Reagan wanted to free several US hostages held by the Iranian government, and as part of an effort to win their release, his advisers began facilitating arms sales to the embargoed country.
Eventually, the two operations connected: The NSC began diverting proceeds from the Iranian arms sales to help fund the Contras. When word got out about all this, it caused a massive scandal. After an investigation, 11 administration officials were indicted. Several very big names — including National Security Advisers Robert McFarlane and John Poindexter, NSC staffer Oliver North, and Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams — were convicted of crimes, mainly on charges of perjury, obstruction of justice, and withholding evidence. (Several were later pardoned by President George H.W. Bush or had their convictions thrown out on appeal.)
President Reagan disentangled himself from the affair by somewhat embarrassingly maintaining that the entire operation was carried out without his knowledge — which, if true, meant he had little idea what was going on in his own government. His approval sank from around 60 percent to down near 40 percent.
Still, even a scandal implicating so many aides wasn’t enough to sink Reagan — he left office as a popular president, his successor George H.W. Bush won the 1988 election in a landslide, and he remains venerated by his party today.
4) Watergate: the only scandal ever to sink a president
And then there’s Watergate, which led to the only resignation of a sitting president in American history and the convictions of a whole swath of top Nixon administration officials of serious crimes.
The Watergate scandal got its name because it spiraled outward from a botched break-in at the Democratic National Committee offices in the Watergate Hotel. It turned out that some of the burglars were closely tied to Richard Nixon’s Committee to Reelect the President. And while it’s never been proven that Nixon ordered the break-in, subsequent revelations made very clear that he tried to cover it up, including by asking the CIA to disrupt the FBI’s investigation of it and arranging payments of hush money to people involved.
But as Dylan Matthews wrote in his very comprehensive explainer, “It's not really the break-in itself that ended Nixon's presidency so much as the fact that the ensuing investigation revealed a tangled web of wrongdoing of almost unfathomable scale and complexity, implicating the highest levels of the White House, up to and including the president.”
Indeed, it turned out that Nixon’s cronies, and in particular a unit in the White House called the “plumbers,” were engaged in a whole lot of shady and illegal activity, involving break-ins and leaks aimed at smearing political opponents or critics. And an even wider circle actively tried to cover up these actions in ways eventually deemed criminal. Attorney General John Mitchell, White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman, top White House domestic policy aide John Ehrlichman, White House counsels Charles Colson and John Dean, and several other White House aides and Nixon campaign staffers were all eventually convicted of various crimes.
After several failed attempts by Nixon to suppress the investigation, including by firing a special prosecutor looking into it, enough damning evidence turned up to set Congress on a clear course toward impeachment. But before they could actually do so, Nixon quit. He earned a full pardon one month later from his successor, Gerald Ford.
From a process perspective, there are several reasons why Watergate did end up taking down Nixon. There was more evidence — in part due to damaging leaks from the intelligence agencies, the fact that Democrats controlled Congress and were willing to investigate, and the fact that Nixon recorded many of his misdeeds on tape.
Most importantly, though, the Nixon administration’s crimes were simply far worse than anything else we know of since. The revelations that came out as a result of Watergate were unprecedented, as was the fate of Nixon and his top advisers. Since then, it’s been a very memorable precedent indeed, and served as a strong lesson to future politicians that they shouldn’t follow Nixon’s lead — so far.