By Laura Washington / Chicago Tribune
The summer of 1973 was my baptism into national politics, as my teenage self was riveted by the legendary saga of Watergate.
I watched the months of Justice Department investigations, congressional hearings and news reports that laid out the case against a president, Richard Nixon, accused of ordering, and then covering up, a break-in at the Watergate Hotel.
On June 17, 1972, five men were caught breaking into the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters at the hotel in Washington, D.C.. Subsequent government and media investigations documented a seamy series of corrupt acts and cover-ups the led to the Oval Office.
There was the explosive testimony of John Dean, Nixon’s former White House counsel; the revelation that Nixon secretly taped thousands of hours of Oval Office conversations; Rose Mary Woods’ 18.5-minute gap on one of those tapes; the valiant reporting of Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein that brought down a president and inspired me to become an investigative journalist.
On Oct. 20, 1973, Nixon demanded the firing of special prosecutor Archibald Cox at the height of the scandal. Cox had first requested, then subpoenaed, a cache of the secret Oval Office recordings. Nixon refused to comply.
When Cox continued to press for the tapes, he was fired. That night, which became known as the Saturday Night Massacre, it looked as if the government might topple. But the debacle provoked outrage from voters, members of Congress and the media and forced Nixon to appoint a new special prosecutor who successfully subpoenaed 64 taped conversations. The damning content of those tapes forced Nixon to resign in disgrace.
Then, our justice system worked. This time around, I am not so sure.
Fifty years later, the nation faces another enormous moment in the alleged abuse of presidential power.
Former President Donald Trump stands accused of stealing government records, trying to overturn the 2020 election, instigating an insurrection and more. He is under indictment in separate criminal cases in Washington, Florida, Georgia and New York.
Recently, I had a conversation with Jill Wine-Banks, the prominent and accomplished Chicago attorney, MSNBC legal analyst, podcaster and author of “The Watergate Girl: My Fight for Truth and Justice Against a Criminal President.” I interviewed her last week for a public program at the Cliff Dwellers Club in downtown Chicago.
As an assistant special prosecutor then, Wine-Banks investigated the conduct of Nixon and his associates in the Watergate scandal. She is most famous for interrogating Woods, his fiercely loyal secretary, about the circumstances that led to the erasure of the 18.5-minute gap on a key White House tape.
Wine-Banks’ book on her Watergate experience was published in 2020.
“I didn’t write a book right after Watergate because I thought, well, what do I have to say that’s different? And then Donald Trump got elected, and I started seeing parallels,” Wine-Banks said.
A big one, that both Nixon and Trump believed they were above the law.
“After he resigned, (Nixon was) interviewed by (journalist) David Frost, and he says, ‘Well, if the president does it, it’s not illegal by definition.’ Basically, the president’s above the law,” Wine-Banks recalled.
At least Nixon eventually cooperated with the courts and turned over the tapes. Trump has demonized and dodged the legal process at every turn. So, was the Jan. 6 insurrection worse than Watergate?
Even though Nixon “abused” the U.S. Department of Justice by firing Cox, “I never felt that democracy was at risk,” Wine-Banks said. However, “Jan. 6 was a real insurrection. And that has been found by a judge that (Trump) is an insurrectionist, that he violated that statute.”
Another difference in these 50 years is the media coverage and what we believe to be “facts.”
“During Watergate, there were three networks, a couple of major newspapers, and they all had the same facts. Whether you read the Tribune, or The New York Times, whether you watched ABC, NBC or CBS, you got the same facts,” she said.
“Nowadays, we live in alternate universes depending on what media we use,” she noted.
Wine-Banks “grew up in an era where … evidence is fact.”
However, she notes, “voters from 18 to 29 get 90 percent of their news from social media. Unvetted stuff that anyone can publish. So, we have a problem in terms of what are ‘facts.’”
The lifelong attorney keeps up. Wine-Banks has not only followed the extensive news coverage of the Trump investigations but also has read and studied every indictment and its related evidence, she said.
“Based on that, there is no question that the charges filed in all of these (criminal) cases and the civil case that’s now on trial in New York are accurate.”
All of Trump’s lies have been demolished by myriad investigations, court decisions, and witnesses. But it would take just one “Trumper,” one true believer in the former president’s lies, to get an acquittal, she said.
“And one juror can hang the jury by saying, ‘I will not change my mind. I’m voting to acquit.’”
In the Watergate era, once the secret tapes exposed Nixon’s criminality, the GOP abandoned him, and the overwhelming public and political outrage forced him to resign. Trump is no longer in office and can’t resign, but he is plotting a comeback. It is increasingly likely that the Republican Party will nominate the former president next summer, and he will stand for president in November.
Trump’s supporters are blind to his transgressions, Wine-Banks argued. “So that’s the difference, is that he has developed a cult that will do anything he says and does.”
That is why “30 million people voted for him and will vote for him again,” she said. And the upcoming trials will take months to conclude.
“So, (if convicted) he will not be able to vote for himself, but he could become elected even if he’s convicted and in jail. So that’s a strange set of circumstances, but it is legally possible.”
One that leaves our democracy in a very dangerous place.
Laura Washington is a political commentator and longtime Chicago journalist.