Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Parallels with hearings from 45 years ago

From 1972-75, I worked in Washington, D.C., subscribed to the Washington Post, and watched the Watergate hearings on television as much as I could. Like much of America, I was mesmerized by the hearings.

Watching, reading about or listening to the testimony before congressional committees this year takes me back to the Watergate era. So much is the same — the setting in ornate hearing rooms before scores of staff members, media representatives and other officials are interchangeable between 1973 and 2017.

As I listened to testimony from fired FBI Director James Comey, I was transported back to the testimony of John Dean, the White House counsel before the Watergate Committee. Both witnesses spoke in carefully, cautiously measured phrases. Both demonstrated uncanny recall of events. Both men's testimony had the ring of truth.

Tuesday's testimony by Attorney General Jeff Sessions recalled another similarity to Watergate: partisan attacks against the witness were unbecoming and contrary to the Senate's courteous traditions. That is true about both political parties. Democrats tried to interrogate Sessions and force him to admit to wrongdoing. Chairman Richard Burr had to remind one senator to allow the witness to answer her question. Republicans sought to defend the president by shifting the focus of the inquiry or adroitly denying generally accepted facts.

Sessions tried to be the courtly southern gentleman, but it was difficult when he was interrupted by aggressive questioners before he could complete his answer in his slow drawl. Sessions, the administration's "top lawyer," however, refused to answer some questions on the basis of executive privilege even while admitting that he could not invoke executive privilege. Only the president can do that, and President Trump had not invoked executive privilege over his conversations with Sessions. Thus, Sessions said he was reserving the president's right to invoke executive privilege at some time in the future. That strikes many people as stretching a constitutional privilege complete out of shape. By his standard, every conversation with the president would be privileged until the president declares it is not covered by executive privilege. That leaves no room for balance of power and the authority of Congress to examine the executive branch's performance.

As the hearings continue and the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 elections continue, parallels with Watergate will keep popping up. What is unlikely to pop up is a presidential resignation. While President Nixon was a paranoid egotist who could not admit to being wrong, he at least had the interests of the country foremost in his mind. What is foremost in Trump's mind is Trump himself.

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