Somewhere in the steady flow of changing by the minute developments in the non-stop Trump-Putin-Russia interference coverage, I heard Jill Wine-Banks observe that it was about time for President Trump to retire his increasingly tired characterization of the Mueller probe and investigation as a ‘witch hunt.’
Ms. Wine-Banks had a better-than-front row seat for the last presidential scandal that got this kind of attention as a Watergate prosecutor. Then as now, I mostly just got to watch that unfold on TV, though as a working reporter, I covered some related stories from afar, such as a news conference with then U.S. Senator Howard Baker, famous for uttering a very familiar quote regarding President Richard M. Nixon: “What did the President know and when did he know it?"
At the time, Baker was the ranking minority (Republican) member of the Senate committee chaired by Senator Sam Ervin that investigated Watergate. And by the way, no one ever questioned the conservative bona fides of Baker who later served as President Reagan’s chief of staff during his administration.
What may be shocking to those following Trump-Putin-gate in 2018 is that Baker and a number of other prominent Republicans who investigated that ancient scandal actually wanted to find the answer to that question. When the existence of a White House taping system was revealed during Senator Ervin’s hearings, it was game up, though the Nixon administration fought tooth and nail up to the Supreme Court to keep those incriminating but public records from being released.
When it became clear that impeachment was the next step down the road, a group of prominent Republicans confronted Nixon face-to-face and let him to know it was time to go. Shortly thereafter, Nixon resigned.
I can’t imagine what the late Senators Ervin and Baker and many of their departed colleagues of their day would have made of a House committee chair allegedly investigating ‘collusion’ between the Trump campaign and Russia being so embarrassingly in the tank for the investigatee, not to mention the inaction of the Republican leadership.
Bumbling California Rep. Devin Nunes, chair of the U.S. House intelligence committee, was first nailed for shuttling details of its investigation to the White House in the dead of night and then had to step aside while he was investigated for leaking classified information from the probe. Somehow, selected tidbits continued to turn up on Fox News.
Like the rest of the enduring Trump ‘base,’ Rep. Nunes has maintained his solid rejection of the increasingly well publicly documented consensus of U.S. intelligence agencies that there was in fact collusion between the Russian government and the Trump campaign aimed at getting Trump elected. To Nunes and his fellow-travelers, this is a matter of a conspiracy between the FBI, CIA and other members of what the conspiracy-minded delight in referring to as the ‘deep state.’
In March 2018, as the unleaky Mueller probe was just starting to hit its stride with multiple indictments and convictions in the case, Nunes’ committee finished its investigation, concluding that there had not been collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. The committee also concluded that Russia had not sought Trump's election, which was contrary to the official conclusions of the U.S. intelligence community. Nunes subsequently began an investigation of the FBI and the Justice Department for allegedly abusing their powers in an attempt to hurt Trump.
Apparently President Putin didn’t get the memo. As a fawning and servile U.S. president looked on in Helsinki, Russian leader smirkingly acknowledged that he wanted Trump to get elected. It’s becoming quite easy to see why.
Of course, you have to ask why the Republicans far outranking Devin Nunes have either done nothing to rein him in or to answer—again—the question, ‘what did the president know and when did he know it?’ I’d say cowardice and valuing their political careers over any consideration for the interests of the United States and its Constitution.
Trump trades on repetition of phrases such as witch hunt while his words and body language scream guilt—of something. As someone with ancestors who wound up with nooses around their necks during Witch Hunt 1.0 in 17th century Salem, Mass., I can only point out that history has determined that they were innocent. We’ll see what the final verdict is on Trump.