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Donald Trump is Deep into Watergate Territory Now: Former Congresswoman Who Probed Nixon Speaks Out

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Fallout continues to grow over President Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey last week. The firing came just days after Comey requested more resources to probe Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election. Senate Democrats are now threatening to refuse to vote on a new FBI director unless a special prosecutor is named to investigate possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russia. Meanwhile, pressure is growing on the administration to reveal whether Trump has been secretly recording conversations at the White House. On Friday, Trump tweeted, “James Comey better hope that there are no 'tapes' of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!” Trump’s possible recording of White House conversations has led many comparisons between Trump and former President Richard Nixon, who resigned on August 8, 1974—three days after the release of an audio recording of Nixon discussing the Watergate break-in. Nixon had fought off congressional subpoenas to release the tape, but eventually the Supreme Court forced him to hand it over. It later became known as the smoking gun tape. We speak to Elizabeth Holtzman, former U.S. congressmember from New York who served on the House Judiciary Committee that voted to impeach Richard Nixon.

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Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re on the road in San Francisco. I’ll be speaking today in Santa Cruz and in Palo Alto.

Fallout continues to grow over President Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey last week. The firing came just days after Comey requested more resources to probe Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election. The Senate Democrats are now threatening to refuse to vote on a new FBI director unless a special prosecutor is named to investigate possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russia. On Sunday, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer appeared on Meet the Press.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER: A special prosecutor appointed by the Justice Department has the ability to actually prosecute people for violations of law. And they go on in tandem. One shouldn’t step on the other. I know they’re talking to each other right now, the FBI was, with the Intelligence Committee, to make sure no one’s granted immunity. But it’s two separate issues. And we very much need a special prosecutor, Chuck. We need someone who’s independent of the Justice Department to get to the bottom of this.

AMY GOODMAN: On the same program, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson admitted Russia did in fact interfere with the election.

SECRETARY OF STATE REX TILLERSON: I have seen the intelligence reports, Chuck. And, yes, I don’t think there’s any question that the Russians were playing around in our electoral processes. Again, as those intelligence reports also have indicated, it’s inclusive as to what, if any, effect it had.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, pressure is growing on the administration to reveal whether Trump has been secretly recording conversations at the White House. On Friday, Trump tweeted, “James Comey better hope that there are no 'tapes' of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!” unquote. Lawmakers are now calling on Trump to hand over any such tapes. On Friday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer refused to rule out the existence of the tapes.

JEFF MASON: Moving on to the news of the week, really, and the day, did President Trump record his conversations with former FBI Director Comey?

PRESS SECRETARY SEAN SPICER: I assume you’re referring to—

JEFF MASON: His tweet.

PRESS SECRETARY SEAN SPICER: —the tweet. And I’ve talked to the president. The president has nothing further to add on that.

JEFF MASON: And why did he say that? Why did he tweet that? What should we interpret from that?

PRESS SECRETARY SEAN SPICER: As I mentioned, the president has nothing further to add on that.

JEFF MASON: Is there—are there recording devices in the Oval Office or in the residence?

PRESS SECRETARY SEAN SPICER: As I’ve said, for the third time, there is nothing further to add on that.

JEFF MASON: Does he think it’s appropriate to threaten someone like Mr. Comey not to speak?

PRESS SECRETARY SEAN SPICER: I don’t think that’s—that’s not a threat. He simply stated a fact. The tweet speaks for itself. I’m moving on.

AMY GOODMAN: President Trump’s possible recording of White House conversations has led many comparisons between Trump and former President Richard Nixon, who resigned August 8th, 1974, three days after the release of an audio recording of Nixon discussing the Watergate break-in. Nixon had fought off congressional subpoenas to release the tape, but eventually the Supreme Court forced him to hand it over. It later became known as the smoking gun tape.

We’re joined now by Elizabeth Holtzman, former U.S. congresswoman from New York who served on the House Judiciary Committee that voted to impeach Richard Nixon.

Liz Holtzman, welcome back to Democracy Now! Can you talk about the significance of what President Trump threatened in one of his tweet storms against James Comey after he fired him as FBI director?

ELIZABETH HOLTZMAN: Well, the threat is an absurdity. He’s—the president was saying that Comey should hope that there was no tape recording, before he talks about the meeting? The president knows whether there’s a tape recording or not. He’s the one who knows. So this is just nonsense. If President Trump wants the truth out, if Comey was lying about the meeting, the president should just release the tape. He’s just playing games with the American people. The real connection with Watergate is the firing of Comey by President Trump, which appears to be, on the face of it and given all the circumstance around it, an effort to cover up and to prevent an investigation of whether Russia colluded with him and his campaign over interference in the American election, and whether he’s still colluding with the Russians. I mean, what’s involved in the firing is a question really of whether we have a president of the United States who is under the influence of and working in collusion with the president of a hostile foreign government. And we’ve got to get to the bottom of that. And Trump’s actions prevent us, at this point, from making sure that we can get the truth.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to an interview last week, when Donald Trump once again changed his story about why he fired FBI Director James Comey, admitting on NBC he made the decision in part due to Comey’s probe of Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election. Trump’s comment directly contradicts numerous statements by White House aides, as well as Trump’s own claims that he had fired Comey over his handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton and her use of private email servers.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: But regardless of recommendation, I was going to fire Comey, knowing there was no good time to do it. And, in fact, when I decided to just do it, I said to myself—I said, 'You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story. It's an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won.’”

AMY GOODMAN: So, can you talk about this, Liz Holtzman, the astounding original story that President Trump did not appreciate how Hillary Clinton was treated, although throughout the campaign he congratulated James Comey for going after Clinton?

ELIZABETH HOLTZMAN: Look, everything we’ve seen about Trump—I mean, I won’t go elsewhere, but in this, in connection with the firing of Comey—has been just one misstatement, one pretext, one lie after the other. It’s totally incredible to think that President Trump was so concerned about Comey’s treatment of Hillary Clinton that he fired him months later for doing that. It’s just—nobody can believe that. What really was at stake—and we know that later—he said, “I made up my mind before I ever heard from the Justice Department. I was going to fire him anyway.” And what was on his mind when he fired him? The Russian investigation. And Trump has been attacking this Russian investigation from the get-go. He even called the CIA Nazis over that. So, we know he’s not happy about that, and he wanted to stop it. And stopping that could mean that we have in place a president of the United States in cahoots with the Russian government at this very moment. We’ve got to—

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to Senator Mark Warner, Virginia Democrat, speaking on Fox News Sunday about Trump’s threat of a tape of a conversation with James Comey.

SEN. MARK WARNER: This sure seems to have reverberations of past history. When we’ve seen presidents who secretly tape, that usually does not end up being a good outcome for a president. … The whole notion that the president can throw out these kind of claims, and then not either confirm or deny them, is outrageous, in my mind. And if there is the existence of tapes, I want to make sure, one, they’re preserved and not mysteriously destroyed in the coming days, and then, two, one way or the other, Congress will have to get a look at those tapes.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that was Senator Warren [sic]. If you—Senator Warner of Virginia. Elizabeth Holtzman, take us back through what happened to Richard Nixon. You know, there are a lot of references, including the Saturday Night Massacre, and parallels have been made to what happened with the firing of James Comey. But especially for young people to understand what happened then, also how long it took, explain the chronology, when you were a young congresswoman from New York, serving—what?—the youngest member to serve on the House Judiciary Committee.

ELIZABETH HOLTZMAN: OK, I’ll try to do this in 25 words or less. Basically, in June of 1972, there was a break-in into the Democratic National Committee headquarters. People were apprehended, and they were connected to Richard Nixon’s campaign and to the White House. Nixon had a special surveillance operation in the White House, that was illegal from the get-go. These people were caught. And Nixon was terrified that they would get to the presidency and that his election in November would be jeopardized. So they had this big cover-up. And that worked. Nixon was re-elected in 1972 in November with one of the biggest margins in electoral history. After that, the burglars—the burglars cracked. One of them said, “Yeah, there were higher-ups involved.” And then you started to have investigations.

And Richard Nixon had a taping system in the White House. In August of 1973, the taping system became public, because you had a bipartisan Senate investigation, Senate Watergate Committee, and they asked, “Are there tapes?” And the person who set up the taping system said there were tapes. President Nixon, for reasons that are still not understood, had a full taping system in the Oval Office and a few other places, and he tape-recorded all the conversations. And at that time, the question was: Did Nixon participate in the cover-up or not? And the tapes could prove it.

And there was a special prosecutor who was appointed. And the special prosecutor wanted to get the tapes. And that was in October of 1973. The special prosecutor said, “I’m getting the tapes.” And Nixon had the special prosecutor fired. He said, “You’re not getting my tapes.” Well, Nixon knew what was on the tapes, just as, if there are tapes with regard to Trump, Trump knows exactly what’s on them. Nixon knew exactly what was on them. And he said, “You are not getting these tapes,” because the tapes were incriminating. And there was a big fight over that in the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ultimately required the tapes to be released. And the tapes showed, without any question, out of Richard Nixon’s own mouth, that he obstructed justice, and he ordered the Watergate cover-up from almost the day that the break-in took place.

So, you have a repetition of a president claiming there was a tape-recording system, and the tapes could exonerate him or not. But my view is that Comey not only is a very careful prosecutor and would never have said things that were improper in that meeting with Trump, but I’m sure he suspected that he could have been tape-recorded, so he was doubly or triply careful. But the person who knows whether there are tapes and what’s on those tapes is the president. And why is he playing games with the American people over this issue?

AMY GOODMAN: Just to be clear, the issue isn’t so much that he tapes, but that it was incriminating that he—what he taped.

ELIZABETH HOLTZMAN: Absolutely.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s what he was concerned about being replaced. So let me ask you: Does every president tape in the Oval Office?

ELIZABETH HOLTZMAN: Well, I hope not, but we know that there are a few who did. We know Nixon had the most elaborate system. But I also believe that Johnson had some kind of taping system. I don’t know if it was as systematic as this, but he had some kind of taping system—I mean, systematic as Nixon’s. And I think, after Nixon, people didn’t want to touch it.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to a conversation we had in February with President Richard Nixon’s White House counsel, John Dean. I asked him about where Trump stood just over a month into his presidency in comparison with his boss, Richard Nixon.

JOHN DEAN: If you recall, Watergate ran about 900 days. In other words, it went on for years, starting with a bungled burglary at the Democratic National Committee and right up to Richard Nixon’s resignation, followed by the conviction of his top aides. So it ran a long time. What we’re seeing is very accelerated. It’s partially responsible because of the media and the technology today, but it’s also the behavior of Trump and his aides, as well as the media’s vigilance on this. So we’re seeing things accelerated. And what I see or hear are echoes of Watergate. We don’t have Watergate 2.0 yet, but we have something that is beginning to look like it could go there.

AMY GOODMAN: That was John Dean. Your response, Liz Holtzman? And interesting, to say the least, you were on very different sides back in the ’70s, when were a congressman and John Dean worked for Nixon, but you may share a lot of views right now.

ELIZABETH HOLTZMAN: Yes, I think we’re getting very close to Watergate. I think Donald Trump is deep into Watergate territory. I think the firing of James Comey, with the apparent intention to squelch an investigation into his campaign activities and his activities, resonates deeply with the issues in Watergate.

But I just want to make one point about what Dean said. When Richard Nixon took office, it was only a matter of two or three months before he started into his illegal activities. The illegal bombing of Cambodia started in March of his first year in office. And that was a war crime and a crime against the Constitution. Unfortunately, Nixon wasn’t impeached for that. There was no vote to impeach him for that. But let’s not get carried away with how Nixon was really a good guy up to the very end. He wasn’t. The bad stuff started right away. The Plumbers unit started right away. Illegal surveillances started right away. So, I think we have here a similar kind of idea that he, that the president, is above the law. And once you get that idea in your head, then that’s trouble, not just for the president, for the American people.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Elizabeth Holtzman, a last question in this last minute, and that was: When the Republicans turned on Richard Nixon, the Republicans in Congress? And talk about what you’re seeing today, because many say, with a Republican majority in both houses, there’s just no way that President Trump would be impeached.

ELIZABETH HOLTZMAN: Well, I think what happened during Watergate was that the checks-and-balances system worked. It worked for the judiciary. The first person who stood up was a very conservative Republican judge, John Sirica, who smelled something wrong with the burglary and imposed very tough sentences, because he knew there was something fishy going on. And as a result of that, one of the burglars broke and said higher-ups were involved. That really led to the whole rest of the investigation.

The second thing was when you had the Senate Select Committee on Watergate. You had Sam Ervin, who was a Democrat, Southern Democrat, a constitutional scholar, was the chair. And Howard Baker, Republican from Tennessee, was the vice chair. And he started out as a total partisan for Richard Nixon. And he came up with a series of questions: What does the president know, and when does he know it? And he thought those questions would show that Nixon had nothing to do with the break-in, with a cover-up. And so he asked those questions of the witnesses. And when he asked those questions, the answers, repeated and repeated and repeated, showed that Nixon was aware, the White House was aware, and showed his involvement. As a result of the facts, Baker became an advocate for the rule of law.

On the House side, the House Judiciary Committee, I think at the beginning most of the Republicans, if not all of them, were advocates for the president. But the facts came out. And in the end, most of the Republicans voted for the articles of impeachment, because they put country above party. In the end, all of them, when the smoking gun tape came out, as you said, all the Republicans announced that they were going to be in favor of impeachment, even those who had voted against it, very conservative Republicans. Why did they do that? Because the facts were clear, the Constitution was clear, the law was clear.

And I’m hoping that that will happen here. It may take longer for Republicans to come to their senses on this, but they did in Watergate. And let’s not lose hope. They take an oath to uphold the Constitution. And they have the opportunity to protect the Constitution against a president who’s got no respect for it, no respect for the rule of law.

AMY GOODMAN: Elizabeth Holtzman, I want to thank you for being with us, former U.S. congresswoman from New York, served on the House Judiciary Committee that voted to impeach Richard Nixon.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we talk about Jeff Sessions’ escalating the war on drugs in this country, the attorney general of the United States. Stay with us.

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