The Problem at Hand
Forty-seven years ago five burglars were arrested for breaking into the Democratic National Committee. This event kickstarted an investigation into President Nixon and what came to be known as Watergate. Three years ago, 20,000 emails that were stolen from the Democratic National Committee showed up on Wikileaks, which began the Trump Russia investigation. The investigations into both of these presidents revealed holes within the U.S. constitution: Both President Trump and Nixon were able to obstruct these investigations.
In order to learn more how I came to be interested in this topic, watch the video below or click this link to access my personal interest essay.
Nixon’s Watergate Scandal
On June 17, 1972, five burglars, Virgilio Gonzalez, Bernard Barker, James McCord, Eugenio Martínez, and Frank Sturgis were arrested for breaking into the office of the Democratic National Committee located in the Watergate buildings (“Watergate Scandal.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 19 Feb. 2019). These men were attempting to wire tap the offices of Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern and Democratic National Committee chairmen Lawrence O’brien (vand Watergate). Their motivation for breaking in was to obtain information that could possibly help President Nixon win the 1972 Presidential election. After the Watergate burglars were caught and arrested, President Nixon instructed his staff to have the CIA impede any FBI investigations into Watergate and to cover up any connection between his administration and the Watergate burglars. In addition, it was revealed that Nixon had arranged for there to be hundreds of thousands of dollars in “hush money” paid to the burglars (Editors, History.com). This order was the first of many acts by President Nixon, the most powerful law enforcement official in the country, to obstruct justice.
If it were not for the connections that Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, and Judge John Sirica, the man overseeing the trial of the Watergate burglars, made between the Nixon Administration and the Burglars, the Watergate story would have died (“The Watergate Story”). These connections lead Senator Sam Ervin to open the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities into the Watergate incident or otherwise known as the Ervin Committee. In addition, the Attorney General appointed under Nixon, Elliot L. Richardson, appointed law professor and former U.S. Solicitor General Archibald Cox as special prosecutor to the Watergate investigation (The Watergate Scandal).
These investigations dug deep into possible Nixon ties to the break-in. Then on July 16, 1973, former White House counsel dean, Alexander Butterfield testified to the Ervin Committee that there were secret tapes from inside the oval office. In addition, he revealed that these tapes had information regarding the Watergate break-in (Kilpatrick, Carroll). This lead Sirca, Ervin, and Cox to press the White House to release the tapes. In response, Nixon stated executive privilege, using the idea that the president, or the executive branch, can choose to what extent they should cooperate with the other branches of government. He stated that the tapes contained information that, if released, would be damaging to national security. The Ervin committee offered to review the tapes in private; Nixon refused. Then Sirica and Cox subpoenaed for the release of tapes relevant for the investigation; again, Nixon declined to release the tapes. This challenged the authority of the other branches of government to investigate the White House (vand Watergate).
Then, the U.S District Court of Appeals demanded Nixon hand over the tapes. Instead, the Nixon Administration proposed a deal to the Senate Watergate Committee which was accepted. Nixon was going to hand over a summary of the tapes to the Ervin Committee and Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox (Kilpatrick, Carroll). When Nixon announced the plan, he also announced to Cox that he should make no further efforts to obtain the tapes, suggesting that the investigation be stopped. In a televised news conference, Cox announced that he could not comply with the presidents demands. This set into motion to what is now known as the “Saturday Night Massacre.”
On the evening of October 20, 1973, a Saturday, Nixon discharged Cox and accepted the resignations of both Attorney General Elliot L. Richardson and of Deputy Attorney General William D. Ruckelshaus. In addition, he handed over the Watergate investigation to the Justice department (Kilpatrick, Carroll). This occurred because Nixon ordered both Richardson and Ruckelshaus to fire Cox. Both of them refused and were forced to resign. When they both refused, Nixon turned to the person next in line, Solicitor General Robert H. Bork to carry out the task. Bork did so and from this day forth this night has been known as the “Saturday Night Massacre.”
These series of events revealed a hole in the United States constitution: there is little protocol for when the president is under investigation. For example, when Nixon stated executive privilege as a reason for not handing over the tapes, he was completely within the law. One of the reasons executive privilege was created, was so that no one branch of the government could have power over the other (Cox, Archibald). The information on the tapes was crucial to solving the Watergate break-in and what Nixon did was illegal. Because he was the president, he had ways of going around the law to try to stop an investigation into himself. In addition, the “Saturday Night Massacre,” exposed another problem relating to the U.S. legal system. Nixon was able to use his power, as the president, to manipulate an investigation into himself. The last issue that Watergate revealed was that the president can only be tried by Congress. If Cox or the other investigators could have, they likely would have subpoenaed Nixon to give a testimony. Because he was the president, only under an impeachment proceeding is the President required to give a testimony.
The Watergate investigations and how they were carried out, revealed a lack of understanding into how to investigate a president. Today, the country still struggles with these issues.
The Trump Russia Investigation: Was there collusion?
On June 14, 2016, The Washington Post reported that hackers working for the Russian government accessed the DNC’s computer system stealing oppositional research on Trump as well as private emails from DNC staffers (Levine). Then, on July 22, 2016, days before the Democratic National Convention, 20,000 emails that were stolen from the DNC servers showed up on Wikileaks (“2016 Pres. Election Investigation Fast Facts”). This led the FBI to announce an investigation into the hack on the DNC. The investigation was overseen by former FBI director James Comey. Almost a year later, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein hired Special Counsel Robert Muller to look into possible connections between the Trump campaign and Russian interference (Levine). Since then, as of January 15, 2019, Robert Muller indicted or managed guilty pleas from 34 people (Prokop). Throughout that time, Trump has obstructed the investigation several times. These events demonstrate the need for a stricter protocol for when the President is under investigation.
To learn more about the events and chronology of the Trump-Russia Investigation, hit this link.
The first time President Trump tried to stop the investigation was when he fired James Comey. During Comey’s investigation into the hack on the DNC, Comey investigated Trump’s campaign staff. One of the people Comey investigated was Trump’s former campaign advisor and first national security advisor Michael Flynn. Michael Flynn attended a meeting with the Russian ambassador during the campaign (Russia-Trump: Who’s Who in the Drama to End All Dramas?). As a result of Comey’s investigation of Michael Flynn, he was fired on May 9, 2017 (Levine). Later, Comey testified to Congress that Trump asked him to stop the investigation into Flynn and pledge his loyalty. Comey did not comply which, many believe, was the reason for his departure. President Trump denies this claim (2016 Pres. Election Investigation Fast Facts).
Similar to the “ Saturday Night Massacre,” Trump tried to stop the investigation. He frequently came out against Robert Muller and called the investigation a “witch hunt” (Mazzetti, et al). Four weeks after Robert Muller was appointed, Trump insisted that the investigation be shut down. Trump asked White House counsel Donald F. McGrahm II to carry out his request. McGrahm refused to do so and threatened to quit (Mazzetti, et al.).
Trump, unlike Nixon in the 70’s, has the use of a tool that allows him easily manipulate the investigation: Twitter. During his presidency, if Nixon wanted to address the nation, he had to call a public address. Today, Trump can simply take out his phone and address his 58 million Twitter followers. With this tool, Trump can effortlessly criticize and undermine Robert Muller’s investigation (Mazzetti, et al.).
These events further reveal the need for a stricter protocol for when the President is under investigation. President Trump had every right to fire James Comey, and if he wanted, to fire Robert Muller. Similarly, Nixon had the right to fire Cox. The President should be able to be investigated like all other U.S. citizens. Because of the lack of strict protool, the President can influence or potentially stop an investigation.
Recently, Congress attempted to propose a bill that would put in place a much needed stricter protocol (Serwer). The Act would ensure that Special Counsels are discharged appropriately and challenge their discharge in court. The Act has received criticism for not being constitutional because it limits the President’s power to fire executive officials such as Special Councils (Serwer). This is a main reason the bill has been stalled in Congress and is unlikely to be passed.
Although the Act would start addressing a problem, it does not a provide an entire solution. If the Act eventually passes, it would only protect Special Counsels, such as Robert Muller. Trump, or other Presidents, would still have the authority to fire other investigators like James Comey. In addition, the Act does not prevent the President from influencing the investigation using the media.
In order to fix this problem, larger legislation would need to be passed.
Recently, Attorney General William Bar Released a summary of the report. Even more recently, a redacted version of Robert Muller’s report was released to the public. To read Barr’s summary click here, and to learn about the full report use this link.
Also, if you would like to read more about this topic, hit this link to access a longer, more in-depth essay about the present day problem.
Congress needs to pass legislation providing protocols for how to conduct an investigation into a standing President. This protocol would grant specific powers over the judiciary system to Congress when investigating the President. Additionally, it would not allow the standing President to publicly comment on the ongoing investigation.
For example, Trump legally made an attempt to obstruct the investigation when he fired Comey (Mazzetti). This was legal because President has control over the F.B.I. (Baker). Under this new legislation, due to the President being under investigation, the power to fire an F.B.I. director, and other essential government justice positions, would go to Congress in order to prevent an obstructed investigation.
The President currently has the power to fire a special prosecutor (Serwer); in fact, it has been speculated that Trump tried to fire Robert Muller (Mazzetti). The legislation would give Congress, instead of the President, the power to fire Justice Department officials, in order to prevent conflicts of interest. Upholding the Constitution, Congress could not make any other drastic changes to the Justice Department. That power would still belong to the President. This is in an effort to stay consistent with the ideals of our founding fathers: checks and balances.
Trump regularly spoke out on many platforms, such as Twitter, criticizing and discrediting the investigation, revealing another problem: the president can legally and publically influence the investigation (Mazzetti). This legislation would prohibit the President from commenting on the investigation. If they were to do so, it would be considered obstruction of justice and an impeachable offence.
Legislation this complicated can be passed with the help of everyday U.S. citizens, who can apply pressure to their representatives.
Call To Action: How You Can Fix the Problem
In order to address this unique problem with the justice system, everyday citizens need to be aware of the problem and lobby their local congressional representatives. To learn more about the problem, citizens can use news organizations and media outlets that have followed the investigation like the New York Times and National Public Radio. These two organizations have closely followed the investigation and addressed the problem of presidential obstruction of justice in both the Watergate and Trump-Russia investigations.
Once they are aware of the problem, citizens should lobby to their congressional representatives. Representatives are usually in their local offices a couple times a week. Using this link, a citizen can find their representative and contact their office to make an appointment.
Link to Work Cited page