Why was the Watergate break-in more than just the “second rate” burglary Richard Nixon tried to pass it off as? Because it was directed by the president’s team at the Democratic National Committee. Thus, it was an offense against our two party system and our democracy. One political party is not supposed to steal information from the other party, and certainly not in the midst of a presidential campaign.
It now appears that the FBI had an informant inside the Trump campaign [see Update]. That informant was doing essentially the same thing the Watergate burglars were trying to accomplish — obtain by stealth information about what one of the two major party candidates for president was doing. The informant probably did not engage in illegal conduct like the Watergate burglars did, but the affront to the two party system is similar.
The Watergate burglars had ties to the intelligence community but they were not FBI agents or informants, nor did the FBI deploy them, as apparently occurred in 2016. But this distinction doesn’t make the 2016 spying more innocuous than the 1968 break-in. Indeed, if the FBI had been behind the Watergate the incident would, if anything, have been more scandalous than it was.
The Watergate burglars were associated with pro Nixon forces, including the Committee for the Re-Election of the President. The informant on the Trump campaign was not dispatched by an avowedly political organization, but rather by the FBI.
But the FBI was part of the Obama administration, and President Obama actively backed Trump’s opponent. We know, moreover, that key members of the FBI wanted desperately for Trump to lose. Andrew McCabe, Peter Strzok, and Lisa Page may have lacked the direct connection to a presidential campaign that those behind the Watergate break-in — e.g. Jeb Magruder — had, but it’s not a stretch to view them in a similar light. In addition, there are indications that the White House was in the loop on their anti-Trump activities.
The appalling James Clapper calls it “a good thing” if the FBI spied on the Trump campaign. Why? Because the bureau was trying to find out “what the Russians were doing to try to substantiate [sic] themselves in the campaign or influence or leverage it.”
Here, Clapper harks back to another instance of domestic spying — the FBI’s surveillance of Martin Luther King. The FBI said it was investigating links between King and communists. One of King’s most trusted counselors, attorney Stanley David Levison, had secretly served as one of the top two financiers for the Communist Party USA in the years just before he met King.
There’s no evidence that King was a communist. However, J. Edgar Hoover arguably had a stronger basis for investigating King’s ties to communism, at least initially, than the FBI had for investigating Trump’s ties to Russia.
The main basis, or pretext, for investigating Trump’s ties to Russia became the dossier ginned up by his political opponents. Political operatives can always gin up something about the other side that sounds improper (e.g. Obama was born outside the U.S.) or even sinister (e.g., the Clintons had Vince Foster killed). If that’s all it takes to get the FBI to spy on the political campaign of the out-of-power party’s candidate — and that’s all it seems to have taken here — then the Watergate break-in does begin to look like a second-rate burglary by comparison.
UPDATE: The Washington Post, relying on FBI sources, says that the FBI used a retired American professor as its informant about the Trump campaign. Offering to provide foreign policy expertise to the campaign, he reportedly met separately, and spoke with, Carter Page, Sam Clovis (Trump campaign co-chairman), and George Papadopoulos.
That’s the “official” story at this point.
The Post nonchalantly adds:
The FBI commonly uses sources and informants to gather evidence and its regulations allow for use of informants even before a formal investigation has been opened. In many law enforcement investigations, the use of sources and informants precedes more invasive techniques such as electronic surveillance.
Right. But the FBI does not commonly use sources and informants to gather evidence against the presidential campaign of the out-of-power candidate.
Remember too that the FBI moved on from “evidence gathering” by its informant to the “more invasive technique” of electronic surveillance. It did so by tapping Carter Page’s phone as a point of entry into some private discussions of the Trump campaign.