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Their View | Worse the Watergate

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Capitol Riot Watergate

Chairman Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., arrives as the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol continues to reveal its findings of a year-long investigation, at the Capitol in Washington, Monday, June 13, 2022. The traumas of Watergate and Jan. 6 are a half century apart, in vastly different eras, and they were about different things. But in both episodes, a president tried to do an end run around democracy. Friday is the 50th anniversary of the Watergate break-in that eventually consumed Richard Nixon's presidency.

Fifty years ago Friday, burglars broke into the Watergate Hotel in Washington, the first chapter of a story that would transform American politics. The anniversary comes as Congress investigates the greatest constitutional crisis since then.

Just as Watergate-era leaders instituted important reforms to address the weaknesses of the system that the scandal exposed, so today’s leaders must ensure that a repeat of the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the Capitol — on democracy itself — cannot happen.

In the half-century since operatives connected to Richard Nixon’s reelection campaign broke into the Democratic National Committee office at the Watergate to bug phones and steal documents, what followed — finally culminating in Nixon’s resignation, more than two years later — has become the very definition of things gone wrong, with “gate” now the operative suffix attached to every new scandal, even abroad.

But that defining story of betrayal of the American people by their top leader pales next to what former President Donald Trump did before, during and after Jan. 6.

Nixon covered up crimes by underlings who sought to ensure his reelection, but Trump personally spread calculated lies to undermine Americans’ faith in the electoral process itself. Nixon and Trump both elevated administration cronies they hoped would be more pliable to their corruption, but only Trump personally reached outside his administration to specifically demand corruption from other Republicans. (“I just want to find 11,780 votes,” he told Georgia’s secretary of state.)

Watergate involved no body count. But multiple Americans, including police officers, died from Trump’s Jan. 6 melee.

Nixon’s crimes spotlighted the need for reforms that yielded the codification of ethical standards, limits on the influence of money in campaigns and more fiscal transparency from candidates.

What Jan. 6 spotlights is the need to protect the electoral process from those who would undermine it from within. Most urgent is to update the Electoral Count Act, the vaguely worded 19th century law that governs the process by which Congress certifies states’ electoral votes — also the process Trump’s lawyers and ultimately his mob tried to corrupt so Trump could remain in power. A promising bipartisan rewrite effort is underway. A heavier lift, but an urgent one, is to prevent states from revamping their election laws to give partisans control over election results.

Perhaps the most important and disturbing distinction between Nixon and Trump is how the Republican establishment reacted then and now. Congressional Republicans in Nixon’s time did circle the wagons at first but ultimately joined Democrats in forcing Nixon from office and working to reform the systems he corrupted.

Today, the Republican wagons are still circled around Trump, with most leading Republicans either refusing to forcefully denounce his attempted coup and continued lies or actively promoting them. In that sense, the scandal still unfolding today deserves the historic distinction: worse than Watergate.

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