Howard Baker, then a senator from Tennessee, captured the essence of the Watergate scandal that took down the presidency of Richard M. Nixon in these simple words: “It is almost always the cover-up rather than the event that causes trouble.”
Nixon resigned 42 years ago, but Baker’s words have lived on in Washington, because the impulse to conceal a misdeed is shared by politicians of every persuasion, including Hillary Clinton, who is now running for the office Nixon vacated.
One irony has not been missed: In her first major job out of law school, Hillary Clinton joined the special committee, of which Baker was ranking minority member, investigating Nixon. And more irony: Bill Clinton, who turned that job down, would eventually become president and be impeached himself.
So universal among the powerful is this instinct to conceal a misdeed that there is a taxonomy of the process: the initial responses to an allegation, the withholding or tampering with evidence, the delayed response, the intimidation of whispers, and the damage control.
The current investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while secretary of state reminds us of a truism in these matters: Politicians never seem to learn. We can look at her current troubles through the lens of Watergate to understand what to expect with any politician stepping over the line:
1. Listen to their language. The Watergate is a hotel in Washington where Nixon operatives broke in to steal campaign information from the Democratic Party. Nixon’s people subsequently described that act as a “third-rate burglary.” In the same manner, Clinton has described the FBI investigation of her email escapades as “a security review.” FBI Director James Comey scoffed at that description.
2. Remedies are available. Chief among these is the Freedom of Information Act, which became law in 1966, but it was only after Watergate, in 1974, that Congress gave the law some teeth. The organization I head, Judicial Watch, uses this law all the time to peel back the onion on government secrecy. We have filed nearly 4,000 FOIA requests in the past ten years. Regarding Clinton’s emails, to date, we have filed 50 requests and have 18 lawsuits that are currently active because our requests were rebuffed.
Judges take a keen interest in how this law is working. For example, U.S. District Court Judge Emmet G. Sullivan granted us “discovery” into Clinton’s email system. The order allows us to take testimony from former top Clinton State Department aides Cheryl Mills, Huma Abedin and Bryan Pagliano. The court also notes that “based on information learned during discovery, the deposition of Mrs. Clinton may be necessary.”
A second federal judge also granted us “limited discovery” into the Clinton email matter. U.S. District Court Judge Royce Lamberth ruled that “where there is evidence of government wrong-doing and bad faith, as here, limited discovery is appropriate, even though it is exceedingly rare in FOIA cases.”
3. The truth slowly comes to light. Another thing Howard Baker said – and these words, too, have become part of the Washington lexicon – was a question: “What did the president know, and when did he know it?” In my experience, getting these answers is not quick or easy. It has taken us several years to begin to understand Hillary Clinton’s emails. It is remarkable that Judicial Watch, a nonprofit educational foundation, is the national leader in uncovering key information about the conduct of the nation’s most significant public figure.
4. The deceit is often institutional. We have had to contend not just with Hillary Clinton and her lieutenants, but with a reluctant State Department, as well. This is not surprising. When the FOIA law was first being discussed, every federal agency opposed it. Bureaucrats serve their own interests first.
5. Politicians will stop at nothing. In Nixon’s time there was no such thing as email to track a person’s thoughts and actions, but during Watergate we learned that he used something else: tape recordings of conversations in the Oval Office. As his deception unraveled, we learned that 18 ½ minutes of the tapes has been erased. And, sure enough, the State Department has just announced that it can’t find significant emails of Bryan Pagliano, Clinton’s IT person. He set up her private email server in her home.
John Dean, a key Nixon lieutenant during Watergate, recently said he didn’t think those missing 18 ½ minutes would have been particularly interesting. Nevertheless, the gap remains a strong symbol of Watergate. And, as if on cue, whether Pagliano’s emails are innocent or not, their disappearance cries out: “It is almost always the cover-up rather than the event that causes trouble.”