It is the political scandal to which all others are compared. It’s the only scandal to force a sitting American president to resign in disgrace. It’s the scandal that has led so many of us to quickly add the “-gate” suffix to practically every new controversy that arises, political or not.
It’s Watergate, which ended Richard Nixon’s presidency, led to 40 criminal indictments against government officials, and did lasting harm to how Americans think about politics and their own government.
For many in the political world, the search for the next Watergate is practically constant. The last time I counted, there were at least 10 separate “controversies” that President Obama’s critics eagerly labeled “Obama’s Watergate,” each of which turned out to be meaningless, further diluting an already over used cliché.
But what if a story came along that actually resembled Watergate in meaningful and direct ways? Remember, the spark that lit the Watergate fire was a third-rate burglary in which Democratic opponents tried to steal embarrassing information that could be used to help a Republican win a presidential election.
Writing in Slate today, Franklin Foer takes note of the parallels 44 years later: the alleged Russian theft of Democratic emails, published online ahead of the Democratic convention, possibly to help the Republican nominee.
A foreign government has hacked a political party’s computers – and possibly an election. It has stolen documents and timed their release to explode with maximum damage. […]The better analogy for these hacks is Watergate. To help win an election, the Russians broke into the virtual headquarters of the Democratic Party. The hackers installed the cyber-version of the bugging equipment that Nixon’s goons used – sitting on the DNC computers for a year, eavesdropping on everything, collecting as many scraps as possible. This is trespassing, it’s thievery, it’s a breathtaking transgression of privacy. It falls into that classic genre, the dirty trick. Yet that term feels too innocent to describe the offense. Nixon’s dirty tricksters didn’t mindlessly expose the private data of low-level staff.
Some caveats and caution is in order.
Though Foer, who’s done some important work on Donald Trump’s Russian ties, is obviously confident in his conclusions, the matter of the virtual break-in is still under investigation, and we don’t yet know what the probe will uncover.
U.S. cyber-security experts have reason to believe Russia was responsible for stealing the DNC materials, and the FBI suspects Russia’s motivations were political: Vladimir Putin’s government sees Trump as an ally, so Russia allegedly took steps to help the Republican win.
This is still, however, very much in the realm of suspicions and allegations. The evidence is real and it’s raising legitimate questions, but we don’t yet have firm answers to those questions.
That said, if Russia broke into the DNC’s virtual headquarters and stole materials to help a Republican win a presidential race, everyone waiting for the next Watergate just might get their wish.