Thursday, June 24, 2021

Trump’s ‘Watergate moment’

With his credibility in tatters, American President Donald Trump appears to be hurtling towards possible impeachment on charges of obstruction of justice. A string of embarrassing revelations during the last few days has kept the White House on tenterhooks, throwing up a scenario reminiscent of the Watergate scandal that had brought down President Richard Nixon in 1974. Trump, the maverick billionaire who rode to power on a wave of public anger against the establishment, may well be facing the ‘Watergate moment’ of his political career following the stunning dismissal of FBI Director James Comey who was investigating the alleged links between the Trump Team and Russian intelligence in the run-up to the 2016 Presidential election. After a series of clumsy cover-up attempts that saw White House officials tying themselves in knots, there emerged a potentially dangerous revelation that Trump had asked Comey to drop the investigation into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s ties to Russia. This amounts to a ‘textbook definition of obstruction of justice,’ a charge that could lead to impeachment proceedings. Not since the infamous Watergate scandal has a President dismissed the person leading an investigation bearing on him. Not surprisingly, the FBI chief’s sacking drew instant comparisons to the ‘Saturday Night Massacre’ in October 1973, when Nixon ordered the removal of Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor, triggering a series of events that led to his ignominious exit. In the midst of a deepening crisis over Russian links, another political firebomb has exploded with reports of Trump sharing intelligence secrets with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during a meeting in Oval Office last week. Adding a bizarre touch to the drama, it was Russian President Vladimir Putin who came to the rescue of Trump, saying no secrets were passed during the meeting.

On technical grounds, some of Trump’s actions may attract impeachment proceedings. Though the Republicans control both the House of Representatives by 238 to 193 and the Senate by 52 to 46, it remains to be seen how many of his colleagues will stand by him as the crisis deepens. Already, moderate voices like John McCain said the Trump scandals are reaching ‘Watergate size and scale’. Now, with the appointment of former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel for the criminal investigation into Russia’s interference in the last year’s election, Team Trump is in greater trouble. A special counsel is empowered to conduct an investigation independent of the Justice Department hierarchy and is not required to consult the attorney general or deputy attorney generals on the course of the probe. Mueller is specifically empowered to examine any matters that ‘arose or may arise’ directly from the investigation. Clearly, Trump is staring at an abyss.

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