With Nixon, the central question was always, “What did he know and when did he know it?” With Trump, the only question is whether criminal charges are to be filed. | Credit: Shealah Craighead; Department of Defense / Wikimedia Commons

ECHOES OF WATERGATE: Let’s stipulate that the January 6 hearings now unfolding ain’t no Watergate, the 50th anniversary of which we are now celebrating as an occasion where the system worked to remove Richard Nixon, the festering ooze then occupying the White House. Unlike the January 6 tribunals, the Watergate hearings were broadly bi-partisan. And real cross-examination of witnesses took place as opposed to instant replays of short video snippets curated from countless hours of actual questioning. 

Unlike the January 6 proceedings, Watergate made the American language infinitely more fun and sinister. Watergate phrases such as “follow the money,” “deep-six,” “Deep Throat,” and “smoking gun” are now so enmeshed in the lingo, we no longer know we’re stealing them. California’s Adam Schiff gave a nod to this on Day Four of the hearings when he alluded to there being “a cancer on the body politic,” a riff on what John Dean — the whistle-blowing former White House Counsel — told Nixon that there was a “cancer on the American Presidency.”

With Nixon, the central question was always, “What did he know and when did he know it?” With Trump, the only question is whether criminal charges are to be filed. On January 6, Trump not only yelled “Fire!” in a crowded movie theater, but he bought the gas, brought the Molotov cocktail, then lit the fuse and screwed the doors shut so no one could escape. Even if 71 percent of Republicans allegedly believe the 2020 elections were stolen — based on polls taken earlier this year — it’s now irrefutably clear that Trump himself had been told otherwise repeatedly and emphatically by every sentient, competent adult in the room with the notable exception of his attorneys — and anal osculators — John Eastman and Rudy Giuliani.

For those willing to squint, however, signs of hope do exist. Recent polling suggests that 58 percent of respondents believe criminal charges are in order. That’s up from 56. But for all you nattering nabobs of negativity, I must admit that only 19 percent of registered Republicans feel this way. Maybe that’s why 108 election deniers managed to make it to the November run-offs in this year’s primary elections so far. 

Even so, Day Four might wind up being a game-changer. It was real live testimony by real live people, not the usual fare of instant replays edited so tightly they almost bled. The witnesses’ stories — detailing the strong-arm, bully-boy, and outright terrorist tactics of Trump, Giuliani, Eastman, and their supporters to steal the election by decertifying Joe Biden’s victory, fielding fraudulent slates of electors equipped with fraudulent certificates of election results for purposes of casting fraudulent ballots with the Electoral College on Trump’s behalf — are enough to frazzle anyone’s follicles. It’s worth noting that Eastman, the attorney who crafted this novel legal stratagem, refused to answer questions posed by committee members more than 100 times on the grounds the answers might incriminate him. Eastman also applied to Trump — unsuccessfully — for a presidential pardon.

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Most chilling was the pro-Trump mob violence inflicted on any officials — elected or otherwise — who stood up for the sanctity of Georgia’s audited and thrice-verified election results. Trump singled out, by name, Atlanta elections worker Shaye Moss and her mother, Ruby Freeman, accusing them of election fraud perpetrated with what he would have us believe was a smoking suitcase, packed with thousands of illegal ballots. Mobs would later invade Moss’s grandmother’s home, looking to affect a citizen’s arrest on her and Freeman. Among the many threats Moss received was one warning, “Be glad it’s 2020 and not 1920.”

I was struck by one very loud Watergate echo during Day Four. For those tuning in late, Nixon “agreed” to resign only after Barry Goldwater, the arch-conservative right-wing senator from Arizona, personally told him he would not survive an impeachment hearing. This Tuesday, Goldwater’s stand-in was Rusty Bowers, a pro-Trump Republican, devout Mormon, and Speaker of the Arizona Legislature. Bowers testified at length about the socket-wrenching arm-twisting he endured at the hands of Trump and Giuliani. They wanted Bowers to reconvene the Arizona legislature, hold hearings about voter fraud, and certify an alternate slate of Electoral College electors other than the ones Arizona voters voted for. Bowers asked for evidence of fraud. He repeatedly asked for names. He was told the names existed and he would have them. They never came. Had this legal theory ever been tried before? Bowers asked. No, he was told, it hadn’t. “Just do it,” Eastman told him. “And let the courts sort it out.”

That’s not how Bowers rolls. He would grow misty on the stand when describing the Constitution as a “divinely inspired” document.  He would not break his oath, he repeatedly testified. He could not. That’s not how he was constituted. Nor would he allow himself to be a pawn. In retaliation, mobs assembled outside Bowers’s home. Some came armed. His office would be so deluged by angry emails, texts, and phone calls that no business could be done. Bowers would find himself reviled as a pedophile and pervert.

I find myself hoping Bowers — who radiates more innate decency than Tom Hanks and Gregory Peck combined — might play a similar role to the one played by Goldwater 50 years ago. Maybe the devout Mormon could help dispel the conspiracy theory that Biden somehow stole the 2020 election. Trump’s former Attorney General Bill Barr — using excruciatingly precise legal language — characterized the evidence supporting this theory as “bullshit.” Who knows what difference any of this makes?

Who knows what any of it can make? I’ll give this week’s last word to California Congressmember Adam Schiff. “This system held,” he said. “But barely. The question remains: Will it hold again?”

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