One of the most misunderstood quotes from the Watergate scandal is also one of the most famous: "What did the president know and when did he know it?" That was uttered by Sen. Howard Baker, a Tennessee Republican, and it's often assumed it was a tough question hurled at a recalcitrant witness, seeking to implicate Richard Nixon. In fact, it was the opposite. Baker asked that question repeatedly, early in the Watergate hearings, in an attempt to wall off the president from the suspected criminality of his staff. Of course, Nixon actually ran the coverup, as the committee holding those hearings was about to find out.
Baker has always been seen as something of a hero in the Watergate story, and it's really overblown. In the beginning, he met secretly with Nixon to keep him informed about the course of the Watergate committee's investigation. Baker told the president that the plan was to start with public testimony by the smaller fry and move up to high-ranking White House staff. Nixon wanted to make a deal with the committee to have the witnesses testify in private. Since the Democratic majority controlled the committee, that was a non-starter anyway. But much as Baker wanted to help out his president, and may have even believed in the beginning that Nixon was not implicated in criminal misdeeds, Baker was also smart enough not to help Nixon obstruct justice.
Those hearings, held by what was officially called the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, where Baker was the ranking Republican under Sen. Sam Ervin, D-N.C., the chair, were vastly important in unraveling the scandal. First came former White House counsel John Dean's dramatic testimony that implicated the president, and then the revelation by former presidential aide Alexander Butterfield that Nixon had extensive tape recordings of everything that happened in the Oval Office. Presidential aides H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman and Charles Colson all testified, lied to the committee under oath and were subsequently convicted and went to prison. The congressional investigations worked on parallel tracks with two special prosecutors and the press, all of which were vital to the public understanding of the scandal and the scope of the president's crimes.
If Nixon were around today, he'd be able to see how it might have gone if the Republicans had held a congressional majority. and supporters like Baker had labored to keep the investigations under wraps. The only dramatic public hearings we've had in the Russia investigation so far involved the testimony of former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates and former FBI Director James Comey, and that was more than six months ago. All the important players, including Donald Trump Jr. and Jared Kushner, have testified in secret, with members of the committees more or less under a gag order and only able to comment on what's already in the press. Nixon understood that keeping testimony secret, rather than giving the public the ability to judge the witnesses for themselves, is a real advantage in a cover-up. Having a partisan majority running interference in the Congress is priceless.
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The investigation by the House Intelligence Committee under Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., has been a farce from the beginning. Nunes has conspired with the White House from the beginning, was caught red-handed and promised to remove himself from any involvement with the Russia probe. (He should have recused himself from the beginning since he served on the Trump transition team, which is a subject of the investigation.) He's still interfering in the investigation and has lately taken to creating elaborate diversions with baseless new fishing expeditions into alleged FBI corruption during the presidential campaign. Nixon would have loved to have such a devoted toady on his team.
The Senate Intelligence Committee seems to be working a bit more professionally, but, one gets the feeling, under some pressure. The Democratic ranking member, Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, took to the Senate floor just before Christmas to warn the president against firing special counsel Robert Mueller. But so far the committee has hung together and whatever differences its members may have are not spilling into the public domain. They too are interviewing witnesses in private.
This week, the real action happened on the Senate Judiciary Committee when Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., decided to release the secret testimony of Glenn Simpson, owner of Fusion GPS, the opposition research firm that employed former British spy Christopher Steele, compiler of the famous "dossier." Feinstein said she felt compelled to do it because “the innuendo and misinformation circulating about the transcript are part of a deeply troubling effort to undermine the investigation into potential collusion and obstruction of justice." She believed this was the only way to set the record straight.
The innuendo Feinstein refers to includes the disproved assertions that the dossier was the impetus for the FBI's investigation into the Trump campaign's strange association with dozens of Russians, along with the request by Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., that the Justice department consider prosecuting Steele for lying to the FBI. Lying about what? The senators declined to say. This hostile action, done without consulting other senators on the committee, was clearly meant to smear Steele's reputation and by association the whole investigation. (In fairness, Graham seems to be the main actor here -- Grassley, the committee chair, is extremely confused.)
Simpson had asked that his testimony be released, so there was no question of violating anyone's confidentiality. Since Grassley and Graham had apparently decided to act unilaterally as partisan hit men, Feinstein realized that she would have to reciprocate in kind. After all, Democrats had been asking that the testimony be released since August.
The released transcript of Simpson's testimony contains a good deal of interesting information, all of which will be gone over with a fine-toothed comb in the press. But the upshot is that Simpson says Steele (who was effectively his subcontractor) went to the FBI because he learned in the course of his investigation that Russian agents were attempting to conspire with the campaign of the Republican candidate for president. Republicans in Congress have been trying to cover that up for obvious reasons: It's not only damning information on its own, it's also an indictment of every Trump associate who remained silent or played along.