It happened twice on Tuesday, and one person was involved both times: Liz Cheney. The House Jan. 6 committee has been moving in the same direction the Watergate investigation moved for a while now, but the thing with Mark Meadows' text messages is what turned the corner. Cheney took center stage the way Sen. Howard Baker gained the spotlight during the Senate Watergate hearings in the summer of 1973 when he asked his famous question: "What did the president know, and when did he know it?"
Baker's question was prompted by the testimony of former White House counsel John Dean, who had just blown the roof off the Senate hearing room when he testified that he discussed the cover-up of the Watergate burglary with Richard Nixon at least 35 times. Cheney's question was apparently prompted by the revelation of a series of texts between former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and several members of Congress on Jan. 6 as the assault on the Capitol was underway. "We know hours passed with no action by the president to defend the Congress of the United States from an assault while we were trying to count electoral votes," Ms. Cheney stated grimly. "Mr. Meadows's testimony will bear on a key question in front of this committee: Did Donald Trump, through action or inaction, corruptly seek to obstruct or impede Congress's official proceeding to count electoral votes?"
Cheney's question was more pointed than Baker's, but in both cases it was as if these conservative lawmakers from the same party as the man under investigation found themselves flabbergasted that they would be wondering whether the president of the United States had committed a crime while in office, and just as amazed that the question would arise at more or less the same point in the investigation.
At the time they asked their questions, Baker and Cheney had access to more information than that which was provided to the public. Dean had been questioned for days by the Watergate committee's staff of lawyers and investigators before he took the oath and began his testimony in full view of the entire country — the hearings were being covered live by all three major television networks, something impossible to imagine today.
In the case of Mark Meadows, staff lawyers and investigators for the Jan. 6 committee have interviewed, under oath, some 300 witnesses and gone through tens of thousands of pages of evidence that has been provided to the committee. At the time Cheney asked her bombshell question on the floor of the House on Tuesday, we had been informed that Meadows exchanged texts with several Fox News hosts as well as Donald Trump Jr., all of whom were trying to get Meadows to influence the president to call off the assault on the Capitol. Cheney read several texts written by lawmakers who were cowering in their offices off the floors of the House and Senate chambers trying to convince Meadows to do the same thing.
Cheney has clearly seen other texts that she didn't read out loud during the debate over whether to hold Meadows in contempt, and she has not named the lawmakers who sent them. But her question indicates that at least some of the testimony they have taken from witnesses, and other texts she has seen from lawmakers, indicate that the committee has concluded there was a conspiracy between Donald Trump and lawmakers from one or both sides of the Capitol to disrupt the counting of electoral ballots and possibly to influence several battleground states to change their slates of electors from Joe Biden to Trump.
All of that is speculation at this point, but it's important to remember that investigations like Watergate and the assault on the Capitol largely don't unfold in the light of day. Here's how the New York Times framed it on Wednesday: "In closed-door interviews held in a nondescript federal office building near the Capitol, Ms. Cheney has emerged as a leader and central figure on the panel, known for drilling down into the details of the assignment she views as the most important of her political career. She is well-versed in the criminal code and often uses language borrowed from it to make clear she believes the former president and others face criminal exposure."
According to the Times, Cheney has also "pressed to assemble a team of former intelligence analysts and law enforcement specialists on the committee's staff, some of them Republicans — a move that bolstered the committee's bipartisan bona fides."
The Watergate committee staff had its offices in an unoccupied movie theater on Capitol Hill a short distance from the Senate hearing room. The floor of the theater had been transformed into cubicle-like spaces with temporary overhead fluorescent lighting where the staff worked. David Dorsen and Terry Lenzner, the two deputies to Sam Dash, the chief Democratic counsel to the committee, shared an office behind the curtain on the stage of the theater.
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I know this because I used to travel from New York to Washington to meet with Lenzner and Dorsen in mostly futile attempts to glean non-public information from the committee's investigation. That's the way reporting on one of these investigations goes: you run around and do as much reporting as you can and gather information on the subject at hand, and then one of the places you use to check the veracity of the information is the committee investigating the crime.
My particular corner of the Watergate investigation was Bebe Rebozo, described at the time as Nixon's best friend and neighbor on Key Biscayne, Florida, location of the so-called Winter White House. Rebozo was far more than that, of course, which was the reason I was writing a series of investigative reports on him.
The Senate Watergate committee had also become interested in Rebozo and the role he had played in laundering illegal donations to Nixon's 1972 re-election campaign, among other things. Rebozo was an interesting guy, the only money launderer I ever encountered who actually owned a chain of about 70 laundromats — which he used, in part, to launder funds for Nixon using the all-cash nature of the laundromat business to do his dirty work. The other way he did it turned out to be through the Key Biscayne Bank, which he owned and was located in a narrow storefront in a strip mall on the island. I became suspicious of it the day I walked in and attempted to open an account. There was exactly one "window" and one teller, who informed me that Key Biscayne Bank wasn't "that kind of bank," as in a bank in which you opened accounts and deposited and withdrew money.
One day, loaded down with a huge suitcase of documents I had assembled on Rebozo, I took the train down to Washington, went to the Watergate committee's Capitol Hill theater and exchanged my files for at least some of what the committee had assembled on Rebozo. They copied my files and returned the originals and I took the train back to New York. I can't tell you how dramatic all this was, to enter that old theater and quite literally go behind the curtain of the Watergate investigation.
A few days later, Lenzner sent one of the committee investigators to Florida with a subpoena for Rebozo's Key Biscayne Bank. Late that night, my phone rang and it was Lenzner. "You won't believe what happened," he said. The investigator had shown up at the Rebozo bank just as an employee was leaving for the day carrying a suitcase. He served the subpoena on the spot and opened the suitcase. It was loaded down with $750,000 in cash, and the man had a plane ticket for the Bahamas in his pocket. It turned out he ran a concession at the Paradise Island Casino, and the money in the suitcase was destined to be laundered there.
I'm telling this story because I think that's roughly the point we have reached in the investigation by the Jan. 6 select committee. They've gathered far more information than they've made public, and late on Tuesday they announced they will begin holding hearings in January.
But I think we can begin to see the outlines of where they're headed in the question Cheney asked during the debate over Meadows' contempt citation. What we know publicly right now is that the assault on the Capitol was planned in advance and organized at least in part by several right-wing militia groups, including the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers, possibly with the help of figures like Steve Bannon and Roger Stone. Both of them have been subpoenaed by the committee and one of them, Bannon, has already been found in contempt of Congress and is facing federal charges for refusing to testify.
We knew fairly early on that the Watergate break-in of the Democratic Party headquarters was planned by the burglars themselves, assisted by figures on the edges of the Nixon campaign like Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy. What we didn't know was whether the conspiracy reached into the White House and involved the president, Richard Nixon.
The White House tapes would reveal the truth about that conspiracy, and it's beginning to look like the Meadows text messages, along with other evidence gathered by the Jan. 6 committee, will reveal a similar White House connection to the assault on the Capitol. The break-in at the Watergate was a crime, and so was the break-in at the Capitol. Covering up the planning and organization behind Watergate turned out to be a crime that brought down a president. It's looking like covering up the same kind of conspiracy involving the assault on the Capitol will turn out to be yet another crime, one that may bring down several members of Congress, perhaps to face federal charges for a crime that Liz Cheney has already named out loud.
Things are getting interesting, folks. The assault on the Capitol is being Watergated.
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