Trump stole the Watergate playbook

Trump echoes Richard Nixon's silence — let's hope history repeats itself

By Heather Digby Parton


Published March 30, 2022 9:57AM (EDT)

Former President Donald Trump waits to speak on the phone in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, DC, on June 27, 2017. (NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images)
Former President Donald Trump waits to speak on the phone in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, DC, on June 27, 2017. (NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images)

The Washington Post's Bob Woodward and Robert Costa just brought us some very big January 6th news. It appears that the White House did not log any calls from 11:17 a.m. to 6:54 p.m. that day — a seven-hour and 37-minute gap — or someone in the Trump administration went in later and deleted the record.

No matter what, we can be sure that it isn't the case that no one called in or out during that period. Of course, as the violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol took place during those seven hours and 37 minutes and you'd better believe that people were on the horn trying to get through to Donald Trump's White House. Unfortunately, there is no official record of who they were, in complete contradiction with the law.

We've only heard about some calls that day from people who cooperated with the committee or told reporters. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, for instance, was overheard telling Trump that he needed to call off the mob. Trump reportedly retorted, "well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are" after which McCarthy told Trump the rioters were breaking into his office through the windows, and yelled, "Who the f--k do you think you are talking to?"

Evidently, that call didn't go through official channels because it happened during that long seven-hour and 37-minute gap along with several other calls we know about from people like Senator Mike Lee, R-Ut, and Senator Tommy Tuberville, R-Al.

The House Select Committee investigating Jan. 6 is suspicious for obvious reasons. According to Woodward and Costa, "the House panel is now investigating whether Trump communicated that day through back channels, phones of aides or personal disposable phones, known as 'burner phones,' according to two people with knowledge of the probe..."

Trump has claimed that he doesn't know what a burner phone is (hard to believe that such a stable genius would be unaware of such things) and his former National Security Adviser John Bolton says that's a lie, that he heard Trump talk about burner phones more than once. Rolling Stone reported a few months ago that some of the organizers of the rally that day had bought burner phones with cash to covertly communicate with the White House and members of the Trump family, so people around him had definitely heard of them.

RELATED: Michael Cohen says Jan. 6 committee witness will reveal three burner phones were purchased at a CVS

As Salon's Igor Derysh observed, this is all very redolent of Watergate. The seven and a half-hour gap immediately brought to mind the famous 18 and a half minute gap in Richard Nixon's secret White House tapes and the absurd lengths to which his secretary, Rose Mary Woods, went to try to explain it away. The gap in that tape also just happened to occur during a crucial time — three days after the Watergate break-in during a discussion between Nixon and his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman. I have a sneaking suspicion that someone from Trump's White House will end up being held responsible for this missing seven-and-a-half hours in the official call logs as well. You wonder if they will be as loyal to Trump as Rose Mary Woods was to Nixon. To this day, no one knows exactly what was said in those 18 and a half minutes.

Speaking of Watergate, this week the January 6th Committee held two more Trump minions in contempt of Congress for failing to comply with subpoenas. They referred the cases of former Trump "digital guy," then-White House deputy chief of staff for communications Dan Scavino, and Trump's trade adviser Peter Navarro, to the Department of Justice, pending a vote from the full House. They both just refused to even appear, citing executive privilege. But that's not how this works. Even assuming that the privilege exists in the case of coup plotting, it would require them to appear and claim the privilege in answer to specific questions. It's not a blanket claim you can just make and then ignore. It's a subpoena — from the U.S. Congress. Moreover, when you have written a book and appeared on national television repeatedly to discuss your participation in the coup-plotting, as Navarro has done, you have waived whatever privilege you might claim.

Perhaps more interesting is the case of Scavino, who hasn't said anything at all but may be in possession of the most important information in the whole investigation. He reportedly had been monitoring the right-wing websites that were planning violence in the Capitol if Trump's allies were unable to stop the vote count on January 6th. What are the chances that he didn't tell the boss about all that? And if he did, Trump going out and inciting that crowd, pointing them toward the Capitol, saying that he was going to lead them there, takes on a whole different cast.

The committee also called out the Department of Justice for moving so slowly on the other contempt referrals of former Trump adviser and podcaster Steve Bannon and former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, urging the agency not to lollygag with these two new referrals as well. Their frustration is understandable but as committee member Zoe Lofgren, D-Ca., pointed out later, they really don't know what the DOJ is doing and it would be inappropriate if they did.

RELATED: "Merrick Garland, are you listening?": Jan. 6 committee says Trump may have violated multiple laws

As I wrote last week, it's easy to see why prosecutors would be leery of prosecutions of the president and his closest aides. But I'm reminded once again of Watergate in which more than 40 people went to jail, including Nixon's top senior advisers, his chief of staff, White House counsel and even the attorney general. And they did real-time. Haldeman and John Erlichman were convicted of conspiracyobstruction of justice, and perjury and each did 18 months in prison. Attorney General John Mitchell did 19 months. (The former vice president, Spiro Agnew, wasn't involved in Watergate but coincidentally had to resign after he was implicated in an elaborate kickback scheme pled guilty to tax evasion.)

I point this out just to say that it's not unprecedented for the Department of Justice to investigate and prosecute obstruction and conspiracy charges. If Nixon hadn't been pardoned there is every reason to believe they would have prosecuted him as well. If they could put all of President Nixon's men in jail for what they did, surely all of Trump's henchmen can be held accountable for what they did as well.

RELATED: Jan. 6 committee calls on Merrick Garland to act: "Do your job so we can do ours"

And, by the way, as Nixon similarly did in 1968 by sabotaging peace negotiations in order to win the election, Trump is once again coming perilously close to downright disloyal behavior. The alleged patriots of the GOP seem to have decided somewhere along the line that betraying your country and your allies is an excellent electoral strategy.

To paraphrase President Biden — for God's sake, this man cannot get back in power.

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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