When the Watergate investigation finally took a turn toward what today seems like its inevitable conclusion, it wasn’t the dramatic testimony of an all-star witness or the release of smoking-gun video footage of President Nixon orchestrating a coverup that tipped the first domino.
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The beginning of the end of the Watergate saga came when a former White House deputy chief of staff, who wasn’t even on the Senate Select Committee’s original witness list, casually revealed the existence of the now infamous secret taping system in the Oval Office during a pre-interview. He wasn’t even under oath when he let that slip.
Without knowledge of that taping system’s existence, investigators never would have had the leverage they would need to force Nixon’s hand, and the investigation might have ended with resignations and arrests of some key figures involved in the break-in and subsequent coverup, instead of the end of the Nixon presidency.
When we look back on the Trump-Russia scandal and special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into it, the turning point may very well turn out to be the moment Rudy Giuliani stormed onto the scene as the president’s lead lawyer on all things Russia.
Since his first public interview in his new role, Giuliani has made a habit of sticking his feet in his mouth during virtually every interview he’s given. In just a few weeks of off-the-cuff disclosures, the former mayor of New York has undermined the carefully constructed legal defense his predecessors spent a year building and may have placed his client in serious legal limbo a few times over in the process.
Late Thursday, he did it again when he disclosed how and why Emmett Flood, the newest lawyer on Trump’s Russia defense team, and Trump’s Chief of Staff, John Kelly, ended up at what was supposed to be a classified Justice Department briefing to congressional leadership on highly sensitive information pertaining to the FBI’s ongoing counterintelligence investigation into Russia’s attack on the 2016 presidential election.
“The President personally wanted Emmet there today,” Giuliani told ABC News.
The White House issued a statement after the briefing that said that Flood and Kelly were only there at the beginning of the meeting and didn’t stay for the discussion of the classified information. They were simply there, the statement read, to encourage “as much openness as possible under the law.”
President Trump is a subject of the investigation to which the classified information pertains. That investigation overlaps with special counsel Robert Mueller’s larger probe, and the president could move from a subject to a target at any point. And so, until and unless the president is indicted, there’s no legal basis or precedent for either he or his lawyers to see or know anything regarding the FBI’s investigation on this matter.
Congressman Adam Schiff (D-CA), who attended the briefing along with Republican Congressmen Devin Nunes (R-CA) and Trey Gowdy (R-SC), expressed his displeasure at Kelly and Flood crashing the meeting.
According to ABC News, Schiff, “the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, acknowledged that Flood didn’t take part in the briefings, but said his presence was ‘completely inappropriate,’ and that he ‘made this clear’ to Flood in the room.”
The highly unprecedented meeting is the culmination of a weeks-long effort by Team Trump to force the Department of Justice to disclose confidential information about an ongoing investigation – something they never do.
Here’s how we got here.
Over the last week, President Trump, Giuliani, and their minions in the right-wing media and Congress have advanced a new conspiracy theory about a “spy” that they say the FBI planted inside the Trump campaign before the election. The president even gave this made-up scandal a catchy name: “Spygate.”
To be clear, there was no spy embedded in the Trump campaign. This has been confirmed. What there was, however, were multiple people at the highest levels of the Trump campaign with long-known links to the Kremlin. The FBI also knew that Russia, at that very moment, was actively engaged in both a hacking operation and a social media manipulation campaign designed, they hoped, to tip the election in Trump’s favor.
And so the FBI sent someone to speak to three Trump campaign officials with dubious links to the Kremlin to try to learn about Russia’s intelligence operation and – more crucially – to see if anyone in the Trump campaign either knew about it, was enabling it, or was actively participating in its execution.
This confidential informant was a law enforcement officer conducting a counterintelligence investigation. He did not ’embed’ in the campaign, nor did he act as a ‘spy’ for the Democrats, as the president alleges.
Trump and his sycophants perpetrating this manufactured conspiracy know that. Nevertheless, they continue to push this narrative in their media bubble. After a few days of this P.R. offensive, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein buckled under pressure and referred these specious allegations to the inspector general, giving them the ounce of credibility Trump and his minions needed to keep the pressure on the DOJ and push for more disclosures they are not entitled to.
After standing on principle for months, Rosenstein and FBI Director Christopher Wray finally agreed to share some information on the ongoing investigation, but only in a classified setting and only to senior intelligence members of Congress.
Sending his attorney and chief of staff to crash the meeting could have been interpreted any number of ways. But now that Giuliani has admitted that President Trump was the mastermind behind this controversial maneuver, there’s little room to see it as anything but another attempt to obstruct justice and intimidate the Department of Justice and Robert Mueller.
Not today, but one day, perhaps, Giuliani may learn to heed the wise words of Benjamin Franklin: “better for people to think you’re a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.”