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Mueller investigation evokes memory of Watergate

  • Author: Kate Troll
    | Opinion
  • Updated: January 11
  • Published January 11

My father, a military judge (Air Force) who survived 28 bombing missions during WWII, was absolutely fixated by the Watergate hearings in 1973. It called to his deep sense of duty, of law and order, to understand the threat to our constitutional balance of power. My dad did not miss a single hearing.

Although I was attending school in Durham, England, through my father I too came to be riveted by the Senate Watergate hearings. So was most of America. According to Wikipedia, because the three major networks of the time agreed to take turns covering the hearings live, an estimated 85 percent of Americans who owned TVs tuned into at least one portion of the hearings. It was high-level political intrigue with a cast of interesting characters that led to the end of a presidency, but with our democratic institutions restored.

After watching the 2013 production of "All the President's Men Revisited," in which Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford look back at the significance of the scandal, I see more and more parallels with today's threat to our democracy. I see an equally interesting set of characters. But today we do not have the transparency of public hearings nor the bipartisan leadership of Sen. Sam Erwin, D- N.C., and Sen. Howard Baker, R-Tenn. Instead we have Watergate-level threats but with a Congress more focused on protecting the president than ensuring the integrity of our democracy.

In today's version of Watergate, Steve Bannon plays the role of Nixon's chief of staff Bob Halderman. The role of the special prosecutor, Archibald Cox, who ended up being fired by Nixon is former FBI Director James Comey. The role of Leon Jaworski, the prosecutor appointed after Cox, is played nowadays by, of course, Robert Mueller.

For those who don't remember Watergate to this detail, Special Prosecutor Jaworski convinced the Supreme Court, unanimously,  to order Nixon to turn over the Oval Office tapes that ultimately led to his demise. Instead of tapes, Mueller and the Congressional Oversight Committees have the Christopher Steele (formerly with the British Intelligence) dossier and Director Comey's copious notes, which have recently been independently substantiated.

John Mitchell was attorney general at the time of Watergate and the subsequent hearings. My dad, being a judge himself, started calling John Mitchell a crook well before his 1974 conviction on charges related to the break-in and subsequent cover-up. Much to the dismay of and despite lobbying by President Trump, Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the investigation of Russian interference in our presidential elections, eliminating his ability to be the equivalent stand-in protector that John Mitchell was for President Nixon. It is ironic that Attorney General Sessions' recusal is now the basis for some conservative House members calling for him to resign.

John Dean testifies before the Senate Watergate committee in 1973. (George Tames /The New York Times)

Perhaps the most important role in the Watergate hearings came when President Nixon's lawyer, John Dean, testified for days about Nixon's direct involvement with Watergate, and thus became the "star witness."  It was John Dean's testimony that restored the country's faith in the rule of law and had my Dad beaming proud again about his profession.

Today, since most of the Senate investigations are being conducted behind closed doors, the closest we come to star-level, credible revelations is the recent New York Times op-ed by Glenn Simpson and Peter Fritsch, both former journalists and the founders of the research firm Fusion GPS, the firm that commissioned the so-called Steele dossier.

In this op-ed, Simpson and Fritsch explain, "Yes, we hired Mr. Steele, a highly respected Russian expert. But we did so without informing him whom we were working for and gave him no specific marching orders beyond this basic question: Why did Mr. Trump repeatedly seek to do deals in a notoriously corrupt police state that most serious investors shun?" They go on to bluntly state, "What came back shocked us. Mr. Steele's sources in Russia (who were not paid) reported on an extensive – and now confirmed – effort by the Kremlin to help elect Mr. Trump president. Mr. Steele saw this as a crime in progress and decided he needed to report it to the F.B.I." Similar to calling for the public release of the Watergate tapes, these journalists call for Congress to release the transcripts of their firm's testimony, "so that the American people can learn the truth about our work and most important, what happened to our democracy."

What's the response of the Republican leadership on the Senate Judiciary Committee? Sens. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., now call for the FBI to investigate Mr. Steele's contacts with reporters. Instead of being concerned about our democracy being hijacked by a hostile foreign country, they focus on containing the information and impugning the integrity of the messenger. This would be akin to Sens. Sam Irwin and Howard Baker, in the interest of protecting President Nixon, accusing John Dean of lying under oath.  Had that occurred there would've been an outpouring of bipartisan outrage. Now when the stakes are equally high, not only do we lack the statesman equivalents to Irwin and Baker, we have complicit silence from other Republicans, including Alaska's congressional delegation.

On Friday, Jan. 5, John Dean (of Watergate fame) commented about President Trump's ordering his top staff lawyer to stop Attorney General Sessions from recusing himself from the Russia investigation. Dean told CNN, "There is a pattern developing that shows that it was clearly an endeavor to obstruct justice."

With the evidence mounting about obstruction of justice on top of all the intelligence reports confirming Russia's meddling in our democratic affairs, it's Watergate Revisited. Only this time it's a 3-D horror film that includes duty-driven, law-and-order military men like my father turning in their graves.  Unless the demeanor in Congress changes, I fear we will have the reverse ending – an unpopular, justice-obstructing presidency intact, and our democratic institutions gravely compromised.

Kate Troll is the author of "The Great Unconformity: Reflections on Hope in an Imperiled World." She has more than 22 years of experience in Alaska fisheries, coastal management and energy policy. She lives in Douglas.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email Send submissions shorter than 200 words to or click here to submit via any web browser.

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