Watergate and the 2016 Election: Parallels and Contrasts

Beginning in March of 2016, some person or persons hacked into the computer servers of the Democratic National Committee (DNC). The hackers were targeting specific information in the DNC files: the opposition research of Donald Trump. Once they had this information, they looked around the computer system for several months, stealing other files: emails, voice mails, and personal information about donors.[i]  In late April of 2016, the information technology staff of the DNC found problems in their system that indicated unauthorized access and they called in CrowdStrike, an IT security company, to assess the damage.  This is one way of describing how the problems began in the 2016 election.

In order to put what happened during the 2016 election in perspective, it helps to consider the parallels and the contrasts between it and another event that happened 44 years earlier: Watergate.

On Saturday night, June 17, 1972, five men were caught breaking into the DNC headquarters at the Watergate complex. These men were led by former CIA officers E. Howard Hunt and James McCord. In an interview twenty years later, Hunt said the burglars were hoping to steal DNC account books, which could reflect foreign funds.[ii] The White House was hoping to exploit information like this for political purposes.

After the Pentagon Papers were leaked to the press, President Richard Nixon became concerned. He created a group to covertly plug these leaks: they came to be known as the plumbers. This concern became a paranoia that led to tapping the president’s own phones.


Donald Segretti

The work of the plumbers eventually began to evolve. A young lawyer named Donald Segretti was brought in and he began to engage in what were called “dirty tricks.” He undermined a Democratic Fundraiser by sending a bunch of false orders for food, limousines, and people. He sent out a fake letter on Democratic Party stationary alleging a homosexual affair between Senators Hubert Humphrey and Scoop Jackson. Through “Dirty Tricks” like these, Segretti and others sought to pit Democrats against each other angrily and to undermine Muskie’s candidacy.  He was considered to be the stronger opponent.

The work of the plumbers eventually led to the Watergate burglary. Since former members of the CIA were involved in the burglary, the White House began to make it look like the CIA was involved in the burglary, for sometime, as a diversion. The administration told the CIA to block the FBI’s investigation of Watergate; the FBI continued. In July and August of 1972 the FBI continued to gather evidence on the Watergate break in and other dirty tricks.

As Nixon campaigned over the summer of ’72, FBI agents were gathering evidence that could have seriously undermined his re-election. Federal law precluded FBI officials from divulging any of this information. Doing so would violate the Hatch act. FBI agent at the time, Angelo Lano, stated in a CBS News Special Report in 1992,

There were days when we would have loved to stand out on Pennsylvania Avenue and announced what we had uncovered that day. But we were precluded from doing that. Federal law precluded us from speaking about what we learned and the people that we spoke to.[iii]

Keep this quote in mind when considering the behavior of the FBI Director and agents during the 2016 election.


Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward

The work of two reporters kept the story going in 1972: Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. They traced the money used for the burglary and eventually found it came from the Committee for the Re-election of the President. By October they had only one ally: Walter Cronkite. CBS and The Washington Post both received pressure from the White House. Despite all the work of The Washington Post, CBS, and the FBI, Nixon was re-elected in 1972 in a landslide.

The work of the Post and CBS eventually led to an official investigation. The investigation eventually revealed a tape recording. It showed Nixon tried to use the CIA to block the FBI and obstruct justice. This was the last straw that brought down the administration. It eventually became clear to Nixon he would be impeached if he tried to stay in office. On the evening of August 8th, 1974, Nixon announced he would resign the next day.

Parallels and Contrasts
You will probably notice some parallels as well as some contrasts between what happened in Watergate and the 2016 election.  The investigations of both Watergate and the 2016 election began with an investigation of an attempt to steal information from the Democratic National Committee.  Both thefts were guided by a desire to use this information for political purposes.  At the DNC, they have the filing cabinet from 1972 and the server from 2016. 14hack-top1-sub-superJumbo

The “Dirty Tricks” Donald Segretti engaged in are early versions of the fake news that was used by the Russians. Instead of one young lawyer writing fake letters, now Putin has hundreds of Internet trolls creating fake news, blogs, and comments, all to serve Putin’s interests.  The Russians sought to pit the Sanders and Clinton supporters against each other to undermine Clinton,  just as the Nixon administration sought to pit the Democrats against each other to undermine Muskie.

The behavior of the FBI in 1972 and 2016 is worth considering. In 1972 the FBI had information that could undermine Nixon’s re-election. This information was not leaked to the press. FBI agents and officials followed the law. Nixon was, as a result, re-elected. This stands in stark contrast to the behavior of the FBI in 2016. As the election approached, the FBI began leaking so much information it caused complaints from across the political spectrum and comparisons to J. Edger Hoover.


Mark Felt

But the story is not so black and white. One member of the FBI did leak information about the Nixon administration: the Associate Director of the FBI, Mark Felt, aka Deepthroat. He kept Woodward and Bernstein on the right track. One could argue Felt leaked this information in order to bring the corruption in the White House to light. One could however also argue he was upset because he was overlooked when Nixon appointed Hoover’s replacement.

The role of the press in 1972 and 2016 is also interesting to consider. Two young reporters, Woodward and Bernstein, end up leading the way to a process that holds the White House accountable for unprecedented illegal activities. Their work has come to be an iconic representation of a journalistic ideal: journalism leads to the truth and justice. In the famous movie, All the President’s Men, the light represents the truth. Outside the newsroom it is dark and there are shadows; inside the newsroom the flourescent light makes everything clear.

The journalistic search for truth is also powerful. It can bring justice. It can bring down a president. This power is represented in All the President’s Men by the sound of the typewriters: they lash the page with each letter.

In 2016 one of the biggest stories is how the press overlooked the biggest story: rather than reporting on the burglary, the press reported on the information that was stolen. The power of the press was turned on the criminal’s primary target: Hillary Clinton. She was lashed on a daily basis with stories that undermined her campaign, all based on emails stolen from the DNC computer system: Did Wasserman-Shultz help give Clinton an advantage over Sanders? Did Clinton get paid a lot of money to give a speech? Did someone on her staff say something derogatory about Catholics? Did Donna Brazile give Clinton a debate question in advance? Day after day. It was not a drip, drip; it was more like the lash of the typewriters in All the President’s Men, one day after another, until she lost by 1/16 of one percent of the vote.

The New York Times eventually acknowledged after the election, in an article published December 13th, that,

Every major publication, including The Times, published multiple stories citing the D.N.C. and Podesta emails posted by WikiLeaks, becoming a de facto instrument of Russian intelligence.

Imagine Woodward and Bernstein decided instead to write a series of stories about the Democratic Party based on the information stolen by the Watergate burglars. Imagine they eventually got the rest of the press to join them. Then imagine Nixon won in ’72 by less than 1/16 of one percent of the vote: 83,000 votes in three states. This is not exactly the stuff for which they give out Pulitzers or make movies.

But the story here remains to be written.  Since the election the reporting of The Washington Post and The New York Times and other great newspapers have forced the resignation of Donald Trump’s National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn, and forced the Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, to recuse himself from any investigations of the ties between Russia and the Trump campaign.  When we look back we may find that some of the best journalism is being done right now.

Since the investigations of the 2016 election continue, this brief outline of the parallels and contrasts between this election and Watergate can only serve as a preliminary sketch.  More parallels and contrasts will undoubtedly emerge as time passes.  This sketch does however help us better understand the historical significance of what we are living through today.  We all remember how Watergate ended.

[i] Nance, Malcolm. The Plot to Hack America. New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2016.
Kindle locations 55-60.

[ii] “CBS News Special Report.” CBS News. CBS Corporation. Youtube, 19 October
2016. Web. 8 January 2016.

[iii] Ibid.


Categories: Investigations, The Press

Tagged as: ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s