Is the Trump-Russia scandal turning into another Watergate?

Forty-five years after the infamous break-in at the Watergate Hotel, comparisons are being made to the current scandal in Washington.

A key difference: Congress was controlled by Democrats during Nixon's downfall

A protester's sign makes the connection between the Watergate scandal and the current scandal involving U.S. President Donald Trump's firing of FBI Director James Comey. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press)

The firing of the man investigating potential misdeeds by the president of the United States, incriminating audio tapes and an attempt to discredit political rivals with damning leaks. 

Those are some of the hallmarks of the Watergate scandal, which began with the infamous break-in at the Washington, D.C., hotel of the same name 45 years ago this month.

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But those headlines just as easily describe what's happening right now in Washington. Consider the firing of FBI head James Comey, who was leading the Trump-Russia investigation; U.S. President Donald Trump's still unexplained tweet about "tapes"; and the steady drip of leaked Democratic National Committee emails last year, meant to damage Hillary Clinton's campaign.

It's why some in the news media and political circles see echoes of Watergate in today's Washington. But does that comparison go too far? Richard Nixon is, after all, the only U.S. president ever to resign under threat of impeachment.

Veteran journalist Don Newman covered the Watergate scandal and its shuddering impact, first for CTV News and later for CBC News, while he was based in Washington between 1972 and 1979.

He spoke with CBC's Diana Swain for this week's episode of The Investigators.

You see what's unfolding now. As people draw these comparisons, is it fair, or too much, in your view?

Well, it certainly reminds me of the time when I was there and Watergate was going down. There has to be criminal activity, and so far it hasn't been determined that there is criminal activity. But certainly… the firing of Comey, that made me think of the Saturday Night Massacre and the firing of Archibald Cox — and that was sort of the beginning of the end for Nixon.

But the other thing that did Nixon in at the end was that there were tapes that were incriminating, and there was an incriminating sentence where he was obviously trying to interrupt the investigation and delay the investigation. If they could get something like that on Trump, I think he'd be in trouble.

Don Newman covered the Watergate scandal and its aftermath, first for CTV News and later for CBC News, while he was based in Washington between 1972 and 1979. (CBC)

Talk to me about that time. None of these things happen in a moment — they unfold over a series of months. At the time, did you appreciate that it would ever lead to Nixon stepping down?

Well, not right away. It kind of built and built and built. And near the end, I didn't see how he could hang on.

But there's one other important difference: the Democrats controlled Congress, and he was a Republican. So they were keen to investigate him. The Republicans control Congress now, and they will be a lot less keen to investigate a Republican president.

If after the midterm election, in 2018, the Democrats control even one house, then it will get hot for Trump no matter what happens.

Given your very long, storied career covering politics, both in Washington and in Ottawa, what astonishes you most about what you're seeing unfold now in the United States?

I think that there's a president that is so ill-suited for the job. And that a lot of people thought probably, when they voted for him: "Well, he's just campaigning, and politicians are always campaigning, but when they get into office they're much more reasonable and much more sensible." Not true. If anything, he's nuttier than when he was on the campaign trail, because he's got all the levers of power to play with.

45 years later, Don Newman reflects on the enduring relevance of the Watergate scandal, and whether comparisons to the Trump administration are fair. Watch The Investigators Saturdays at 9:30 pm ET and Sundays at 5:30 pm ET on CBC News Network. 3:23

And the other thing is this tweeting where he seems to wake up in the morning, and if he had a bad night or bad dream, he sends out these tweets which are just incomprehensible. And he's managed to alienate almost everybody that was an American friend. And he hasn't really done it to us yet, but I'm standing by; I think he might.

Also this week, CBC's Washington correspondent Paul Hunter talks about what it's like covering those White House press briefings and how it's changed since the Obama administration. And CBC foreign correspondent Nil Köksal talks about the challenges of reporting from Turkey, whose government is increasingly hostile towards journalists.

About the Author

Diana Swain

Multi-award-winning journalist Diana Swain is the senior investigative correspondent for CBC News and host of The Investigators on CBC News Network.