Big Picture: Iran/Contra Not Watergate

March 25, 2019 2:12 p.m.

I been trying to place the fallout from the Mueller Report in larger historical perspective. These tweets by Dave Weigel of The Washington Post has been clarifying:

Watergate, not Iran/Contra: that is to say a President having to resign from scandals is very rare (it’s only happened once). More common is for a president’s underlings and associates to take the fall, sometimes to be rewarded later with a pardon.

Even with Watergate, the system worked to shield Nixon himself from criminal punishment. And some of the Watergate figures who went to jail were later pardoned. Another example would be the Scooter Libby case in the George W. Bush administration. Libby took the fall and was subsequently pardoned. The American political system is powerfully orientated towards protecting presidents (and even vice presidents) from their own action.

Back in June of 2017, I wrote in The New Republic about the dangers of relying too heavily on prosecutors:

In all the major modern presidential scandals, prosecutors and law enforcement officials have played a central role—from Lawrence Walsh to Ken Starr to Patrick Fitzgerald to James Comey to Robert Mueller. It’s easy to see why both liberals and conservatives look to these lawmen as the solution to scandals real or imagined. They fit a familiar cultural pattern found in Law and Order and many other shows: the heroic prosecutor, often an overgrown Boy Scout with a crew-cut, who works relentlessly to put the bad guys behind bars. Prosecutorial liberalism is the dream that the messiness of politics can be replaced with the moral clarity of a cop show.

While Mueller has a role to play in gathering evidence against Trump, liberals need to stop extolling prosecutors and realize that the true task of holding Trump accountable belongs to Congress. The only constitutional remedies for Trump’s actions are to be found in the legislative branch—remedies that include not just impeachment, but also passing new laws restricting executive power so that future presidents can’t behave as Trump does. Congress needs to start working on rolling back the imperial presidency, a task left incomplete since Watergate.

In the post-Mueller era, the agenda I laid out is still imperative: congressional oversight and a rolling back of the imperial presidency.

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