Is This Trump’s Watergate?

Unless Team Trump gets back to the basics of the 2016 election, 1974 could return.

By Daniel Henninger


A president’s blood is in the water and another White House staff can only look out the windows as the sharks arrive from miles off.

Dan Rather, who normally toils at explaining away his George W. Bush National Guard story for CBS years ago, swam toward the Trump White House Tuesday to posit that “Watergate is the biggest political scandal of my lifetime, until maybe now.”

Like-minded trolls in the social-media village sent Mr. Rather’s Facebook post viral. The Watergate “meme” that attached itself instantly to Mike Flynn’s firing over his conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak was: What did President Trump know, and when did he know it?

We are far from Watergate levels of threat to the Trump presidency. The Democrats are in the congressional minority, and however much they intone the I-word, there will be no Sam Ervin committee.

Impeachment, though, is not the goal of Donald Trump’s opponents. They want to cut off his power—his hold on much of the American public. To do that, they need to make him look like a loser.

On Monday, the president lost Mike Flynn. On Wednesday, he lost Andy Puzder, his labor nominee. Both fell in large part because of an understaffed and dangerously diffused White House management structure. The Trump opposition—Democrats, unions, Never Trumpers—now know that if they can turn three Republican senators against him, he won’t matter.

They may succeed unless Team Trump can reverse the tides starting to erode the foundations of the president’s political support.

Let’s talk about the swamp.

If we have learned anything about the Trump presidency, it is that Mr. Trump and his chief political strategist, Steve Bannon, despise the Washington swamp, which includes the city’s lobbyists, all of its bureaucrats, every member of the media, the entire congressional delegation and their staffs.

At the moment, that would cover most of the forces arrayed against them, and a good question is whether they’ll drain the swamp before the swamp swallows them.

Messrs. Trump and Bannon should give an older member of the Washington establishment a temporary Oval Office visa to talk about what it was like during Watergate. Mr. Trump surely recalls the giddy frenzy of waking each day during Watergate to see what new anti-Nixon bombshell was on the morning newspaper’s front page.

What happened to Richard Nixon an eon ago looks familiar: Donald Trump’s presidency is getting bitten to death by an invisible, lethal ant hill of anonymous leakers.

Mr. Trump himself outputted this reality in remarks to the press Wednesday: “From intelligence, papers are being leaked, things are being leaked, it’s criminal action, criminal act, and it’s been going on for a long time.” It sure has. Ask George Washington.

Back in the days of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the primary unidentified source was known as Deep Throat. Now, when the bar for anonymity is about an inch high, the locutions of invisibility are more elegant. A favorite: “requested anonymity to speak candidly.”

As always, it works. You could have spent all Wednesday reading grimly exhilarating stories based on almost no names, such as the Washington Post piece about the White House triumvirate of Mr. Trump, Mr. Bannon and Reince Priebus keeping Mike Pence out of the loop after they’d been told Jan. 26 by the Justice Department of Mr. Flynn’s conversations with the Russian ambassador. Mr. Pence had gone on Sunday morning television earlier to defend Mr. Flynn.

Whether the Pence wedge between him and the inner circle (as of this week) is true hardly matters. Life in the capital wouldn’t be much fun without believing such things. Washington’s most powerful force is . . . the whisper.

Trumpians can launch a million outraged emails and tweets against all this incoming, but the blunt reality is, So what? If you aren’t winning in Washington, you are losing. Nobody has changed the rules of that game yet.

For the first two weeks, Team Trump was winning. The executive orders unwinding the Obama regulatory apparatus had Democrats gagging in astonishment. Having abandoned any arguments based on policy, the Democrats sank to the level of senior members like Sen. Elizabeth Warren exchanging views on TV with comedians. Comedians are now the Democratic Party’s brain trust.

Then the White House overplayed its strong hand with the rushed-out immigration order. The political fires lit by that then consumed a vulnerable Mike Flynn and are now roaring toward the Oval Office. Unfair? Criminal? Maybe, and maybe the historians will sort it all out someday as solace.

Forgotten now is that Nixon didn’t resign because of anything proven by the anonymous torrent, but only after he saw he’d lost the support of his own party in Congress. We’re not there, yet.

Mr. Trump is in the White House because voters wanted two things, in this order: 1) change; 2) Donald Trump.

That’s the basics. Get it straight, or 1974 could return.

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