03:04 - Source: CNN
Ex-aide was told Trump became irate when stopped from going to Capitol

Editor’s Note: Nicole Hemmer is an associate research scholar at Columbia University with the Obama Presidency Oral History Project and the author of “Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics” and the forthcoming “Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s.” She cohosts the history podcasts “Past Present” and “This Day in Esoteric Political History.” The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 

When the January 6 House select committee announced Monday that it would be holding an emergency hearing the following day with a surprise witness, John Dean sounded a note of warning. Dean, the former White House counsel who pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice during the Watergate scandal, noted there had only been one surprise witness during the Watergate hearings: Nixon aide Alex Butterfield, who revealed the existence of the secret taping system in the Oval Office.

“The January 6 Committee is dealing with a very high historical standard in springing a surprise hearing and witness tomorrow,” Dean tweeted. “If it is not really important information it’s going to hurt the credibility of this committee! Cancel now if you can’t match!”

Nicole Hemmer

Match it the committee did. The explosive testimony from Cassidy Hutchinson, a former aide to President Donald Trump’s chief of staff Mark Meadows, not only provided lurid details of Trump’s indifference toward the violence at the Capitol and his rage at not being allowed to be present with the rioters, but also the careful efforts by the president’s team to stop the certification of the 2020 election.

Hutchinson, a young woman in her 20s, stood out for her willingness both to cooperate with the committee and to reveal damning details in her testimony against the notoriously volatile and vengeful president. She displayed a courage that men twice her age, with far more power and protection, have failed to summon.

And under oath, she testified to details about the plans devised by the president and his inner circle: Trump’s then-attorney Rudy Giuliani’s palpable excitement in the days before January 6, Trump’s determination to join the rioters at the Capitol and the White House counsel’s increasingly dire warnings about Trump’s legal exposure if he carried through with those plans. She portrayed Mark Meadows’s indifference to reports of violence at the Capitol and Trump’s rage at those who thwarted his plans, allegedly lashing out at secret service agents and smashing a plate when he learned that his attorney general had admitted the 2020 election was not fraudulent.

In the aftermath of Hutchinson’s appearance before the committee, Watergate analogies continued to roll in. Journalists dubbed the testimony the “smoking gun,” an idiom first attached to presidential scandal during the investigations into the Nixon administration’s wrongdoing. Hutchinson drew comparisons with both John Dean and Alexander Butterfield. And former Trump official Mick Mulvaney trotted out the old Watergate chestnut that “it’s never the crime, it’s always the coverup.” (Note to Mulvaney: it absolutely was the crime that mattered on January 6.)

The ubiquity of these Watergate references shows how much we rely on this one historical episode to understand presidential scandal. But they also show the limits of that analogy.

As bad as Watergate was – and it was a serious set of crimes, provoking a constitutional crisis – the insurrection is the most acute crisis in US presidential history. It is not a scandal but a crime against democracy; the alleged potential offenses are not only obstruction of justice, but a seditious conspiracy against the government and the people of the United States.

Comparing the events of January 6 to Watergate does more than diminish them. That impulse leads us to focus on the wrong events entirely. Comparing what Hutchinson revealed to any scandal before it obscures central facts of the attack on the Capitol: that it was a coup attempt organized by members of the president’s team in order to retain power through both unlawful procedure and physical violence.

Though it has been half a century since the Watergate scandal broke, it remains the template we use for presidential wrongdoing. It’s more than just the omnipresent -gate suffix attached to every political scandal. It continues to set our expectations for presidential wrongdoing: smoking guns and secret tapes, coverups and conspiracies, public hearings and – if the wrongdoing is serious enough – bipartisan condemnation. (The tale of Republican leaders marching into a meeting with Nixon to tell him he had lost the party’s support and should resign remains a set-piece of any retelling of Watergate.)

But those expectations, when they are not met, impede our understanding of scandal.

For example, Iran-Contra, the Reagan administration scandal involving arms for hostages with arms-sales profits illegally diverted to right-wing militias in Nicaragua, had all the makings of a presidency-ending scandal. Initially known as “Irangate,” the scandal came to light through a mix of reporting and “smoking gun” evidence of both the diversion and a hasty attempt to cover it up by shredding some documents and falsifying others.

As with Watergate, there were televised hearings and a cascade of indictments and convictions. But the Republican support for Reagan did not crack: even as the hearings implicated the president. The Republican report on the scandal dismissed the accusations outright, calling the rampant criminality of the affair “mistakes in judgment, and nothing more.” Neither censure nor impeachment were on the table; years later, President George H. W. Bush, himself implicated in the scandal as Reagan’s vice president, pardoned most of those involved.

“Irangate,” failing to replicate the Watergate script, largely faded from public memory.

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    That same set of expectations has helped muddy public understanding of Trump administration wrongdoing, so much of which took place in plain sight – culminating in the tweet encouraging people to come to Washington, DC, on January 6 with the promise that it “will be wild!” Yet Republican support for Trump throughout the insurrection, and in the years since, has remained nearly unbroken. Those who have publicly condemned the former president, including the two Republicans who now serve on the January 6 select committee, have found themselves personae non grata in the GOP.

    The select committee has sought in its hearings to deliver on Watergate expectations: being partially televised in prime time to focus public attention, putting the spotlight on Republican witnesses to emphasize the bipartisan horror at Trump’s actions, presenting surprise witnesses and evidence to provoke that “smoking gun” shock. And while that is effective stagecraft, relying too much on the Watergate template of presidential scandal risks derailing the American public from the most fundamental objective of the committee’s work.

    It is not the cover-up. It is the crimes. And as the hearings progress into the summer, it is crucial that the committee drives that point home.