Friday, March 8, 2019 | 2 a.m.
In 1983, married sociologists Gladys Engel Lang and Kurt Lang published “The Battle for Public Opinion,” a book that sought to explain how Americans, in less than two years, went from overwhelmingly re-electing Richard Nixon to largely supporting his impeachment.
The Watergate scandal, after all, wasn’t a complete surprise. There was evidence of a White House connection to the break-in before the 1972 election; a George McGovern campaign ad featured a montage of damning Watergate headlines while a narrator intoned: “This is about hidden funds. This is about deception. This is about the White House.” But somehow, the story didn’t stick. “The problem it signified was outside the range of and remote from most people’s immediate concerns,” the Langs wrote. The details were confusing, “their import difficult to fathom.”
The television broadcast of two series of congressional hearings helped change that. First there was the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, widely known as the Ervin committee, starting in May 1973. These hearings didn’t result in a profound swing against Nixon, but they transfixed the public and caused people to take the administration’s misdeeds more seriously. By the time they were over, “Watergate” had transformed from shorthand for a bungled burglary into a metonym for a much wider range of administration corruption.
Then came the House Judiciary Committee hearings on impeachment in 1974. Its final deliberations weren’t a trial, but according to the Langs, viewers experienced them that way, so that public debate came to revolve around the question of Nixon’s guilt or innocence. On Aug. 5, definitive proof of his guilt emerged: the “smoking gun” recording of Nixon agreeing to a plan to have the CIA ask the FBI to stop investigating Watergate. After that, wrote the Langs, “the inexorable logic of the facts” led to the president’s downfall.
We are about to find out whether facts still have an inexorable logic. The outlines of President Donald Trump’s venality and fundamental civic disloyalty have been obvious since the 2016 campaign; Hillary Clinton warned us about him just as McGovern had warned about Nixon. But so far, neither Democrats nor prosecutors have woven the various threads of presidential wrongdoing into a coherent picture, showing how Trump’s shady business practices, opaque finances, vulnerability to blackmail, abuses of power and subservience to foreign autocrats all intersect.
Now, however, Democrats have begun a full-spectrum public investigation of the president. Michael Cohen’s blockbuster testimony before the House Oversight Committee last week was just an opener.
On Monday, the House Judiciary Committee took the first steps in an inquiry into obstruction of justice, public corruption and abuses of power by the Trump administration. In an operatic legal fusillade, it sent document requests to 81 people and entities, including Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, the National Rifle Association and Allen Weisselberg, chief financial officer of the Trump Organization. They have two weeks to respond. (Ivanka Trump is not on the list, but the requests that went out call for numerous documents about her, and the committee has said that more requests could be forthcoming.)
“To me it’s a thrilling moment,” Rep. Jamie Raskin, a Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, told me. Finally, he said, “we have an opportunity to discover what has been happening in our country over the past two years and several months.”
Not long after news of the document requests broke, the heads of three committees — Oversight, Foreign Affairs and Intelligence — released letters to the White House acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, and to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo seeking documents related to Trump’s communications with President Vladimir Putin of Russia. They’re seeking to interview Trump’s translators and anyone else privy to his talks with Putin. Should the White House refuse those requests, a legal fight could ensue. “We’re willing to take it as far as we need to get the answers,” Rep. Adam Schiff, head of the House Intelligence Committee, told me.
Next week, Schiff’s committee will conduct a public interview with Felix Sater, a felon with ties to both organized crime and American intelligence agencies who was at the center of negotiations for a proposed Moscow Trump Tower. “We’ve chosen to focus early on the Moscow Trump Tower deal because it’s among the most graphic examples of how a candidate or president’s focus on making himself money can come at the cost of what’s in the best interests of our country,” Schiff said.
Given the polarization in our politics, there’s no reason to expect the coming hearings to change many minds. What they can do, potentially, is put the question of Trump’s criminality at the center of political life, just as the Watergate hearings did with Nixon. They can create a narrative that even a reality TV impresario can’t control.
It’s too early to know whether these investigations will lead to Trump’s impeachment. The important thing is that they lead to his exposure. Unlike Nixon, Trump lost the popular vote, and the majority of the country has consistently disapproved of him. He thus can’t afford even a small erosion of support.
“You have to think of the Trump phenomenon as a religious cult surrounding an organized crime family,” Raskin said. “But at the outer perimeters, people are starting to melt away. And Michael Cohen’s departure is a signal moment in the evolution of the Trump phenomenon. He is the innermost sycophant to break ranks.” Soon America will be tuning in to find out who’s next.
Michelle Goldberg is a columnist for The New York Times.