Is this Watergate or Iran-Contra?

Trump attacks Clinton, as Mueller charges loom
Trump attacks Clinton, as Mueller charges loom

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Trump attacks Clinton, as Mueller charges loom 01:43

Story highlights

  • Julian Zelizer: The political impact of the first charges in Mueller investigation will be just as important as the legal issues at play
  • Depending on how Trump's team handles the fallout, this presidency could go the way of Nixon or Reagan

Julian Zelizer is a history and public affairs professor at Princeton University and the author of "The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society." He's also the co-host of the "Politics & Polls" podcast. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN)Early Monday, former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort surrendered to special counsel Robert Mueller, who was brought in to investigate possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. Former Trump campaign official Rick Gates was also told to turn himself in. This follows CNN's Friday night story, citing sources briefed on the matter, which revealed that a federal grand jury has approved the first charges in the investigation.

Regardless of who else is charged and what the charges are, it is clear that the news constitutes a major political blow to President Donald Trump. After a week when the President attempted to spin a story about Hillary Clinton's corruption and collusion vis-a-vis the Russians, when some Republicans called on Mueller to resign and when the administration insisted that the congressional investigations come to an end, the hard-hitting Mueller may have shifted the conversation.
    The impact of the first charges will be as much about how they are handled politically as they are legally. 
    And it is far from clear how this drama will unfold. The charges on Monday could have a similar effect as the Watergate indictments in March 1974, when several of President Richard Nixon's top aides and a lawyer for his reelection campaign were indicted for perjury, obstruction of justice and a conspiracy to cover-up the 1972 break-in at the Democratic headquarters.
    Although we often praise Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for bringing down the President with their reporting, special prosecutor Leon Jaworski had a huge impact as well. When Americans read on the front pages of their papers that John Mitchell (former Attorney General and chairman of the Committee to Reelect the President), H.R. Haldeman (former chief of staff), John Ehrlichman (former domestic advisor), Charles Colson (former White House counsel) and others were indicted, they were shocked.
    "Never before," wrote Anthony Ripley in The New York Times, have so many close and trusted advisers of an American President faced criminal accusations in a single indictment." Most important, the high-profile congressional investigations in the summer of 1973 had already prepped the public by laying out the basic components of this case so that when these indictments arrived, the President could not easily wipe them away. In June, the press added to the political damage by reporting that the grand jury had named President Nixon as a co-conspirator.
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    The indictments came at a critical moment when Nixon's support had weakened significantly as a result of investigative reporting and the revelations from the Watergate congressional hearings. His public approval was falling fast -- including within his base -- which had held firm through much of the scandal.
    The indictments also exposed the potential criminality of Nixon's closest advisers and accelerated the erosion of support for the President on Capitol Hill. More Republicans would start to come out in opposition to Nixon in these final months leading up to his resignation in August 1974.
    But the Mueller charges could have a much weaker political bite as well. In March 1988, with independent prosecutor Lawrence Walsh heading the investigation, two top officials from Ronald Reagan's administration, former National Security staffer Lt. Oliver North and former National Security Adviser John Poindexter, as well as retired Air Force Gen. Richard Secord and Iranian businessman Albert Hakim, were indicted for their role in illegally sending money from the sale of weapons to Iran to the Nicaragua Contras -- despite a congressional ban on doing so. "The indictment," wrote Philip Shenon, "was the most sweeping criminal action against former White House officials since the Watergate scandals...." 
    Unlike with Nixon, both Ronald Reagan and his vice president, George H.W. Bush, survived politically. Reagan was already in a better place by the fall of 1988. In the final throes of his lame duck period, there was not much congressional interest in bringing Reagan down. And he had made a historic breakthrough with Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev by reaching agreement on the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), which greatly reduced the number of ballistic and cruise missiles and boosted his standing with the American people.
    Furthermore, most Republicans stuck to the game plan of House Minority Whip Dick Cheney, who had authored the minority report for the congressional investigation, by standing behind the decisions that the administration had made and insisting that it was the Democrats, who refused to provide support to the anti-communist forces, who were the real villains in the story.
    The person who could have experienced the worst blowback from the indictments was Vice President George H.W. Bush, who was running to succeed Reagan. The Iran Contra scandal loomed like a dark cloud over his campaign. But Bush, with the help of campaign consultant Lee Atwater, mounted a full-throated political response by viciously attacking the Democratic candidate Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, accusing him of being soft on crime and weak on defense, and ensuring that the reemergence of Iran Contra would not kill his chances of winning the presidency.
    The way in which the different political players -- the President and his staff, the chairs and ranking members of the congressional investigative committees, party leaders on the Hill, disaffected Republicans who have been issuing warnings about the President and Mueller himself -- react to these charges in the next few weeks will be as important as the charges themselves. Will President Trump, as he has done in the past, overreact by tweeting himself into more trouble or triggering a constitutional crisis by trying to have Mueller fired? Will supportive Republicans be able to persuade the public that the indictments do not directly implicate the President in any wrongdoing? Will people who may be indicted provide Mueller with even more damaging information?
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    But the most important question will be whether Democrats and Republicans who are not blindly loyal to the President can do what Nixon era investigators accomplished. Can they make certain that the courts, the prosecutor and Congress coordinate their efforts to ensure that the final stages of the decision-making draw bipartisan support? Or, will they fall into the same trap of the Iran Contra era, when partisanship blocked efforts to deal with the magnitude of the wrongdoing that had been exposed in the executive branch?