Covert ops and cover-ups, sources and subterfuge, lies and litigation, the White House versus the Washington Post. The first six weeks of Donald Trump’s presidency have yielded a harrowing harvest of headlines. The ceaseless onslaught of breaking news, the pervasive scent of scandal, the abrasive denials from seats of power—is it all not a whirlpool of intrigue sucking us downward?
The pace of political news is entirely too frenetic, but is it not also familiar? Do you sometimes watch your preferred cable news outlet and wonder, haven’t I seen this movie before? The answer is you may have. All The President’s Men , which was released in 1976 and was based upon the Watergate investigation that resulted in the resignation of president Richard Nixon, is a template for observing how a free press investigates chicanery that’s possibly associated with the Oval Office.
The film, starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, respectively, was nominated for Best Picture (it lost to Rocky ) and won four Academy Awards. Although All The President’s Me n was released more than four decades ago, it remains timely as a tale of political intrigue and the seduction of power (then again, so does MacBeth ). The movie is currently airing on HBO Now or is available as a rental on YouTube for just $2.99. If you haven’t seen it, or last saw it before “birther” was a political designation, it’s worth watching as a study guide for our current concatenation of crises.
“ I am convinced that no one else at the White House had any knowledge of or participation in this deplorable incident. ”
—White House spokesperson to Bob Woodward (Robert Redford)
Less than three weeks into Donald Trump’s presidency, the Washington Post published a story, citing unnamed “current and former U.S. officials,” alleging that recently confirmed national security adviser Mike Flynn “ privately discussed U.S. sanctions against Russia with that country’s ambassador to the United States during the month before President Trump took office.” The story, citing anonymous sources, ran on February 9.
Flynn, stating that he had given “incomplete information” to Vice President Mike Pence about the substance of his conversation with the Russian official, Sergey Kislyak, resigned four days later (hearing the word "deplorable" so early in the film may send chills up your spine).
“ The story is dry. All we’ve got are pieces. We can’t seem to figure out what the puzzle is supposed to look like.”
—Woodward to Deep Throat (Hal Holbrook)
On Thursday night, Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC’s Hardball, hosted a roundtable discussion pertaining to then-Senator (and now Attorney General) Jeff Sessions’ conversation with a Russian official last summer (coincidentally—or not—also Sergey Kislyak). At one point (12:15 in the video below) Matthews drew a parallel between the disjointed pieces of evidence of a relationship between the Trump campaign and Russia and a popular brain exercise. “We’re looking at basically, with a lot of the information we’re getting, like a jigsaw puzzle we did as kids,” Matthews said. “Usually, you get the right angles first, ‘cause you’ve gotta find the straight lines. So we’ve got it framed pretty much. So it has something to do with the campaign…”
“ [Attorney General] John Mitchell resigns as the head of [Committee to Re-elect President] and says he wants to spend more time with his family, but it sounds like bullshit. We don’t actually believe that.”
—Woodward to Deep Throat
Fake news! In mid-February retired Vice Admiral Robert Harward turned down an offer to become Trump’s national security adviser following Flynn’s resignation, publicly citing “financial and family issues” as the reason he declined. Unlike Mitchell, who was sentenced to 19 months in prison for his role in the Watergate cover-up, Harward is an upstanding, law-abiding citizen and decorated Navy SEAL. The similarity is in their reasoning for resigning or turning down a job. Mitchell resigned because he hoped to distance himself from the Watergate break-in investigation. Harward turned down the post because, as a friend told CNN , he called the offer “a shit sandwich.”
A friend of Harward's says he was reluctant to take NSA job bc the WH seems so chaotic; says Harward called the offer a "shit sandwich."— Jake Tapper (@jaketapper) February 17, 2017
“Forget the myths the media has created about the White House. The truth is, they’re not very bright guys and things got out of hand.”
—Deep Throat to Woodward
In the first week of February, the White House distributed a list of 78 terror attacks between September of 2014 and December of 2015 that it claimed the media failed to report or underreported. The word “attacker” was misspelled 27 times and the California city of San Bernardino, where 14 people were gunned down in December of 2015, was spelled “San Bernadino.”
“Follow the money.”
—Deep Throat to Woodward
The most-often quoted line of the film may be the key to discovering whether the purported relationship between the Trump campaign and Russia is in fact real. Last Monday Rachel Maddow opened her nightly MSNBC show by playing connect-the-dots between a Russian billionaire who paid Trump two-and-a-half-times what he had paid for a south Florida estate just a few years earlier (a $60 million windfall for the future president) as part of an alleged money-laundering operation. The oligarch also has ties to Wilbur Ross, who was just confirmed as the Secretary of Commerce.
“Okay, you and I are going to have to have an agreement that you’re not going to reveal the source of your information.”
—ADA Dardis (Warren Beatty) to Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman)
When Bernstein and Woodward persuaded their offices-with-walls superiors at the Washington Post to allow them to pursue the story they had first happened upon, both reporters were still in their twenties. Both were adept, however, at cultivating sources and establishing trust, which is what led to strangers divulging damaging secrets about the committee to re-elect Richard Nixon.
Last year, David Farenthold, a relatively young (36) reporter at WaPo , dug up reams of information about Trump’s non-existent charity contributions. Farenthold’s pieces established a unique bond between himself and readers, motivating some of them to independently research donor lists and send their findings to him. Farenthold’s assiduous reporting eventually led to an anonymous source sending him the infamous Billy Bush tape in which Trump says, “Grab them by the pussy,” last September.
“The issues of the campaign are peace and prosperity, not a campaign check.”
—Clark MacGregor, chairman of CREEP (archive sound) to Woodward on phone
Forty-five years ago, when the Watergate scandal was unfolding, high-ranking officials were just as adept at pivoting as Kellyanne Conway or Sean Spicer or even Trump are today. When Woodward phones MacGregor to inquire how a $25,000 cashier’s check from a Minnesota-based campaign worker wound up in the bank account of one of the Watergate burglars, MacGregor first denies any knowledge of it and then attempts to persuade the reporter that his priorities are out of order.
Since the inauguration, Conway has deftly pivoted from questions a TV interviewer has posed about any number of controversial stances (e.g. the Muslim ban) the administration has taken to remind viewers that what President Trump is most concerned with is "making America great again."
“It’s not just that we’re using unnamed sources that bothers me or that everything we print the White House denies, or that almost no other papers are reprinting our stuff...when did the Washington Post suddenly get the monopoly on wisdom? Why would the Republicans do it? I don’t believe the story. It doesn’t make sense.”
—WaPo foreign editor (John McMartin) to managing editor Howard Simons (Martin Balsam) and editor in chief Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards)
The intelligence dossier put together by former British special agent Christopher Steele, who has since gone underground out of fear for his safety, contains some outlandish claims regarding Russian prostitutes, Moscow hotels and golden showers. Those salacious tales may be false, but other claims in Steele’s dossier have since been validated by numerous intelligence agencies.
The inclination to discredit or suppress a story based purely on the outrageousness of its claims often has disastrous repercussions. Would anyone have believed the transcript of the Bush-Trump “locker room talk” conversation if the tape had not been made public?
“Are you investigating the tearing up of those documents?”
“I think that came out of the story in the Washington Post . I think the investigation that has just concluded itself has probably been one of the intensive that the Department of Justice and the FBI has ever been involved in. Some 1,500 persons were interviewed, 1,800 leads were followed, 330 agents were involved, 14,000 man hours, 51 of the 59 FBI field offices were involved, and that I think is a great credit to justice in this country.”
“Did you know the documents had been destroyed?”
“No, I did not.”
—TV interview between unnamed female reporter and Attorney General Richard Kleindienst (archival footage)
Kleindienst, who replaced Mitchell as attorney general, is asked a direct yes or no question and instantly switches into deflect mode. Though Kleindienst played no role in the Watergate break-in or cover-up, he nevertheless evades the question and tosses out a plethora of statistics to create the illusion that the Justice Department’s investigation into Watergate was extensive. The question and the follow-up, however, demonstrate that it was not.
Likewise, Vice President Mike Pence, who often comes off as a high-ranking government official kept out of the loop, appeared on CBS’ Face The Nation January 15 and assured viewers that Flynn’s conversation with Kislyak on the same day U.S. sanctions against Russia were announced in December was “strictly coincidental.” (at 9:10 below) “They had a conversation,” Pence said. “They did not discuss anything having to do with the United States’ decision to expel diplomats or impose censure against Russia.”
That turned out to be more fake news.
“You guys are about to write a story that says the former Attorney General, the highest ranking law enforcement official in this country, is a crook. Just be sure you’re right.”
—Bradlee to Woodward and Bernstein
The only reason that Sessions finds his career in peril this weekend as Democrats in Congress call for his resignation is because of a story broken by WaPo on Wednesday evening. “Sessions met with Russians twice last year; encounters he later did not disclose” was the headline of a piece written by Adam Entous, Ellen Nakashima and Greg Miller.
Were it not for their reporting, Sessions’ answer to Minnesota Senator Al Franken (D) during his January 10 confirmation hearing would not be scrutinized as possible perjury. Franken asked Sessions what he would do if he learned that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign had been in contact with the Russian government during the course of the election. He replied, “I’m not aware of any of those activities. I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians.”
“I think that that kind of unattributed report at a time like this is counterproductive and we must bear in mind that those who published it have already shown their sympathy for the other ticket.”
—Vice President Spiro Agnew (archival footage)
The fine art of dismissing the verity of a story based on the supposed political leanings of its editorial board or executive producer continues today.
“All non-denial denials.”
On Thursday, Carter Page, a former advisor to the Trump campaign, appeared on MSNBC . After a few minutes of sparring with host Chris Hayes about whether he, too, had met with Sergey Kislyak (this time at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland last July), something he had flat-out denied to CNN’s Judy Woodruff two weeks earlier, Page said, “I’m not going to deny that I talked to [Kislyak]...I may have met him, possibly, it might have been in Cleveland.”
“I don’t like newspapers. I don’t care for inexactitude and shallowness.”
—Deep Throat to Woodward
Deep Throat proved to be an indispensable resource to Woodward and Bernstein as well as an advocate against the corruption he saw taking place at the highest levels of government. Less than two weeks ago, Senator John McCain (Arizona-R), one of the few GOP members of Congress to publicly criticize the Trump administration, told NBC’s Chuck Todd, half-jokingly, “I hate the press. I hate you, especially. But the fact is, we need you. We need a free press. We must have it. If you want to preserve—I’m very serious now—if you want to preserve democracy as we know it, you have to have a free and many times adversarial press.”
“ Why haven’t [the FBI and Department of Justice] done anything?”
“If it didn’t deal directly with the [Watergate] break-in, they didn’t pursue.”
—Woodward and Deep Throat
It is an open curiosity of the past month that the FBI, which is the organization best-suited to investigating the conversations that took place between comrade Kislyak and Flynn and Sessions, did not break the news about those discussions or the content of them. The Washington Post did.
“Don’t you understand what you’re on to? You think something this size just happens? You’re missing the overall. They were frightened of Muskie; look who got destroyed. They wanted to run against McGovern; look who they’re running against...They investigated Democratic private lives, they planted spies, stole documents, and on and on. Now don’t tell me you think this is all the work of little Don Segretti.”
—Deep Throat to Woodward
Was WikiLeaks in league with the Trump campaign to expose Hillary Clinton’s and the Democratic National Committee’s emails? Trump openly lauded WikiLeaks during campaign stops and exhorted it to release Clinton’s emails. The Trump campaign may not have been attempting to replace Clinton with Bernie Sanders as their opposition—such a maneuver may have backfired—but many believe there is a possibility that they were in league with either WikiLeaks or the Russians (or FBI director James Comey) in a smear campaign against Clinton.
“ I’ve forgotten the entire incident, but it most certainly wasn’t in her apartment. ”
—Woodward phone interview with Ken Clawson, Deputy Director of White House communications (archival sound)
The ability to simultaneously be oblivious to the occurrence of an incident and purport to know the details of the alleged incident requires real political savvy. Any student of history, someone who might tell you about the “Bowling Green massacre” or what’s going on in Sweden, can tell you that.
“I respect the free press. I don’t respect the type of journalism, the shabby journalism that is being practiced by The Washington Post . All I know is that the story that ran this morning is incorrect and has been so stated as being incorrect by not only me but by the individual whose grand jury testimony they based their story on.”
—White House News Secretary Ronald Ziegler (archival footage)
This was Trump speaking at CPAC on February 24, clarifying a tweet from earlier that week in which he had called the media “the enemy of the people:” “I’m not against the media. I’m not against the press. I’m don’t mind bad stories if I deserve them. And I tell ya, I love good stories, if I deserve them...But I am only against fake news, media or press. Fake, fake. They have to leave that word. I’m against the people that make up stories and make up sources. ”
“Using innuendo, third-person hearsay, unsubstantiated charges, anonymous sources and huge scare headlines, the Post has maliciously sought to give the appearance of a direct connection between the White House and the Watergate, a charge which the Post knows and half a dozen investigations have found to be false. The hallmark of the Post ’s campaign is hypocrisy.”
—Nixon re-election campaign chairman Clark MacGregor
At his lone press conference as president-elect, Trump told CNN’s Jim Acosta that he would not take a question from CNN because “you are fake news.” The president has since softened and did take a question from Acosta at his February press conference.
“Nothing’s riding on this except the First Amendment of the Constitution, freedom of the press, and maybe the future of the country. Not that any of that matters, but if you guys fuck up again, I’m gonna get mad. Good night.”
—Bradlee to Woodward and Bernstein
The closing line of dialogue in the film, uttered only after executive editor Ben Bradlee informed his intrepid young reporters that in a recent Gallup poll half of the nation had no idea what the term “Watergate” meant. “Nobody gives a shit,” said Bradlee (Robards would win the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal).
Whether there is any fire associated with the smoke currently wafting around 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, it is too early to tell. The press will continue to investigate leads and stories dismissing or substantiating allegations as it pieces together the jigsaw puzzle. Woodward had his Deep Throat, while the current bevy of political reporters appear to have a plethora of willing leakers at their disposal.
Ben Bradlee’s son and namesake, Ben, Jr., would follow his father’s path into the newspaper business and become managing editor of The Boston Globe . He worked there during the renowned Spotlight investigation in 2001-2002. That paper’s editor-in-chief at the time, Marty Baron, has since moved on. He now holds the same position at The Washington Post.
How low has President Obama gone to tapp my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 4, 2017
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