Raleigh, N.C. — All across the media and social media this week, the hearings in Washington, D.C., over fired FBI Director James Comey have been compared to the 1973 Watergate hearings. However, a key figure from Watergate says the comparison doesn't really hold up.
Rufus Edmisten is a longtime North Carolina political figure who served as the state's attorney general in the 1970s and as secretary of state in the 1990s.
Before that, as a young lawyer, he worked for the late U.S. Sen. Sam Ervin, the Democratic co-chairman of the Watergate committee. Edmisten was the committee's deputy chief counsel, even serving a subpoena on the White House during that spring and summer.
Edmisten says there are similarities between the two events, some almost eerie. He says both presidents pushed the limits of executive branch power, and both were suspected of obstruction of justice by telling the FBI to drop a criminal investigation.
"In both, you had a firing," he notes. "You had Trump fire Comey, and you had Nixon and the 'Saturday Night Massacre,' which I’ll never forget. Sen. Ervin and I were in Asheville. The similarities keep going, and that’s why I say the White House needs to read some history and say, 'Look, they had this thing called Watergate, and we should have learned from that.'"
Another similarity, he says, is Nixon's and Trump's shared disregard for the importance of appearances.
"I’m not making any judgment on whether there was obstruction of justice or not, but they sure led people to believe there was hanky-panky going on, and they weren’t talking about the weather," Edmisten says. "The appearance of impropriety can be just as bad, sometimes, as the actual impropriety. And boy, they’ve sure tried hard to give the American people reason to believe that something’s going on."
But the differences, he says, are even more striking.
While the current probe into Trump and the Comey firing is "bifurcated, trifurcated, all over the place," Edmisten says, Watergate was a bipartisan committee of seven senators that kept its focus off politics.
"The success of Watergate was that [co-chairs Ervin and then-U.S. Sen. Howard Baker] both agreed that they would not disagree. And that’s the advice I’ve given to Sen. [Richard] Burr – to make sure they’ve got a committee that will not go off in all directions.
"I don’t see another Watergate-type hearing ever happening again in my lifetime," he continued. "The partisanship that’s been created by all these crazy radio talk hosts on both sides has created an atmosphere where [the senators] don’t like one another. It’s hard to get things done if you don’t like one another, and you've been poisoned by just ridiculous, crazy stuff. We have a bunch of nut-bags in the country today."
Another key difference is that the current hearings are in very early stages, he says.
"Congressional committees, they’re not formed to ferret out and solve criminal cases. They’re there to inform the public. They’re there to gather information to pass legislation," Edmisten says. "The Watergate Committee was backed up by something called tapes. Much of this now is he said, he said another thing. Liar, liar, pants on fire.
"What they need to all worry about is the special counsel," he added. "It’s not exactly like a Watergate prosecutor used to be, but when you give a person the power to investigate as long as they want to, you give them all the money they need, they’ll find something. And this could go on for a couple of years."
If it does, he's not sure the American public of 2017 will have the patience it did in 1973, when the nation was glued to its televisions as the hearings stretched on for weeks and weeks.
"The American public now demands that something happen immediately because of the 24/7 news coverage," he says. "They want answers to this thing now, and it’s a long way off. It’s a very long way off."