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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

Echoes of Watergate are hard to ignore in Trump impeachment inquiry

Sen. Howard Baker speaks at the American Society

Sen. Howard Baker speaks at the American Society of Newspaper Editors Convention at the Hilton Hotel in Manhattan in May 1979. Credit: Getty Images / Brian Alpert

Once upon a time, the U.S. Senate was home to a Tennessean named Howard Baker. Known for putting principle ahead of party, he was called the Great Conciliator because he could broker compromises while maintaining the civility once the hallmark of the chamber.

In 1973, Baker, a Republican, was the ranking member of the Senate Watergate Committee. And though he'd have to be a juror in an impeachment trial, Baker quietly met to discuss strategy with President Richard Nixon, whose nefarious activities related to the break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters were being investigated. Baker told Nixon, "I'm your friend, I'm going to see that your interests are protected." His staff kept Nixon informed about committee plans.

During former White House counsel John Dean's testimony, Baker famously asked, "What did the president know, and when did he know it?" Even then, Baker was trying to protect Nixon, mistakenly thinking the president didn't know about the cover-up of the break-in until long after it started. Only later, after evidence mounted, did Baker become the Nixon critic he is remembered as being today.

It's a fool's errand to try to predict the course of the House impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump. There are parallels around digging for dirt on political opponents and subsequent cover-ups. One difference: Trump's effort to get Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden is a 21st century  operation — it was being  outsourced to a foreign power. One similarity: Both happened during partisan times.

In the early stages of Watergate, Gerald Ford, then a GOP congressman, called the probe a "political witch hunt." Sen. Bob Dole termed it "mudslinging." Most Republicans stuck with Nixon until the "smoking gun" tapes proved he had obstructed justice by ordering the cover-up. The GOP also watched polls. The percentage of Americans who said Nixon should be impeached rose from 19% in June 1973 to 44% in June 1974 to 57% in August 1974, when Nixon resigned.

Will the current GOP stick with Trump? If the evidence that Trump sought Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky's aid to boost his 2020 campaign is as damning as it appears, and if Democrats don't blow the inquiry as they are eminently capable of doing, this group of Republicans likely will prove to be no different. If sticking with Trump starts to look politically problematic, they'll abandon him before they fall with him. Already, Rep. Mike Turner of Ohio, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said the phone call between Trump and Zelensky was "not OK." Sens. Mitt Romney and Ben Sasse scowled similarly.

Polling is shifting, too. A Politico/Morning Consult poll last week swung 13 percentage points, with the public split, 43-43, on whether Congress should begin impeachment proceedings. The NPR/PBS News Hour/Marist poll swung 17 points, favoring impeachment by 49% to 46%.

Of course, public reaction depends on the public paying attention. It's incomprehensible nowadays, but 71% of Americans polled by Gallup said they watched the Watergate hearings live. There's more competition for our eyeballs now. Hundreds of cable stations and streaming services vs. three networks then. Social media and websites with endless capacity for distraction, disinformation and conspiracy theories. Do we have the attention span anymore to focus on a potentially time-consuming impeachment inquiry? Will partisan bickering, hapless questioning and grandstanding on both sides be a turnoff? Will people get bored? Will indignation fade?

I hope the TV ratings are high. Too many people don't check source material to judge for themselves, like the depressing number who praised or condemned special counsel Robert Mueller's report and by their own admission did not read it.

There's a long way to go. Watch what happens. There's a lot riding on it.

Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday's editorial board.