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Watergate-ish

Presidents don't just quit. Investigations must happen first.

The first question White House press secretary Sean Spicer faced during Tuesday's press briefing was, naturally, about Michael Flynn. The national security adviser's resignation had come less than 24 hours prior, and less than a month into the Trump presidency. Flynn, a retired Army lieutenant general and former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency under President Obama, had been caught lying to Vice-President Mike Pence about communicating with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. before the inauguration. But was there communication between Russia and anyone associated with Trump during his campaign, asked Jonathan Karl of ABC News? Spicer's stumbling reply sounded as if it came from a dialect called Poor Liar's English. "I don't have any — there's nothing that would conclude me — that anything different has changed with respect to that time period," he said.

Just hours later, Spicer's bumbling "no" was contradicted by intelligence and law enforcement leaks to the New York Times and CNN. According to both reports, members of Trump's presidential campaign and other Trump business associates were indeed talking regularly with senior Russian intelligence officials throughout the 2016 presidential campaign. Hillary Clinton brought this possibility up during one of the presidential debates, and both Obama and Trump were briefed by intelligence officials about it. However, these reports lent legitimacy to what had previously only been speculation. To be clear, no direct communication with the president himself has been revealed, and there is no evidence yet that the campaign was colluding with Russian intelligence in their alleged efforts to sway the election in Trump's favor. So, it seems only natural to ask, what were they talking about?

It is easy to assume that it was something nefarious, especially given that candidate Trump held a presser in July urging Russia to hack Clinton's emails. But it’s important to say that we don't actually know. #TrumpImpeachmentParty was the top trending topic on Twitter Wednesday morning. But as relieving a prospect as that may seem to the president’s critics, it's premature. More proof needs to surface. Investigation, not impeachment, should become the priority. Will we ever get it, though?

What's clear right now is that an independent investigation needs to be launched. On May 18, 1973, when the Watergate scandal had already come to a steady boil, President Nixon's acting attorney general — the prior AG had just resigned in disgrace — appointed Archibald Cox, a solicitor general under President Kennedy, as a special prosecutor at the Department of Justice. Cox oversaw the federal investigation into the Watergate burglary and associated crimes, eventually connecting them to Nixon himself. Nixon later fired Cox during the "Saturday Night Massacre," but the die was cast. Less than a year later, Nixon resigned.

Will Trump behave as Nixon did, impeding an investigation and firing anyone who gets close to the truth? It's absolutely possible. The White House, as anchor Dan Rather aptly noted in a Facebook post reflecting on Trump on Tuesday, has lost all credibility. That is even more damning coming from a journalist who lived through Watergate, and rightly provokes questions about whether what we're going through now is worse. We cannot trust anyone in the executive branch or those who served in his campaign to further any pursuit of truth in this matter, let alone tell the truth about anything they did. Nor can we assume that most Republicans in Washington will do their jobs. The norms that existed even in the most corrupt White House in modern memory likely will not apply here.

Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, was an outlier among his peers on Tuesday, telling KTRS radio during an interview about Flynn's resignation that "we should look into it exhaustively so that at the end of this process, nobody wonders whether there was a stone left unturned." Meanwhile, House Oversight chairman Jason Chaffetz suggested he'd rather investigate the intelligence leakers than Flynn, and on Tuesday, House speaker Paul Ryan declined to call for any investigation into Flynn at all, saying, "I think the administration will explain the circumstances that led to this." Based on the way said administration has dissembled on this issue, it’s hard to believe that will actually happen.

As for the special prosecutor, there's little reason to hope that Jeff Sessions will do the right thing. People say he's such a nice guy, but it's doubtful that the new attorney general will authorize an independent investigation out of the kindness of his heart. Despite vocal pressure from Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and other Democrats for Sessions, one of Trump's earliest endorsers, to remove himself from any investigation into the Russia allegations, aides told the Times Tuesday that Sessions saw no need to do so. No one can force him to, either. The only thing that may influence him to make a different decision, the report noted, is political and public pressure — or new information.

And even those may not work. For instance, House Democrats thought that the Flynn scandal offered them an opportunity to get their hands on Trump's elusive tax returns, proposing an amendment mandating that the Treasury Department demand Trump produce them by March 1. It is a matter of national security, they argued. House Republicans, holding the majority on the Ways and Means Committee, rejected the proposal with a 23–15 vote. This, despite 74 percent of Americans polled shortly before the inauguration saying that Trump should release the returns.

The thirst for Trump's impeachment is even stronger now. Whether this is the next scandal that takes down a president, though, depends not upon a quick assessment by the public, but upon what is actually uncovered and what those revelations produce. That's how a break-in became "Watergate," making the "-gate" suffix synonymous with disgrace.

It still matters whether a foreign nation — an adversarial one, at that — was in communication with one of our presidential campaigns, all while that candidate repeatedly kissed the ring of that country's leader. Details about that communication, most assuredly in the public interest, should be made available. We cannot rely solely upon the leaks of an intelligence community that is clearly fed up with a president who regularly insults it to distract from allegations of his own wrongdoing.

It's all very reminiscent of Nixon, really. He resigned, but only when the truth emerged after years of slow, methodical investigation. We shouldn't expect this investigation, were it to occur, to move much faster. But even if it implicated Trump, I would not expect him to quit. Sadly, the only thing that is crystal clear, as this Russia scandal develops, is that we cannot rely upon a Trump White House and a Republican Congress, at least for now, to do what is in the interest of the American people. If this is as bad as it looks, he will have to be removed. To accomplish that, we'll need more of what Trump hates the most: facts.