Americans familiar with the 1970s Watergate scandal may remember that it wasn't the break-in that forced President Nixon to resign one step ahead of his impeachment conviction. It was the cover-up.
Watergate and the current impeachment inquiry involving President Trump are different on details but they share one similarity: an attempted cover-up. The Nixon team used operatives known as "plumbers" to frustrate investigators — unsuccessfully, it turned out. The Trump White House has tried to stonewall the inquiry by forbidding administration officials to cooperate.
Ominously for the White House, it is learning the hard truth that many officials, motivated either by patriotism or self-protection, or both, are showing up for depositions in what amounts to a grand jury investigation. It's hard to predict the outcome of that development, but if history is any guide, more officials will decline to take a fall for Trump.
It's too soon, obviously, to predict the inquiry's impact on the 2020 presidential and congressional races. But when public hearings commence, leading to votes on articles of impeachment, many incumbent Republicans will likely try to save themselves.
It's unclear whether Rep. Chuck Fleischmann will board a political lifeboat, but he might remember that a GOP predecessor, 3rd District Rep. Lamar Baker, was among many Republicans defeated in a Democratic landslide in 1974.
In September, when Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the impeachment inquiry, Fleischmann issued a statement denigrating it. Unfortunately, his very first sentence has already been rendered irrelevant. Seems partisan fealty looks foolish in the face of accumulated evidence.
Said Fleischmann: "Democrats have been investigating for months — frankly since President Trump was elected — and they have come up dry. Today's announcement is more of the same, the beginning of another baseless investigation from a so-called source that admittingly [sic] does not have firsthand knowledge of the exchange in question."
Interesting phrase, "they have come up dry." Actually, the inquiry has become a gusher of potentially damning revelations.
As more evidence has emerged, some of Fleischmann's fellow minions have resorted to efforts intended to deflect attention from the rising tide. Case in point: the GOP congressmen who staged their version of a flash mob demanding to be admitted to the proceedings, bleating "Let us in! Let us in!"
That was governance as theater — and an embarrassing spectacle, since many of them are members of the committees hearing testimony and did not have to demand admittance.
Other points in Fleischmann's statement have also been outdated. His dismissive reference to "another baseless investigation from a so-called source" for example.
That referred to a CIA agent's revelation about Trump's call to Ukraine's president. He did not claim first-hand knowledge of the call but said the information came from multiple White House sources.
His warning led to a four-word hallelujah chorus of "no quid pro quo" with GOP members of Congress and conservative pundits asserting, in Gertrude Stein's words, "There is no there there."
Little did they know.
This week, Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who was on the Trump phone call, testified to his first-hand knowledge of the conversation. Vindman said the White House's transcript of the call omitted crucial words and phrases. His testimony, The New York Times reported Wednesday, is likely to result in a further investigation of "how White House officials handled the call, including changes to the transcript and the decision to put it into the White House's most classified computer system."
It is a telling commentary on the current state of politics that after Vindman's testimony, far right pundits began questioning his patriotism. To her credit, Rep. Liz Cheney, a Wyoming conservative and daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, bluntly condemned the tactic, saying "it is shameful to question their patriotism [and] their love of this country."
Will her GOP colleagues take that advice to heart? Hard to say.
Michael Loftin is a former opinion page editor for The Chattanooga Times.