“Watergate is the biggest political scandal of my lifetime, until maybe now,” former CBS news anchor Dan Rather said, in a post on Facebook. “It was the closest we came to a debilitating Constitutional crisis, until maybe now.”
His comments come after the White House admitted the President was told several weeks ago that National Security Adviser Michael Flynn had not told the truth about a telephone call with a Russian diplomat—and chose not to fire him immediately. The news has fuelled broader concerns about Mr Trump's closeness to Vladimir Putin and the role Russia may have played in helping him get elected.
“On a 10 scale of Armageddon for our form of government, I would put Watergate at a 9,” said Mr Rather, who won acclaim for his coverage, as a White House correspondent, of the scandal that led to President Richard Nixon's resignation in 1974. “This Russia scandal is currently somewhere around a 5 or 6, in my opinion, but it is cascading in intensity seemingly by the hour.”
Mr Flynn handed in his resignation amid mounting controversy over his interaction with Russian officials, and a false assurance he gave that he had not discussed the issue of sanctions.
Meanwhile, law enforcement and intelligence agencies reportedly found that members of Mr Trump’s campaign and other associates had repeated contact with Russian officials in the run-up to the election.
Four current and former US officials told the New York Times that they had intercepted phone records and phone calls and had found evidence of the repeated communications last year, around the same time they discovered that Russia had carried out a “campaign of influence” upon the election, posting fake news to sabotage Hillary Clinton's candidacy.
Mr Rather is just one of many voices now asking how much Mr Trump knew about Mr Flynn's actions, and why he did not act sooner.
“We are still less than a month into the Trump Presidency, and many are asking that question made famous by Tennessee Senator Howard Baker those many years ago: 'What did the President know, and when did he know it?'" Mr Rather said.
He added that as a reporter he had a different perspective on the unfurling of the Watergate scandal and could already see similarities.
“When we look back at Watergate, we remember the end of the Nixon Presidency. It came with an avalanche," he said, "but for most of the time my fellow reporters and I were chasing down the story as it rumbled along with a low-grade intensity. We never were quite sure how much we would find out about what really happened. In the end, the truth emerged into the light, and President Nixon descended into infamy”.
The Trump administration has said it did not discipline Mr Flynn sooner because the President wanted to give the retired lieutenant general “due process”. The White House counsel has maintained that Mr Flynn did not violate the law, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said Tuesday.
Mr Trump ultimately demanded Mr Flynn’s resignation after he denied to Vice President Mike Pence discussing sanctions on the call, which led Mr Pence to repeat the lie on television, according to Mr Spicer.
But the situation has bolstered concerns about the overly friendly nature of Mr Trump’s relationship with Russia, and how this could impact US interests.
As president, Mr Trump has refused to criticise the Russian President and he has indicated that he would like to mend relations with the country.
Mr Rather called for an independent investigation into the matter, arguing that the administration and the Republican Congress have forfeited their right to be trusted on these matters.
“The White House has no credibility on this issue. Their spigot of lies - can't we finally all agree to call them lies - long ago lost them any semblance of credibility," he said. "I would also extend that to the Republican Congress, who has excused away the Trump Administration's assertions for far too long.
"We need an independent investigation. Damn the lies, full throttle forward on the truth."
He added that the scandal so far was too far-fetched for a plausible Hollywood film plot. "But this is not fiction. It is real and it is serious. Deadly serious. We deserve answers and those who are complicit in this scandal need to feel the full force of justice."
He said: “We may look back and see, in the end, that it is at least as big as Watergate. It may become the measure by which all future scandals are judged. It has all the necessary ingredients, and that is chilling.”
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