Donald Trump asked what the difference was between the FBI raid in Mar-a-Lago and Watergate. A lot, according to historians and a political scientist.
- Donald Trump compared the FBI search of his Mar-a-Lago home on Monday to the Watergate scandal in 1972.
- The allegations against Trump and the actors are much different, a political science professor said.
When Donald Trump announced on Monday that the FBI executed a search warrant at his Mar-a-Lago home in Palm Beach, Florida, he called it an unprecedented move against a US president while also drawing a comparison to the Watergate scandal in 1972, when five people connected to Richard Nixon's re-election campaign broke into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.
"What is the difference between this and Watergate, where operatives broke into the Democrat National Committee," Trump asked. "Here, in reverse, Democrats broke into the home of the 45th President of the United States."
But according to historians and a political scientist, the two events couldn't be more different.
"They're nothing alike," Matthew Schmidt, an associate professor of national security and political science at the University of New Haven, said. "The allegations against Trump and the allegations against Nixon are entirely different. And the actors are entirely different."
In Trump's case, federal authorities executed a search warrant, which is pre-approved by a federal judge, to legally enter the former president's domain, Schmidt said.
"In Watergate, you had private citizens breaking into an opposition party's campaign headquarters and sealing things," he said, referring to how the Nixon administration later attempted to cover up its involvement with the break-in and obstruct investigations. "None of that is happening here."
"In one case, burglars hired by the Nixon campaign committee committed a crime," Bruce Schulman, a history professor at Boston University, wrote in an email to Insider. "In the other, FBI agents, authorized by a federal judge, investigated a crime committed by someone else."
Authorities did not disclose the nature of the warrant, but several reports state that it may be connected to troves of classified documents Trump took with him from the White House, potentially violating the Presidential Records Act by mishandling classified records.
The FBI also most likely must have met a high bar of "probable cause" if a search was "approved and monitored at the highest level of the Justice Department," Garret M. Graff, author of "Watergate: A New History," wrote on Twitter.
—Garrett M. Graff (@vermontgmg) August 8, 2022
Schmidt also pointed to how Watergate occurred during less politically polarized times.
"In the case of Richard Nixon, you had two political parties that could agree on the value standard for public behavior. And they both agreed that President Nixon's behavior in abetting the break-in to the DNC was wrong," he said. "In this case, you don't have that. Trump is able to say what he says because he knows that his own party will back him and does not share the value sets of standards that the Democrats do."
"To me, that's the biggest difference here," he said.
Some high-level GOP officials have characterized the FBI search as a case example of the political "weaponization" of the FBI and Justice Department to crush an opposing party.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who had recently been seen as a possible rival to the former president as reports of a potential 2024 presidential bid circulate, came to the defense of Trump on Monday.
"The raid of [Mar-a-Lago] is another escalation in the weaponization of federal agencies against the Regime's political opponents, while people like Hunter Biden get treated with kid gloves," DeSantis wrote on Twitter.
Schmidt, who also studies political identity and researched the development of the modern conservative movement, said this narrative is consistent with the GOP's goal "to create a false atmosphere of conspiracy within the government against conservatives."
"This is when that long-term project of creating that atmosphere of conspiracy pays off," he said.
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