OPED: The biggest scandal since Iran-Contra

Jonathan Bernstein
Tribune News Service

Another blockbuster story from The New York Times late Thursday, which has more details about how Donald Trump and the White House attempted to shut down the Russia investigation last year, suggests it's a good time to take stock of where the story is right now.

I'll start with obstruction of justice. While the Times story did have further details (and probably made the position of White House counsel Donald McGahn even more precarious), I don't really think the reported case against Trump has moved very far since July.

Trump certainly — by his own admission, and the clear public facts of the case — attempted to stop the investigation. He pressured the attorney general not to recuse himself despite Justice Department guidance that Jeff Sessions had to do so. He pressured FBI Director James Comey to be loyal to the president, and when Comey wouldn't shut down the investigation, Trump fired him in order to put an end to it.

More:AP source: Flynn breaks with Trump team on Mueller probe

Is that obstruction? I sure think so for political purposes, whether there's a legal case or not. Is it as bad as the obstruction of justice Richard Nixon was guilty of in 1974? Based on what we know, it's not even close — there are no payoffs from a slush fund to suborn perjury, no destruction of physical evidence and documents, and, so far, Trump hasn't fired a special prosecutor. I'd put it about where I put it in July: It's a legitimate cause for impeachment, but not enough that the evidence absolutely demands it and removal from office.

What of the underlying case that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia? That part of it has strengthened a fair amount since July. I think writer Brian Beutler has it right: It's now clear that the campaign colluded with Russia's attempt to influence the 2016 presidential election. It's no longer possible, as it was then, that the coverup was protecting something that never happened in the first place.

However, this only serves to place the underlying scandal more or less where the obstruction story has been since the spring: enough to make attempting to remove the president legitimate, but hardly enough to demand it.

Given that there's certainly no interest for action among a majority of the current House, and nothing remotely close to the votes to convict in the Senate, that's where things are going to sit for a while. Whether that changes will depend on what Robert Mueller's investigation turns up (or has turned up and eventually makes public), along with any additional facts discovered by congressional committees or the news media. It will also depend on how Trump is otherwise doing.

More:Trump denies plan to fire Mueller

This scandal (among other things) would give Republicans in Congress a reason to remove him if that's what they otherwise wanted to do. That's not where they are now, but it's not hard to imagine that changing.

It doesn't appear that Mueller will be done anytime soon; Trump's lawyers' assurances that it was going to be wrapped up by Thanksgiving and then by New Year's Day were pipe dreams that no outside analysts took seriously. But that doesn't tell us much. I've seen convincing cases that Mueller's actions so far indicate he has much more on bigger fish, as well as reasonable cases that what we know now could be the whole story. We're just going to have to wait.

Is it worth the amount of attention it's getting? Certainly. One of the leaders of Trump's presidential campaign has been indicted; his former national security adviser has pleaded guilty. At the very least, it's the biggest presidential scandal since the Iran-Contra affair in Ronald Reagan's second term, and I think it's probably the biggest since Watergate.

Even if nothing else is revealed, it's already hurt Trump's professional reputation and his public prestige.

— Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science.