In search of Howard Baker

In search of Howard Baker
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“What did the president know, and when did he know it?” Republican Sen. Howard Baker asked former White House counsel John Dean in a televised Senate hearing into the Watergate break-in and subsequent cover-up. The country faced a constitutional crisis. It was becoming clear that members of the Nixon administration had engaged in a series of crimes and cover-ups.   

The president had fired Special Counsel Archibald Cox, who was leading the criminal investigation into Watergate, which caused both the attorney general and deputy attorney general to resign. What was unclear was what role, if any, the president himself had in the affairs and what, if anything, Congress would do about it.

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Due in no small part to the Sen. Baker’s question, it ultimately became clear that President Nixon, also a Republican, knew way too much, forcing him to resign the presidency in disgrace.  But Howard Baker’s question became the seminal moment in the Senate hearings — a moment where the rule of law triumphed over the power over the presidency, and where loyalty to our institutions and Constitution rose above loyalty to political party and the senator’s friendship with the president.  

 

In perhaps the most critical of ways, that was a defining moment for us as a nation. In that moment, with that question, Sen. Baker reaffirmed that we are a country of laws, not of men. Even the president is subject to the law. It is the rule of law that distinguishes us from countries such as Russia and Venezuela. It keeps us out of jail when we might offend those in power but have committed no crime. It puts those in power in jail when they commit crimes. The rule of law is the bastion, the stronghold, of our freedoms.

We are now faced with another constitutional crisis, a crisis that again threatens the rule of law.  That is, the investigation by Special Prosecutor Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerTop Republican considered Mueller subpoena to box in Democrats Kamala Harris says her Justice Dept would have 'no choice' but to prosecute Trump for obstruction Dem committees win new powers to investigate Trump MORE and Congress into Russia’s coercion of our election and the related potential collusion with the Trump campaign. But today our political parties are more divided than ever before.

In this context, the Republican leadership in the Senate investigation has chosen to keep most of its hearings secret, rather than televise the hearings as was done with Watergate. They have chosen, without collaboration with the Democrats, to refer the author of the Steele dossier to the FBI for investigation. An opinion piece in the New York Times, entitled “The Republicans’ Fake Investigations,” details the shortcomings of the Republican investigation. It should cause all of those who put the rule of law and the truth first to shudder.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpPompeo changes staff for Russia meeting after concerns raised about top negotiator's ties: report House unravels with rise of 'Les Enfants Terrible' Ben Carson: Trump is not a racist and his comments were not racist MORE, much like Nixon, claims innocence at every conceivable opportunity. He has tweeted that it is time for the Republicans to step up and “control” the investigation. At the president’s urging, almost certainly to shift focus to something or someone else, the Justice Department has started an investigation into his political rival, the Clinton Foundation. This all sounds more like Venezuela than the United States, where the rule of law is supposed to reign supreme.  

I do not know if there was collusion between the Russians and the Trump campaign. I do not know if Donald Trump himself is in the pocket of the Russians, as the Steele dossier suggests. For the good of our country, I hope neither is the case. What I do know is that an unhampered, honest and full investigation into the truth is essential for our democracy and the rule of law.  

Conversely, I am equally certain that anything less than a full investigation would create a structural crack in the basic foundations that Washington, Madison and Hamilton put in place with our Constitution. Almost inevitably, down the road, when convenience suits those in power, such a structural crack will lead to further cracks in our system of government and the rule of law.   

The question today is whether someone in power in the Republican Party will insist that our country, that the rule of law, and that our institutions be put above party and power. And so, we as a country are in search of Howard Baker.   

Gary A. Garfield is the retired chairman, president and CEO of Bridgestone Americas Inc. He practiced law for 29 years and was the general counsel and chief compliance officer before leading the company.