James Clapper Says Watergate 'Pales' in Comparison With Trump Russia Scandal
The former US director of national intelligence James Clapper says events in Washington now are more serious than the Watergate scandal of the 1970s, and that it is imperative investigators get to the bottom of the Trump administration’s links with the Putin regime.
Clapper used a speech to Australia’s National Press Club on Wednesday to launch a critique of the US president, Donald Trump, describing his decision to cultivate Russia and share intelligence with the Putin regime as “very problematic”. He described Trump’s firing of the FBI chief Jim Comey as “egregious and inexcusable”.
The former intelligence director was asked how current events compared to Watergate and he said the behaviour under scrutiny now was more serious. “I think you compare the two, that Watergate pales, really, in my view, compared to what we’re confronting now.”
Clapper’s appearance in Canberra comes before highly anticipated testimony later this week by Comey before the Senate intelligence committee. The committee is examining whether Trump’s campaign colluded with Russian officials who interfered in the US presidential election.
Comey is expected to face questions about whether Trump tried to persuade him to stop an investigation into improper contacts between one of his top backroom advisers and Russian officials, and whether the former FBI director was sacked by the president because he refused to comply.
Clapper told the National Press Club in Canberra it was “absolutely crucial for the United States, and for that matter for the world, for this presidency, for the Republicans, for the Democrats and for our nation at large, that we get to the bottom of this”.
“Is there a smoking gun with all the smoke? I don’t know the answer to that. I think it’s vital, though, we find that out.”
Clapper insisted that, whatever Trump’s intentions, there was no way the US and Russia could be allies, because Russia was “opposed to our democracy and values and see us, particularly the United States, as the cause of all their problems and frustrations”.
He said he had a “real hard time reconciling the threat the Russians pose to the United States and, by extension, western democracies in general” with the solicitousness of the Trump administration towards Moscow. “The Russians are not our friends,” he said.
Clapper said Trump, then president-elect, had remarked to him “during my one and only, first and last ever, I’m sure, sojourn to Trump Tower” that it would be “a good thing if we could get along with the Russians”.
Clapper said he told Trump: “Sure, whenever our interests converge, and they do occasionally, fine, but as far as our being intimate allies, trusting buds, with the Russians? That is just not gonna happen”.
He told the Canberra press club the two countries could not be allies because they had irreconcilable differences. It was in Russia’s “genes to be opposed, diametrically opposed, to the United States and western democracies”.
Clapper said he had attempted in the middle of January to dissuade Trump, during a private phone conversation, from attacking the intelligence establishment in Washington but he said the intervention fell on deaf ears.
The president’s team, he said, was motivated by “extreme paranoia” about any material that cast doubt on the legitimacy of Trump’s election.
Clapper was asked how Australia should approach its most important foreign policy relationship given the challenges posed by the Trump administration. He said the question was somewhat “imponderable.”
He observed there were people in the administration who could be trusted – nominating Jim Mattis, the defence secretary, John Kelly, the homeland security chief, and HR McMaster, the national security adviser. “They have understanding and respect for our institutions,” he said.
He said he was reluctant to give Australia public advice about its foreign policy relationships but he said: “I just think Australia has to keep on and make decisions based on Australia’s best national interests.
“I have to say that I think prime minister Turnbull has found the balance between being very tactful with our president but at the same time not compromising Australia’s interests and its sovereignty.”
Clapper was asked whether Trump’s decision to share Israeli intelligence with Russia should prompt a rethink of intelligence sharing arrangements under the Five Eyes partnership.
He said individual countries would have to make their own judgments. Clapper said that, at the institutional level, agencies would be concerned if intelligence sharing was discontinued.
“But, to some extent, you know, it reaches a certain level where it’s out of our control,” Clapper said. “I hope it doesn’t happen but I could certainly understand if it did and that’s a judgment that each and every national government will have to make.”