This is not a witch hunt

Forty-five years ago, as most of Washington, D.C., and the rest of the country were snoozing into the weekend, burglars broke into the Democratic National Committee offices in the Watergate hotel.

It took two years of digging, but the subsequent investigative reporting by journalists and the official investigations by a special prosecutor and a Senate committee unearthed a virtual prairie dog village of tunnels and burrows and hidden loot. The ground beneath the presidency, it turned out, was undermined by corruption and disdain for the republic.

The chief perpetrator was the president, Richard M. Nixon, whose ultimate punishment was not judicial. Allowed to resign rather than face impeachment and possible criminal charges, he settled for the biggest asterisk in American history to be forever on his accomplishments.

It was not a witch hunt. And despite President Trump's Tweet Friday, acknowledging that he is under investigation by the justice department for his firing of the FBI director, the current investigation into Russian influence on his campaign and administration is not a witch hunt either.

A witch hunt, much to America's shameful recollection, is a malicious, panicky attempt to blame someone for things that are going wrong. If there is an epidemic — small pox in the old days, HIV more recently — someone must have brought it down on us, the irrational thinking goes. If we destroy those responsible, everything will be OK again. That's a witch hunt.

Neither the Watergate investigations nor the current investigations began that way. They started because something didn't add up. Actions seemed inconsistent with the law. Inconsistencies began to seem like lies. Lies led to more investigating, and that led to more individuals being investigated. People told on other people.

A witch hunt assumes guilt in advance. The U.S. Constitution assures the presumption of innocence, until proven guilty. It's true that it doesn't always look that way, especially to a person charged with a crime. But judges remind juries that although the prosecutor found enough evidence to charge the accused, that is not a conviction. Many times the evidence is not enough to convict.

So, 45 years later — way too soon — here we are again. The first news reporting of the Watergate break-in was by two junior reporters on The Washington Post weekend shift. They caught what turned out to be the political crime story of the 20th century, because something just didn't seem to jibe, and they kept looking.

That was no witch hunt. And neither is this, even if it feels that way to the president.

For obvious reasons, investigators into alleged criminal acts don't reveal everything they are finding nor everyone they are looking into. Some of it will turn out to be false; some will be a dead end; some a tipoff; some irrelevant. Once said it cannot be unsaid, all of which may be behind a statement by Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, who is heading the investigation, that Americans need to be careful of leaked news.

But it is impossible to miss the spreading of this investigation. Unlike Watergate, which was essentially domestic crime and corruption, this time the issue is improper foreign influence by a longtime adversary, Russia. This time the intelligence community is playing a role.

The investigation began with the conclusion by U.S. intelligence experts that Russia had meddled in the 2016 presidential election. Trump associates with ties to Russia, including Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort and the president's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, are under scrutiny. The Senate Intelligence Committee questioned the fired FBI director, openly and in classified session, and grilled Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The president has been said to be considering firing Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein and Robert Mueller, the former FBI director who is serving as special counsel to the Justice Department investigation.

When things were rapidly unraveling for Nixon, in October 1973, he ordered Attorney General Elliott Richardson to fire the special prosecutor, Archibald Cox. Richardson and the deputy attorney general, William Ruckelshaus, resigned instead. But the investigations went on, with more energy than ever.

This is not a witch hunt. It's not even déjà vu all over again. But it is moving much faster than Watergate and may eventually reveal activities even more dangerous than the presidential corruption of 1972.

The editorial board is composed of the publisher and four journalists of varied editing and reporting backgrounds. The board's discussions and information gained from its meetings with political, civic, and business leaders drive the institutional voice of The Day, as expressed in its editorials. The editorial department operates separately from the newsroom.


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