Why you should care
Because when you boast about a campaign dirty trick, investigators win.
Based on OZY’s hit podcast The Thread, which delves into surprising connections in history, The Mueller Thread weaves together the strands linking the sprawling investigations around President Donald Trump.
Loose lips can sink ships. They can also derail presidencies. More than four decades before drunken Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos bragged to an Australian diplomat in a London bar in May 2016 that the Russians had stolen emails that would damage Hillary Clinton, another aide to a presidential candidate, Ken Clawson, was gloating about an election dirty trick involving damaging correspondence over scotch with a Washington Post reporter named Marilyn Berger.
What do these two indiscreet, inebriated boasts have in common? Hint: It’s more than newly indicted Trump adviser and self-proclaimed dirty trickster Roger Stone (who appears to be the human tissue connecting most of the memorable dirty tricks in modern U.S. politics). Papadopoulos’ disclosure would kick-start an FBI investigation into the hacked emails and possible collusion between Russia and members of the Trump campaign. The revelation made by Clawson, a deputy White House communications director for President Richard M. Nixon, would, thanks to Berger, blow up a fledgling Watergate scandal — in a way that should make White House lawyers and defenders uneasy in the wake of Stone’s indictment.
Berger’s reporting helped accelerate the Watergate scandal.
“I wrote the letter,” Clawson, a zealous former Washington Post reporter turned zealous partisan defender of the Nixon White House, confessed to Berger, a foreign affairs reporter, over late-night drinks at her Washington, D.C., home on the evening of Sept. 25, 1972. The letter in question was the notorious “Canuck letter,” which earlier that year had helped sink the campaign of Maine Democratic Sen. Edmund Muskie — the opponent Nixon feared most in the general election. The fraudulent letter, addressed to the Manchester Union Leader newspaper during the New Hampshire primary campaign, claimed Muskie had condoned the use of the ethnic slur “Canucks” to describe Americans of French-Canadian descent. While Canadians generally consider “Canuck” harmless, some New Englanders found it offensive. A shaken Muskie denied the accusation but then dissolved into tears before cameras (Muskie maintained snowflakes had gotten in his eyes). His chances of winning dissolved too. Incidentally, a 20-year-old operative named Roger Stone was also busy in New Hampshire with lower-level dirty tricks such as making a donation from the sham Young Socialist Alliance to an anti-war Republican opposing Nixon in the primary.
The pudgy 35-year-old Clawson later denied Berger’s recollection of their conversation, saying he told her only that he wished he had written the Canuck letter. Berger, for her part, was worried about becoming part of the story (an unenviable position for a reporter) and the unfolding scandal. But the diligent journalist nevertheless wrote down a memo of her conversation with Clawson and shared it with colleagues Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. According to their book All the President’s Men, the two reporters had amassed a lot of material about the Watergate break-in by the fall of 1972, but they were still unable to draw specific connections between dirty tricks and members of the Nixon campaign. Clawson’s admission about the Canuck letter was a breakthrough and formed a major part of an Oct. 10, 1972, article penned by Woodward and Bernstein about how FBI investigators were looking into the Nixon campaign’s “massive campaign of political spying and sabotage.”
Berger’s reporting helped accelerate the Watergate scandal at a key time. The fact that Nixon’s team was capable of a dirty trick like the Canuck letter lent more credibility to Woodward and Bernstein’s other reporting, fueling Nixon’s eventual downfall. The key was establishing a pattern of behavior. Stone’s indictment, and the recent revelation that Robert Mueller’s team has communications between Stone and WikiLeaks about Russia’s theft of Clinton campaign emails, do not prove a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia to influence the 2016 election. But they are more concrete indications — just like the Canuck letter — that there was an appetite to collude within Trump’s campaign, as there was to meddle within Nixon’s.
Six months after the Canuck letter story, Clawson ran into legendary Post executive editor Ben Bradlee at the 1973 White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. In a heated exchange with echoes of today given the tangential presence of Stone in the unfolding dick-pic scandal involving current Post owner Jeff Bezos, Bradlee and Clawson engaged in a nose-to-nose shouting match in which Clawson pledged to his former boss, “We’re going to get back at you.”
The savvy and relentlessly self-promoting Clawson, like Stone, had an over-the-top bravado that made him a joke to many he encountered. But the self-proclaimed “pure Nixon Republican” also had a deep, if somewhat blind, loyalty streak. “We’re going to be here until Jan. 20, 1977,” he defiantly boasted to another reporter, New York magazine’s Nora Ephron, in June 1974. “They can throw rocks at the White House, but we’re still going to be here.”
Two months later, just before Nixon resigned the presidency, Clawson called his White House communications team together for one last scotch. “I raised my glass and said, ‘To the president,’” Clawson later recounted. “We drank in silence, while some cried.”
Read more: How Roger Clinton could set up a Don Jr. pardon.