The cover-up is only worse than the crime if you get caught in a presidential scandal

President Donald Trump smiles as he prepares to speak at his "Make America Great Again Rally" at Orlando-Melbourne International Airport in Melbourne, Fla., Saturday, Feb. 18, 2017. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

From Donald Trump's well-received joint address before Congress this week, it might have appeared that the new president had fully recovered from the forced resignation of former national security adviser Mike Flynn, over conversations with the Russian ambassador. But within 24 hours of the speech, the administration was again under siege, this time for unreported meetings between Attorney General Jeff Sessions and that same Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak.

The Sessions-Kislyak meetings stole headlines not necessarily because of what was discussed, but because on January 10, Sessions testified under oath to the Senate Judiciary Committee saying, "I did not have communications with the Russians."

It had a cadence similar to President Bill Clinton's famous, impeachable statement, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman," only now, the accused did not have diplomatic relations with that country.

The old saying in politics is that the cover-up is always worse than the crime, and Democrats in Congress worked hard throughout the day on Thursday to try to prove the saying true.

House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi rallied 100 Democrats all demanding Sessions resign. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer also joined the chorus calling for Sessions's resignation, stating , "The standard for remaining attorney general and certainly for conducting investigations is not just did you break the law, you have to be above reproach."

But by the end of the day, Sessions, of his own accord and with the "total" confidence of President Trump, acknowledged having the meetings, and recused himself from any current or future investigations having to do with the Trump campaign and the Russian election interference.

Flynn's case also appeared to follow the political adage. His problem was not that he met with the Russian ambassador, but that he covered it up. After the meeting became public, Flynn assured Vice President Mike Pence that there was no talk about the U.S. sanctions on Russia during the meeting. Pence repeated the claim with conviction on January 15 on Fox News Sunday. By February 9, the Washington Post reported on leaked communications intercepts between Flynn and Kislyak, showing the two had in fact discussed sanctions and by February 13, Flynn was out.

The White House response has been fairly consistent. They have worked hard to condemn information leaks out of the White House and to discredit press reports alleging nefarious contact between the Trump team and the Russian government that sought to influence the election in Trump's favor.

"Russia is fake news," Trump said at his first solo press conference last month. "You know, you can talk all you want about Russia, which was all, you know, fake news fabricated deal to try to make up for the loss of the Democrats and the press plays right into it. ... It's all fake news."

White House press secretary Sean Spicer has repeatedly responded to questions about an FBI investigation or special prosecutor to examine alleged ties between the Trump administration and Russia by flatly denying there is anything to investigate.

On Tuesday evening as the news was breaking of Sessions's apparently misleading Congress about his meetings with the Russian ambassador, Trump got a piece of unsolicited advice from the man who both participated in Richard Nixon's Watergate cover-up and later testified against him. "Hey Donald, a tip: Cover-ups don't get easier as they proceed," wrote John Dean, Nixon's White House counsel.

In an interview with the New Yorker, Dean elaborated his thoughts. "If there is any lesson from Watergate or from Iran-Contra or the Lewinsky affair, is is that if you don't have a problem what you truly do is you say to the FBI or whomever, come in and talk to my staff," he advised. The Trump administration is not doing that, he continued, "Rather, they're trying to knock down press reports... That's just not the way innocent people deal with these issues."

Brandon Rottinghaus is a political science professor at the University of Houston and author of the 2015 book, "The Institutional Effects of Executive Scandals." He has closely studied the anatomy and effects of presidential scandals, both major scandals, centering on the president directly, and minor scandals that hit cabinet or other executive officials.

Historically speaking, when a cabinet member is involved in a scandal, they tend to leave their positions within two months after the scandal breaks, Rottinghaus noted. In part, the quick departure helps protect the integrity of the presidency by swiftly cutting off the offender. "So if the attorney general is to be removed, or if he resigns, something will happen relatively soon."

If the cost of keeping an official associated with scandal on board is too great, if he becomes an easy target and sore spot for the administration, then he will soon be cut loose. Because as Dean suggested and Rottinghaus's research confirmed, the longer scandals stick around the more it erodes the president's approval ratings and his ability to move ahead with his agenda.

"Presidents don't always feel the sting immediately, but the cumulative effect of more scandals tends to hurt," Rottinghaus said, warning that a steady barrage of scandals against the Trump administration could lead to members of Congress abandoning the president, even if they share the same party affiliation.

When it comes to actually managing a scandal, there are a few ways for the White House to respond. It is often said that the best thing to do is come clean, be totally transparent, admit to your wrongdoing. If the scandal can be easily discovered, as through inconsistencies in the public record, that is absolutely the right approach, but it's not always so cut and dry.

Under some circumstances, telling the whole truth is not the smart approach. It depends on a number of factors including the likelihood the truth will ever be revealed, the president's popularity, his opponents unpopularity or lack of credibility, and even the tendency of White House insiders to leak. Depending on the situation, the old saying that "the cover-up is worse than the crime," just isn't true.

"It's conditional on the political environment they find themselves in," Rottinghaus said. "I hate to be on the side of less information, but if you're in the White House and you think this information would effectively damage your administration, perhaps cripple it, then you stonewall. And that's a smart play."

If the Trump administration believes it could be mortally wounded by revelations over ties to Russia, then it should stonewall, a tactic which can mean issuing misleading statements, impeding investigations, not releasing information or selectively releasing information to create a false impression, and outright lying.

In his research, Rottinhaus found a pattern of common behavior among presidents who were besieged with scandal. "Presidents are more likely to stonewall when a scandal is major, like when the president is involved, than when a scandal is minor," he noted, adding that Trump's "stonewalling" behavior around the alleged Russia scandal could be a sign.

"In one sense we have an indication that there could be something that is big behind this," he said. For Trump, the stonewalling could backfire and his tendency to dismiss reports of the scandal as fake news could be dangerous. "Typically for presidents, the more they say, 'There's nothing there,' the more people look to see what's there. And unless you can feed the media some kind of conclusion, there is going to be continuous digging."

If a president chooses the cover-up route, it's best to be either very strong politically, or have a high degree of certainty that the truth won't come to light, whether through leaks or the public record. When a scandal intersects national security issues, where executive privilege can be invoked, that can embolden a president to hide his tracks. Also, if legalistic issues are involved concerning matters of attorney client privilege, then a president may feel more comfortable stonewalling. In both cases, "there is some shroud the president can hide behind," Rottinghaus said.

One example when the president was both emboldened to stonewall on national security grounds was Iran-Contra, during Ronald Reagan's presidency. The scandal centered around Reagan and top administration officials working out a $30 million arms for hostages deal with Iran. The story broke in a Lebanese newspaper in 1986. It snowballed into revelations that more than half of the money Iran paid for U.S. weapons had been diverted to CIA trained and equipped Contra forces in Central America. Fourteen people, including Reagan's national security adviser, were charged in the affair, but Reagan enjoyed strong political and left office in 1989 with record high approval ratings.

In that case, stonewalling was effective up to a point. But more effective was the president's popularity, which insulated him. That same factor of popularity and political strength were also at play in protecting President Clinton, who survived impeachment after lying under oath about an affair with White House intern, Monica Lewinsky. His presidency was stained by the scandal, but he left office with over 60 percent job approval.

Dr. Tim Blessing, a history and politics professor at Alvernia University in Pennsylvania also challenged the conventional wisdom that in politics the cover-up is worse than the crime.

"People always say the cover-up is worse than the crime; that's nonsense," he said, adding it is "fully sane" for a public figure to try to avoid getting caught. "The difficulty is not that the cover-up is worse than the crime, the difficulty is maintaining the cover-up. It's been done, but its very difficult to do. Somebody always leaks something."

Sometimes the crime is only as bad as the public's willingness to believe it, depending on a president's popularity and the circumstances around the scandal.

For Hillary Clinton, her email scandal hit at a vulnerable moment, in the middle of the presidential campaign. She technically did what a person might do to be transparent, handing over her private server to the FBI, along with most of her emails, making her staff available for interviews, and being interviewed herself.

"Publicity kills you," Blessing stated. Had the scandal erupted during her tenure as Secretary of State, it wouldn't have been as big of a deal, he said. "But it occurred during a major campaign, so you couldn't turn on the news without hearing about it."

Similarly with Watergate, he said. "Every, every day you saw there was something breaking. Some of it was false and some of it was true, and some was overblown. This is not a new phenomenon. As long as you have a free press and democracy, you're going to have these waves or tsunamis of scandals that engulf people, it's just the nature of the beast."

close video ad
Unmutetoggle ad audio on off