Reading about former Watergate “plumber” Egil Krogh today, as the fury of President Donald Trump’s Senate trial reverberates in Washington, I was struck by several lessons the arc of Mr. Krogh’s life might offer about larger meanings of President Trump’s pressure campaign against Ukraine and subsequent impeachment.
Mr. Krogh passed away on January 18. As The Washington Post and New York Times obituaries noted on Wednesday, as a young aide in President Richard Nixon’s White House, he was one of the leaders of a group charged with plugging media leaks – hence the “plumber” nickname – and other skullduggery.
In particular, Mr. Krogh approved a burglary into the office of Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsburg’s psychiatrist. Carried out with farcical ineptitude, the break-in produced little but a trail of evidence implicating the White House in the crime.
The possible takeaway for President Trump’s team? All administrations are tempted to work around the executive branch to get sensitive tasks done – illegal or not. Sometimes it's looking for a press leak. Sometimes it’s getting your personal lawyer to push a foreign country to announce an investigation into one of your political opponents.
It’s seldom effective. As political scientist Jonathan Bernstein notes, the bureaucracy is not just a “deep state” blockade; it’s a critical source of ability and expertise about what can – and can’t – be done. Chief executives ignore it at their peril, as Presidents Nixon and now Trump have found out.
The other lesson offered by Mr. Krogh’s biography is that for those caught in the swirl of a historic political scandal, it is not the end of work and hope.
It can be the beginning.
Mr. Krogh eventually pled guilty to burglary and conspiracy charges and served 4 ½ months in prison. He later called the Ellsburg break-in “a meltdown in personal integrity” and through the rest of his life taught and lectured on ethics, so others could learn from his mistakes.
“Integrity, like trust, is all too easy to lose, and too difficult to restore,” he wrote in a 2007 memoir.
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