There on our behalf

Published 6:09 pm Friday, February 17, 2017

“What did the President know and when did he know it?” This is a famous question asked by Sen. Howard Baker Jr. during a committee hearing led by North Carolina’s own Sen. Sam Ervin in 1973 and 1974.

Baker, a Republican from Tennessee, was the influential ranking minority member of the committee charged with investigating the Watergate scandal.

It turned out that President Richard M. Nixon knew a lot about the break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee and was heavily involved in the subsequent efforts to cover up his involvement and the involvement of other high-ranking Republican party officials.

What seems to be forgotten in this age of media bashing is that it was an aggressive and dogged press corps that first brought to light the illegal activities of members of President Nixon’s administration.

Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward broke the story and faced severe criticism from President Nixon and other members of his staff, but they did not back off in the face of that.

They were quickly joined by other members of the print and broadcast news media whose efforts helped save our democracy from those who tried to destroy it.

Baker’s question — “What did the President know and when did he know it?” — is being asked again — this time about President Donald Trump regarding his knowledge of now-former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn’s communications with Russian officials.

According to news reports, Flynn had several telephone conversations with Sergey I. Kislyak, Russia’s ambassador to the United States.

In those calls, the two men discussed sanctions that the Obama administration imposed on Russia in December.

Members of President Trump’s staff and inner circle — in statements issued both before and after the inauguration — repeatedly denied that sanctions were discussed.

Sally Yates, the acting attorney general, judged an intercepted call “highly significant” and “potentially illegal” under the Logan Act, which bars private citizens from interfering in diplomatic disputes with other countries.

Some members of Congress have called for an investigation of the events.

All of this has been reported extensively in the Washington Post and other members of the national news media and it was only after Flynn’s conversations were reported that President Trump decided it was time for Flynn to go.

I wonder, if Flynn would have been pushed out without the Washington Post and other members of the news media making it public that the Justice Department had warned administration officials about Flynn?

And what effect would it have had on the security of our country if he had stayed?

President Trump has attacked the news media at almost every opportunity since his election — to the point of undermining some of the public’s trust in it.

He most recently blamed the news media for the entire Flynn debacle.

But, as he and others need to understand, the press has an important role to play — asking the difficult questions and ensuring that the public’s interests are protected and Democracy is preserved. It’s a job that’s even more vital under the current circumstances when “alternative facts” are the words of the day.

And, just as with Watergate, the news media should continue its dogged pursuit of this story and continue to hold the Trump administration accountable for any and all of its actions.

We, the public, should be thankful that they are there on our behalf.

Betty Mitchell Gray is a Washington resident and former reporter for the Washington Daily News.