Senator Howard Baker uttered his immortal words one summer 44 years ago when Rick Snyder was about to become a high school sophomore.
“What did the president know, and when did he know it?”
Thirteen months later, we had enough of the answer to force Richard Nixon to resign the presidency, ending a long national nightmare we thought we’d never see repeated.
Well, we are now in the midst of nightmares at every level of government, and today the question is: “What did the governor know, and when did he know it?” And it is not a question that is going away.
Nobody died in the Watergate scandal, though many careers did. But at least a dozen people died of Legionnaires' disease in Flint in 2014 and 2015, during the aftermath of the water crisis.
State officials knew of the outbreak a year before the governor said he found out. More than a year and a half ago, Snyder testified before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. He told Congress, “I didn’t learn of that until 2016, and as soon as I became aware of it, we held a press conference the next day.”
But a week ago, Harvey Hollins, an aide to the governor who was handling the response to the Flint water crisis, said he told the governor about the Legionnaires’ outbreak in a phone call a month before.
This was no casual remark. He did it in a Flint courtroom, where a preliminary hearing is being held to determine whether Nick Lyon, Snyder’s Health and Human Services director, will stand trial on felony charges related to the Legionnaires outbreak in Flint.
Hollins testified under oath, knowing he was contradicting the governor. That drew a swift response from Congressman Trey Gowdy, a South Carolina Republican who is the committee chair.
He and Elijah Cummings, the ranking Democrat, wrote Michigan’s governor and asked for an explanation. If there is any doubt as to how serious this is, the letter talked about the definition of perjury and obstruction of justice.
They gave Snyder an opportunity to say he’d made a mistake. But SNYDER insisted he knew nothing until January. “My testimony is truthful, and I stand by it,” he wrote.
But one of his top aides says it was not truthful. What happens now is not clear, except that this is not likely to go away.
Dan Kildee, the Democratic congressman from Flint, said he’d received assurance “that the committee would continue to pursue answers and get to the truth.” Republicans may not protect Snyder either. Bill Schuette, Michigan’s attorney general, is running for governor next year, and knows he can’t win if voters perceive he is connected to his fellow Republican’s administration.
He’s now aggressively prosecuting Lyon and other officials, and has pointedly refused to rule out charging the governor himself.
We don’t know whether Congress will demand more from Rick Snyder. We might have a clearer picture had the legislature extended the Freedom of Information Act to cover the governor’s emails.
But Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof won’t even let a bill requiring that come up for a vote.
What does seem clear is this: Rick Snyder’s final months in office are not likely to be easy ones.
Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.