The Watergate scandal pales in comparison to events in Washington surrounding U.S. President Donald Trump and alleged links between his campaign and Russia, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said on Wednesday.
Clapper questioned Trump's continued pro-Russian stance, saying his sharing of intelligence with Russia "reflect either ignorance or disrespect, and either is very problematic".
"I think if you compare the two that Watergate pales, really, in my view, compared to what we're confronting now," Clapper told reporters in Canberra, Australia's capital.
The break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate Hotel in Washington in 1972, and subsequent attempts to cover up widespread abuse of power by the White House, brought down former Republican U.S. President Richard Nixon in 1974.
Clapper’s appearance in Canberra comes before hotly-anticipated testimony by sacked FBI director James Comey before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday.
The committee is examining whether Trump’s campaign colluded with Russian officials to interfere in the U.S. presidential election.
Trump in May removed Comey as director of FBI, despite a U.S. Justice Department probe into contacts between presidential aides and Russia, raising the specter of political interference in the investigation. Earlier Wednesday, Trump announced via Twitter that he will nominate Christopher A. Wray, a former assistant attorney-general under President George W. Bush, to succeed Comey.
Trump has called the probe a "witch hunt" and said there was no collusion between his campaign and Russia.
Clapper said it was "inexplicable" that Trump continued his pro-Russia stance despite evidence Moscow sought to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
"His subsequent actions, sharing sensitive intelligence with the Russians and compromising its source, reflect either ignorance or disrespect and either is very problematic," said Clapper.
Trump disclosed highly classified information about a planned Islamic State operation to Russia's foreign minister in an Oval Office meeting in May, two U.S. officials have said.
Clapper's comments come only 48 hours after fresh disclosures indicating that Russian hacking of the 2016 election went significantly further than at first thought. Reality Winner, a contractor with the National Security Agency, leaked NSA documents suggesting that Russian central military intelligence apparatus, the so-called GRU, had carried out a cyberattack on at least one firm that supplied e-voting software and sent phishing e-mails to hundreds of local election officials, in what may have been an attempt to tamper with electronic vote counts. In a previous report, the heads of the U.S.'s intelligence agencies had concluded that while Russia had intervened to influence the election in favor of Trump, it had not tampered with the voting process itself.
Winner, who formerly served in the U.S. Air Force, is currently under arrest.
Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin acknowledged that "patriotic"-minded Russian hackers may have been involved in the campaign, but repeated his denial that the Russian state had interfered directly.