It is human nature to try to make sense of the crazy thing happening before your very eyes by looking at it through the lens of the most similar thing to which it compares, so holding Trump’s aberrant presidency up against that of Richard Nixon is a natural response. The ways in which those two men, their presidencies, and their respective scandals differ, however, are at least as effective at predicting Trump’s fate as are the ways in which they are similar — the most notable difference, of course, being that Nixon was a smart and savvy politician who committed a crime, while Trump is an arrogant fool and dimwitted criminal who accidentally stumbled into the presidency while executing what he thought would be his greatest con.
The similarities were what I had in mind when recently I tweeted this:
Been doing a deep dive on Watergate … how Republicans behaved … how Nixon behaved … the attacks on the press … supporters in denial … etc. It was all the same as what we’re seeing now.
There is going to be a tsunami of indictments & convictions. Trump will go down.
— Jon Zal (@OfficialJonZal) November 19, 2018
The responses to my tweet varied, but a number shared this sentiment: “I don’t know why historians compare the Nixon Administration to this one. Sure, there are similarities … but the main difference that separates the two and why Trump won’t go down? The Republicans then are NOT the Republicans now. They had courage to speak out.”
This mythical theory about Watergate-era Republicans is one I’ve seen raised repeatedly, and, in light of the extent to which the modern-day Republican party has completely abdicated its responsibility to serve as a check on the unfit, irrational, power-hungry madman in the Oval Office, it is an understandable bit of revisionist history. The truth, however, is that Nixon continued to receive support from an overwhelming majority of his party until the bitter end, and, upon his resignation, still enjoyed a 25% public-approval rating thanks to the 1974 version of the red-hat-wearing MAGA crowd.
Earlier this year, Michael Conway, who served as counsel for the House Judiciary Committee during its impeachment inquiry of Nixon, wrote the following in a New York Times Op-Ed titled The Myth of Watergate Bipartisanship: “During Watergate, most Republicans in Congress supported Mr. Nixon until the tapes provided undeniable evidence that he had obstructed justice.”
I won’t rehash all of Conway’s essay here (though I encourage you to read it), but here’s the takeaway: Nixon was brought down not because Watergate-era Republicans were Constitution-loving patriots who gladly joined hands with their Democratic counterparts in an a capella version of “Kumbaya” while demanding Nixon pack his things and leave; he was brought down because Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress. He was brought down because he didn’t have goons like Devin Nunes chairing the House Intel Committee and actively participating in a cover-up to protect him. And he was brought down because weeks of open hearings that aired on live television ultimately turned a majority of the American people against him.
This last item is worth noting as the Democrats sit poised to reclaim power in the House next month and the Trump Administration finds itself on the verge of experiencing for the first time the kind of congressional oversight and public exposure that it so far has avoided. Incoming House Intel Committee Chairman Adam Schiff will soon be presiding over public questioning of the same Russiagate clowns whom the Republican-controlled committee glad-handed during their cursory, closed-door questioning, and, much in the same way that comparing Nixon to Trump can inform us about things to come, so, too, can comparing Nunes to his Democratic counterpart.
Nunes, a member of Trump’s transition team who repeatedly beclowned himself by blatantly obstructing his own committee’s Trump-Russia investigation, holds an Associate of Arts degree from the College of the Sequoias, as well as bachelor’s and master’s degrees in agriculture from Cal Poly, and his professional background lies in the farming business — all of which are admirable accomplishments, but none of which qualify him in any way to chair a congressional committee tasked with overseeing the United States intelligence community. (Speaking of which: The fact that Paul Ryan selected Nunes to chair said committee in the first place, and then allowed him to remain in that role during the committee’s Trump-Russia investigation despite Nunes’ obvious conflicts of interest, speaks volumes about Ryan’s general incompetence and specific complicity in obstructing the Trump-Russia investigation.)
Schiff, meanwhile, is a Harvard Law School graduate and former Assistant U.S. Attorney who made a name for himself by prosecuting a former FBI agent who was convicted of — wait for it — passing secret documents to the Soviet Union in exchange for a promise of gold and cash. Yes, I’m completely serious.
And, hey, speaking of treason: one of the things Americans can look forward to learning all about in great detail during those imminent congressional hearings is the quid pro quo relationship between Trump and Russia, which Maddow summed up quite nicely during her broadcast last Friday:
What Trump neglected to mention about his support for dropping sanctions on Russia was that he had a massive business deal in the works that required financing from a sanctioned bank. pic.twitter.com/IaYS9lOf3U
— Maddow Blog (@MaddowBlog) December 1, 2018
That revelation, coupled with last week’s confession from excommunicated Trump fixer Michael Cohen, quite likely means that a whole slew of Trump associates and family members — to include everyone’s favorite Large Adult Son, Don Jr. — perjured themselves during their first go-’round with Congress. It also means that Trump himself, who recently submitted to the Special Counsel his answers to a number of investigators’ questions, may have perjured himself in writing.
Of course, regardless of that, Trump already has provided Robert Mueller with a tsunami of evidence via both his Twitter account and public comments he has made — which, to Trump’s credit, seems to have created the illusion that those public actions must not be damning, because what kind of moron would blatantly commit and confess to crimes in plain sight? Unfortunately for Trump, he is the answer to that question.
It is against the coming backdrop of a Democratically controlled House, a nonstop barrage of live footage featuring team Trump co-conspirators covered in flop sweat while stammering before Congress, and the pending results of the Special Counsel’s investigation that we should compare the president who was forced to resign more than four decades ago with the wholly unfit amateur who currently holds the office.
Nixon was run out of the presidency not for the Watergate break-in itself — of which he had no advance knowledge — but for his role in the attempt to cover it up after the fact, the evidence of which was contained on a single audio recording. Article I of his impeachment found, in part, that, “using the powers of his high office, [Nixon] engaged personally and through his close subordinates and agents, in a course of conduct or plan designed to delay, impede, and obstruct the investigation.”
It is not lost upon you, I am sure, that Donald Trump does all of those very things on an almost daily basis, the most recent example of which is his witness-tampering tweet from earlier this week, in which he praised Roger Stone — a man central to the Trump-Russia scandal who, not coincidentally, has a massive portrait of Nixon’s head tattooed on his back (yes, really) — and, in a move many interpreted as the dangling of a pardon, encouraged Stone to be uncooperative with investigators:
“I will never testify against Trump.” This statement was recently made by Roger Stone, essentially stating that he will not be forced by a rogue and out of control prosecutor to make up lies and stories about “President Trump.” Nice to know that some people still have “guts!”
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 3, 2018
That tweet alone clears the bar set forth in Article I of Nixon’s impeachment, and is merely one example of the dozens of acts of blatant, brazen, criminal obstruction that Trump has committed since taking office … and, whereas Nixon was caught covering up a crime in which he had no role, Trump’s aim quite likely is to cover up a crime in which he himself is complicit — one that involved not a simple domestic break-in of a campaign office, but, rather, conspiring with a foreign enemy whose goal was to undermine American democracy and tip a presidential election in his favor.
Trump’s thing is worse, is what I’m saying.
In addition to looking at the criminal behavior central to their respective scandals, it is at least as equally important to note the differences between the two men themselves.
Richard Nixon was a World War II veteran, and a fixture in Washington D.C. long before winning the presidency. He was elected to the House in 1946, the Senate in 1950, and served two terms as Vice President to Dwight D. Eisenhower. In other words, Nixon had a long history of service to his country, was chosen as Vice President by a bona fide American war hero who led Allied forces in Western Europe to victory during World War II, and was no stranger to those in Congress who ultimately were tasked with deciding his fate; he had, in fact, long been one of them.
Standing in stark contrast to all of that is Trump, a draft-dodging carpetbagger with no previous experience in politics whose only quasi-talent is self promotion — a byproduct, really, of his malignant narcissism — and whose single greatest drive is service to self, often at the expense of everyone and everything around him. His mere presence in the 2016 Republican primary was met with contempt, derision and disgust by not only his challengers — all of whom he insulted, and many of whom now sit in the legislative branch — but by the Republican party as a whole.
The GOP’s apparent change of heart these past two years has been not a matter of some new-found reverence for Trump and delighted wonder at the surprisingly dignified manner in which he has served as a steward of the American presidency, nor has it been a matter of their unwavering faith in his ability to govern; it has been a matter of political expediency. That expediency already has been greatly diminished by consistently dismal approval ratings and, more importantly, the results of last month’s midterm election, which drove a record-setting number of voters to the polls and netted Democratic congressional candidates about 60 million votes — roughly 10 million more than those cast for GOP candidates. The political winds have shifted, and no one is more aware of that shift than congressional Republicans.
Trump’s popularity, or lack thereof, is the direct opposite of that once enjoyed by Nixon, who, less than two years before resigning in disgrace, won his election to a second term in one of the biggest landslides of all time. After narrowly eking out a victory during his first bid for the presidency in 1968 — a three-way race that he took by netting a mere 0.7% more votes than his Democratic challenger — Nixon locked up his 1972 race with 60.7% of the popular vote and an electoral-college tally of 49 out of 50 states.
Trump, as you might recall, fared less well. Despite snaring an electoral-college victory thanks to a total of about 77,000 votes spread across three swing states that were heavily targeted by Russia’s pro-Trump/anti-Hillary propaganda operation, Trump netted about 3 million fewer votes nationwide than Clinton. What’s more, when you factor third-party candidates into the 136.5 million ballots cast for president during the 2016 election, only 63 million went for Trump; 73.5 million people voted against him.
And so, what we see when looking back at Nixon is a pedigreed politician and lifelong public servant who was elected to office by an overwhelming majority of the American people, and who was, if not unanimously well-liked, at least unanimously well-known as a serious person by those in the legislative branch tasked with his oversight — and when a Special Prosecutor presented those legislators with incontrovertible proof of Nixon’s crime, they sent him packing.
What we see now in Trump is a caustic, vulgar, clownish, lifelong con artist and consistently unpopular president, the very legitimacy of whose election remains in question, and whose brief time serving in an office for which he is grossly unqualified has thus far been defined by chaos, nepotism and corruption. Add to all of that the fact that, prior to his election, no small number of both House and Senate Republicans proclaimed their disdain for him, and it is not inconceivable to think that, if presented with incontrovertible proof of a crime — proof that only would serve to lessen the approval rating of an already deeply unpopular president — congressional Republicans might finally see fit to do away with a man whom they never liked to begin with. A convincing argument could be made, in fact, that, if presented with a Nixonian “smoking gun,” the best thing the Republican party could do to rehabilitate its Trump-stained image is pounce upon the opportunity to finally cut him loose.
“Yes, but what if they don’t?” you ask. Well, if they don’t …
To be continued…
Homework while you’re waiting: If you’re interested in getting a more comprehensive understanding of how the Watergate scandal played out, I highly recommend the first season of Slate’s “Slow Burn” podcast. I also can not recommend highly enough Rachel Maddow’s “Bag Man” podcast, which outlines the Justice Department’s take-down of Nixon’s vice president, Spiro Agnew — the historical significance of which will factor into Part 2 of this essay.
Pete Mercer says
Great piece thanks Jon. The pragmatism of politics, described so well in Bag Man, can be very depressing. That Agnew escaped prison and appeared to be entirely unrepentant sticks in the throat.
Jon Zal says
Thanks for the compliment. And, yeah, definitely not a case of equal justice.
Extremely well said…looking forward to Part 2
Jon Zal says
Thanks, Zoe. I’m looking forward to having finished writing Part 2!
Margaret Ellen Ferrari says
And now I’m hooked, well done you??
Jon Zal says
Carolyn Blakeney says
The sweet deliciousness is that 45 is going to eventually go down due to his own demented narcissim. The bitter truth is that we are still left with his base, which although diminished in numbers is still a substantial cancer upon the nation. Indeed that cancer was instrumental in the establishment of this nation. So basically the fat lady ain’t finished singing yet.
I’m going to start using the word “beclowned” on a daily basis. (Also, great essay as always, blah blah, yadda yadda.)