“When the president does it,” Richard Nixon famously told the British television presenter David Frost in 1977, “that means it is not illegal.” Nixon was making his return to the public eye in the years since his resignation amid the Watergate scandal, in a series of interviews for which he was paid $600,000 plus 20 percent of any profits. Nixon and his team hoped that the interviews might help rehabilitate the disgraced ex-president. Instead, they cemented the perception of Nixon as someone adamant that the rule of law should be bent to the president’s will.
Enemies: The President, Justice, and the FBI, a four-part documentary series currently airing on Showtime, considers the rich recent history of conflicts between presidential power and the checks and balances of the American justice system, beginning with Nixon and Watergate and ending with Donald Trump’s firing of the former FBI director James Comey. The final episode, a note for critics reads, “will be updated to reflect current events unfolding in D.C.” It’s a disclaimer that slightly understates the difficulty of trying to create a television documentary about the Trump administration in real time, which is a bit like trying to keep up with Lafayette during the “Guns and Ships” part of Hamilton. The pace is blistering and bewildering; each day seems to bring new firings and new tweets and new chapters for the history books of the future to unravel.
What the directors Alex Gibney and Jed Rothstein are trying to do with Enemies is draw on previous instances of face-offs between presidents and the FBI to shine some light on the quagmire of the present. And it almost works: Enemies provides ample evidence both that we’ve been here before, and that the current erosion of presidential norms is unprecedented on a vast scale. It’s almost comforting to see Nixon’s press secretary Ron Ziegler rail against what he calls The Washington Post’s “shoddy and shabby journalism” from the podium of the White House briefing room in the first episode. It’s less so when the second episode, which tackles the Iran-Contra affair, is obliged to note that every single person implicated in that scandal got away virtually scot-free.
Part of the problem is conceptual. Enemies is based on a 2012 book by the journalist Tim Weiner, which documents the FBI’s murky history of illegal surveillance, institutional corruption, and gross incompetence. Six years later, rather a lot has changed, to the point where the series often seems to be lionizing the bureau—and especially its former director, Robert Mueller—as the last front standing between the United States and total authoritarianism. It’s an awkward dance for the series to follow, even if it happens to be true.
There’s very little in Enemies that’s new, and yet it’s still striking to see how repackaging the past can shed light on the present. The first three episodes, directed by Rothstein, run at an hour each, and explore the aforementioned Watergate and Iran-Contra, plus Kenneth Starr’s investigation of Bill Clinton. The fourth, directed by Gibney (Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief; Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room), explicitly considers the firing of James Comey and the Justice Department’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s possible collusion with Russia during the 2016 election. All four episodes, though, seem consumed by Trump and the danger he presents to democracy, to the point where each installment begins and ends with footage from his presidency, juxtaposed with historical moments for maximum emphasis.
What’s most fascinating, and maybe most peculiarly American, is when justice seems to occur accidentally, as a by-product of two ambitious and unethical forces trying to undermine each other. The Watergate episode is unflinching in its presentation of Mark Felt, a.k.a. Deep Throat, as someone trying to secure his own position within the FBI by selective leaking information, rather than a moral crusader. But plenty of those exist, too, though not always the most appealing kinds. Louis Freeh, the director of the FBI during the Clinton administration, is portrayed rather unflatteringly as a righteous zealot whose altar-boy persona made for an awkward fit with a president much less attached to propriety. (“It’s not a conspiracy; it’s just Arkansas” is one of the more memorable quotes that emerges in the series, attributed to the lawyer, Clinton associate, and convicted fraudster Webster Hubbell.)
Gibney is clear-eyed, too, in his portrayal of Comey, who—the show notes, somewhat disparagingly—declined to be interviewed, despite participating in a media whirlwind while promoting his book that included more than 80 interviews and appearances. The fourth episode digs deep into Comey’s history in Washington, featuring a stunning moment during his tenure as assistant attorney general in which he had a hospital-room standoff with George W. Bush’s chief of staff over the legality of the administration’s surveillance of Americans. Comey, Gibney suggests, is rigid in his ethical code and commitment to the Constitution, but not immune to grandstanding, particularly when it comes to underlining his own impartiality.
The final episode is feature-length, and yet it still feels abbreviated given the sheer volume of information that’s emerged over the last two years. Given Comey’s absence, Gibney relies on excerpts from the former FBI director’s audiobook, a kind of one-sided storytelling that prevents the possibility of digging deeper. Comey’s firing and the Russian hack into Democratic National Committee emails are presented as Trump’s Watergate, and yet they’re also just pieces of the president’s multipronged efforts to elide the justice system, or to shape it to his own ends.
There’s no mention yet in Enemies, for example, of the recent revelations regarding Trump’s attempts to get the Justice Department to prosecute his opponents. Rather, Enemies seems to be hoping—like a lot of people are—that whatever Mueller reveals in his final report will be enough to handcuff a president resistant to all and any constitutional checks on his power. Whether that happens isn’t something that history can illuminate.