Reacting to The New York Times’ story that White House Counsel Don McGahn has been speaking with Robert Mueller’s team, President Donald Trump tweeted out that McGahn is not a “John Dean type ‘RAT,’” and that the story was “fake news.”
It’s odd that Trump should bring up Dean this weekend, for it was only this week that we also learned Trump has an enemies list, just like Richard Nixon did. Unlike Nixon, though, the president is hiding nothing—using security clearances and his Twitter account as the chief weapons with which to go after his opponents.
This is a dangerous move.
Nixon’s enemies list, officially called his “opponents list,” was a document that was initially compiled by the presidential adviser George T. Bell for Charles Colson, the infamous “hatchet man.” Colson turned over the list to Dean, the White House counsel, on September 9, 1971. The list, which at first included 20 names, was a compilation of figures from all walks of life, ranging from the actor Paul Newman (“Radic-Lib causes … Heavy McCarthy involvement ’68”) to journalists such as Mary McGrory and Daniel Schorr (a “real media enemy”) to politicians like the African American legislators Ron Dellums and John Conyers (“a leading black anti-Nixon spokesman”) to the labor leader Leonard Woodcock, the president of the United Automobile Workers. The New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath even made the document.
The goal of the enemies list was to highlight and target some of the president’s most pesky critics. The document described “how we can use the available federal machinery to screw our political enemies.”
The White House attempted to use numerous tactics to go after these figures. The Internal Revenue Service turned to audits as a method of harassment, while federal contracts became a tool to punish other perceived enemies of the state. In one “eyes only” memo, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein reported in The Washington Post, Colson wrote: “I have received a well-informed tip that there are income tax discrepancies involving the returns of Harold J. Gibbons, a Vice President of the Teamsters Union in St. Louis … Gibbons, you should know, is an all-out enemy, a McGovernite, ardently anti-Nixon … Please see if this one can be started on at once and if there is an informer’s fee, let me know. There is a good cause at which it can be donated.”
Nixon officials attempted unsuccessfully to break into the office of the psychiatrist of Daniel Ellsberg, who had leaked the Pentagon Papers, to find dirt on him.
The list remained hidden from public view. In the early 1970s, the president and his advisers assumed that doing any of this out in the open would be devastating. There was still a sense of norms that restrained an administration from publicly abusing its power in this way. Americans only learned of the list on June 27, 1973, when Dean informed the Senate Watergate Committee about what his colleagues had done. Dean told the panel, “There was also maintained, what was called an enemies list, which was rather extensive and continually being updated.” Committee Chair Sam Ervin quipped: “I can’t forbear observing, when I consider the list of opponents, why the Democratic vote was so light in the general election.”
Schorr read the names on air as soon as he received a copy. “I got to No. 17, and I said, ‘No. 17, Daniel Schorr, a real media enemy,’” the CBS reporter later recalled. “I almost collapsed on the air. I had never read it before, never seen it before, never expected it.” After the list was revealed, Tom Wicker of the Times said: “I wouldn’t have expected the White House to list me as a friend. I’ve been critical of the president, but I’ve also supported many things President Nixon stood for. It strikes me as a pretty silly piece of business for high officials who supposedly have the country’s affairs to manage to be sitting around keeping lists of people supposedly against them.” When Vice President Gerald Ford learned of this list, he said to an assistant that someone “who can’t keep his enemies in his head has got too many enemies.”
The White House struck back by immediately accusing Dean and former Attorney General John Mitchell of being the architects of the Watergate break-in.
The enemies list became yet one more piece of evidence that Nixon had abused his power. In the path toward Nixon’s resignation, the shocking news that a president was willing to act in this fashion against citizens who were legitimately doing their business fueled the feeling of anger and betrayal that played into a bigger narrative of how he misused the office. Colson went to visit Senator Lowell Weicker, a Republican from Connecticut, to deny compiling the list. But when Colson admitted authoring the memo about Gibbons, Weicker exploded with anger and ordered Colson out of his office.
The list made it into Article II of the impeachment charges drawn up against Nixon: “He has, acting personally and through his subordinates and agents, endeavored to obtain from the Internal Revenue Service, in violation of the constitutional rights of citizens, confidential information contained in the income tax returns for purposes not authorized by law, and to cause, in violation of the constitutional rights of citizens, income tax audits or other income tax investigations to be initiated or conducted in a discriminatory manner.”
Today we live in a different world. Besides the fact that the president can count on a conservative media world to legitimize his activities, and a polarized electorate that insulates him from a Republican backlash, it no longer seems that the same kind of outrage exists. We are a nation so jaded by decades of scandal, and numbed by Trump’s endless violations of norms, that this story might be old news within a few days. The bar has been lowered so far under this president that revoking security clearances for partisan purposes could become another normalized part of Oval Office politics. For some Republicans, it could be a legitimate tool to go after the president’s critics in the bureaucracy.
But Americans need to remember the important lessons of Watergate. The reason that the revelation about Nixon’s list was so disturbing then—the fact that a president would be willing and able to use his power to create a climate of fear, smear opponents, and literally shut down his American citizens through ruthless action—remains just as important today. Right now, Trump is trying to create the same kind of toxic atmosphere that Nixon produced. His explicit goal is to silence opponents and to discredit them in the public eye. If this becomes acceptable, the next steps might be even worse.
As we enter the midterm season, where the country will finally have the chance to create an actual check against this president through divided government, the question remains: What are voters willing to do about all this? Is the electorate capable of getting so angry about a situation that it is willing to take action through the ballot box, or have government institutions broken down so much that, in Washington, anything goes?