On May 17, 1973, Senator Sam Ervin Jr. opened Senate hearings into the Watergate affair. “It is the constitutional duty of this committee,” he said, to expeditiously investigate allegations that American democracy “has been subverted and its foundations shaken.” Ervin, a Democrat, did not mince words in characterizing the gravity of the accusations leveled against Richard Nixon’s campaign and administration. At stake were “the workings of the democratic process under which we operate in a nation that still is the last, best hope of mankind.”
President Nixon started in a relatively weak position. His misdeeds came to light during a period of opposition-party control, with Democrats able and willing to wield Congress’s investigative powers to the fullest. Prior to the hearings, Nixon enjoyed approval ratings: in the mid-50s among all Americans and well over 80 percent among Republicans. By August 1973, the Watergate hearings had dragged them down to just 31 percent nationally and a paltry 58 percent among co-partisans.
On August 9, 1974, with bipartisan articles of impeachment hanging over him, Nixon resigned.
President Donald Trump has thus far had a very different experience. For the past two years, Republican control of Congress has protected him from the public exposure Nixon and his staff had to endure. Now that the Democrats have taken back the House, the Trump administration will face a challenge from which it has been immune thus far: a far-reaching, aggressive, and highly public investigation of the kind that brought down Nixon.