Vice presidents traveled less comfortably in those days than they do now. In his candid memoir of traveling with Ford, the former Newsweek correspondent Thomas DeFrank vividly described the cramped small jets and propeller planes that typically served as “Air Force Two”—a phrase that began as a joke.
Read more: The fragility of the Trump–Pence relationship
Ford’s travels might have been controversial. In this moment of national crisis, a new vice president acting as such an eager partisan for a damaged party? But criticism was held back by the knowledge, shared by Democrats and Republicans alike, that America was going to need Ford. The country was going to need him to be clean, and the surest way to protect him was to keep him far from Washington. Ford’s intact reputation enabled Congress and the country to turn the page definitively in August 1974. Nixon’s most tainted appointees had been forced from office before him. When Nixon resigned at last, the government could reset and begin a new era.
Donald Trump may not know much of this history, but he intuits its lessons. From the beginning, he has appeared determined to implicate as many members of his administration as possible in his scandal—Vice President Mike Pence heading the list.
At a press conference at the United Nations on September 25, Trump delivered a warning message. “The word is, they’re going to ask for the first phone conversation. You can have it any time you need it. And also Mike Pence’s conversations, which were, I think, one or two of them. They were perfect. They were all perfect.”
Indeed, Pence seems to have been involved up to the eyeballs in the Ukraine plot. His team’s messaging—Yes, he pressed the Ukrainians to investigate corruption, but he never appreciated that Trump’s true purpose was to pursue the Bidens—fails the laugh test. Pence’s taint presents a political problem for him, but raises a much graver question for the country. If the Senate ever could muster the integrity to remove Trump from office, there would be no Ford to put in his place, only a vice president who participated in Trump’s dirty schemes, from staying at a remote resort to direct government funds to Trump’s failing Irish golf course to extorting an invaded country to fabricate political dirt to help Trump’s reelection.
Trump’s compromised attorney general remains on the job, as does his apparently compromised secretary of state. As the text messages from Gordon Sondland, Trump’s ambassador to the European Union, confirm, the corruption permeates Trump’s second- and third-level appointments, too.
Not only is this scandal worse than Watergate—the break-in at the Democratic National Committee offices did not betray the national-security interests of the United States—but the outlook for the country is worse, too. There is no easy exit from the scandal by removing the president. Nixon’s party broke with him after the release of the “smoking gun” tape in August 1974 removed any possibility of honest belief in Nixon’s innocence. Trump’s guilt has now passed that point—and Trump’s party protects him anyway.