Is the Watergate-Comey Comparison Simply a Way to Score Partisan Points?

Two historians debate the FBI director’s dismissal and whether it’s reminiscent of the Nixon era—or if it’s just politics.

Carolyn Kaster / AP

The election of Donald Trump, and the early days of his presidency, have driven many Americans to rummage through history in search of context and understanding. Trump himself has been compared to historical figures ranging from Ronald Reagan to Henry Ford, and from Andrew Jackson to Benito Mussolini. His steps have been condemned as unprecedented by his critics, and praised as historic by his supporters.

To place contemporary events in perspective, we turned to a pair of historians of the United States. Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author, most recently, of The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society. Morton Keller is a professor emeritus of history at Brandeis University. He has written or edited more than 15 books, including Obama’s Time: A History. They’ll be exchanging views periodically on how to understand Trump, his presidency, and this moment in political time. —Yoni Appelbaum

Julian Zelizer: Ever since President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, many historians have been asking whether it’s now safe to say that this scandal is starting to look a lot like Watergate. There are obviously many important differences, including the fact that President Nixon fired a special prosecutor appointed specifically to investigate Watergate while Trump used his legal authority to remove the head of the FBI. We don’t yet know how extensive and how wide-ranging the connections are between Trump’s presidential campaign and the Russian interference in the election. And whereas Nixon’s scandal broke after a massive reelection victory, Trump’s troubles are happening shortly after the first 100 days.

But it is getting much more difficult not to see the obvious comparison. Without question, we now have a Nixonian commander in chief who believes that the presidency should be as imperial as possible. What Trump’s actions have reminded us of is that he sees few reasons to be cautious about how he exercises his power. Like Nixon, he is a president who has very little regard for the other branches of government. When attacked by opponents, his instinct is to strike back as hard as possible without regard to the ethics or politics of doing so. Like Nixon, he seems to be a president who has become totally immersed in the bubble of the Oval Office. He is unable and uninterested to hear any of the voices outside his small circle of, yes, men and women. He has veered into the territory of being a president where the abuse of power is not outside the realm of acceptable behavior.

Too often comparisons of presidents to Richard Nixon have been overblown. We use the suffix “gate” to almost every scandal that emerges, small or large, and often wonder how our presidents compare to one of the most notorious leaders in our history. This time, the comparisons are right on target and it’s not too early to start wondering if we are headed down a path that will result in an equally traumatic outcome for the republic.

Morton Keller: Julian, yours is a strongly argued, but highly partisan, criticism of Trump's action in dismissing James Comey from the directorship of the FBI. My view of the episode is more complicated—as I think the episode itself is.

Watergate was a steadily expanding scandal: the break-in, the coverup, the dirty tricks campaign against the opposition using the FBI, the CIA, and the IRS.

This was hardly a one-party event. The Senate established a Select Committee in a 77-0  vote. Nixon resigned to avoid impeachment—of necessity a two-party threat.

And what is the current status of the supposed Russia-Trump connection, the current counterpart to Watergate? To paraphrase Chicago’s former Mayor Daley: lots of allegations, but damn few alligators.

Let us accept that Russian President Vladimir Putin wanted to see Trump elected (though given Hillary's reset efforts, and the isolationist, small-American profile of her party, that preference needs more explaining). But how much solid, Watergate-like evidence is there that Russian hacking, etc., made much difference in the election? Or are we supposed to swallow whole the risible idea that the disgruntled working-class (and middle-class) Trump voters of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin were receptive to Putin's blandishments? Even in the current out-of-control politics of our time, that is a stretch.

I'm quite ready to see what emerges with respect to Trump, his associates, and Putin. But to airily equate the still far-from-demonstrated fact of significant Russian influence in the election (compared, say, to Hillary's massive missteps) with the incontrovertible facts of Watergate is something I'm not prepared to do.

There is another defect in any meaningful Watergate-Comey comparison. The departures of special prosecutor Archibald Cox and Attorney General Elliot Richardson were sought by Nixon and his aides alone. The Democrats have been baying for Comey's scalp since the days of the election. To erupt in high dudgeon when Trump—quite legally, if questionable politically—fired him, is to bring political hypocrisy to a high level indeed. Do you think for a moment that if Hillary Clinton was president, Comey's tenure could be counted in more than milliseconds? Would she have bounced him because he had been a political detriment? Of course.

Did Trump do it because of the Russian inquiry? Perhaps—though there was good reason for him to have had doubts about Comey from the beginning of his presidency. Did he do it with typically Trumpian ham-handedness? You bet. Can more come out about Trump and Putin, Russia and the election, than we know now? Possibly. Has it yet? Not to my knowledge. As historians, we should not rush to judgment until there is good and sufficient evidentiary reason to do so.

At present, I don't think the action is a demonstration of authoritarianism—any more than former President Barack Obama's playing fast and loose with the handling of illegal immigrants or the specifics of Obamacare was. That's just the sort of things that presidents do.

Zelizer: This is an interesting perspective, but I don’t agree that it’s partisan to have this kind of interpretation about what’s been going on. There is more than enough evidence to believe that a thorough investigation is needed and that something went wrong.

Intelligence officials have agreed that there was a massive effort by the Russians to intervene in the election through cyberwarfare. This is something that they have been doing in other countries as well. Moreover, there is evidence that several key officials in the Trump orbit, including Mike Flynn, were in contact with Russian officials and did not disclose this information. The question is not whether this determined the outcome of the election, but whether the collusion happened. This would be a big problem, certainly as big as Watergate. Added to all this has been Trump’s not so subtle threats to Comey Friday morning: “James Comey better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!” This kind of threat is as Nixonian as it gets.

From everything we are learning, the decision to fire Comey had nothing to do with the stated rationale in the memo, it was about Trump’s frustration with the investigation that the FBI had been conducting. What Democrats do or do not think about Comey is beside the point. This is about Trump. Once it was clear that the FBI was conducting a major investigation into the election, there was no justification for the president to take this step. Democrats are not defending Comey—most still believe he did a terrible thing in October—but they are angry about the decision to fire him at this moment and at this point in the investigation. It does feel a lot like the “Saturday Night Massacre” in that it appears to be an effort by the president to subvert a legitimate investigation that affects him.

As Watergate unfolded, it was not always clear in 1973 how extensive the wrongdoing was. But each step of the way we saw more evidence, and at several points President Nixon took actions that revealed his willingness to subvert the investigative process in an effort to protect himself. All of that certainly appears to be going on right now.

Trump has not really earned much trust from the American people. His constant willingness to lambast other institutions of government and to aggressively flex executive power make it clear he is not someone who believes that there are many limits to what he can do. His decision to ignore the post-Watergate tradition of releasing tax returns and to avoid solving the multitude of conflict of interest problems his White House faces has exposed deep problems in the ethnical fabric of this presidency. His willingness to constantly lie and play with the facts, including this very week, gives more than enough reason to doubt his motivations.

If there is any striking partisanship going on in how this scandal has been unfolding, that has to do with the refusal of almost any Republican in Congress to take a serious stand against the president. Thus far, there are no breaks, as we saw after the Saturday Night Massacre within the party. The House investigation was stifled by a chairman who worked too closely with the White House while the Senate stalled and delayed until voters put their feet to the fire.

When Congress investigated Richard Nixon, he too dismissed the entire affair as a partisan witch hunt. But we know that it was not. Sometimes we need to see when presidents are doing things that go well beyond the “sorts of things that presidents do”—and that is what the nation has on its hand right now.

Keller: I suppose we'll have to agree to disagree. Not the least of what I consider to be the costs of the current political polarization is the degree to which advocates on both sides are convinced that they are objective purveyors of The Truth, while those who differ are steeped in error. This is hardly unique to our own political time. But the internet, social media, and blogging have vastly expanded the public space available for an Anything Goes style of political discourse.

I just don't see that it's “case closed” that the Trump team was in deep collusion with the Russians. Nor do I place much weight on the bona fides of media and partisan analysts who once saw Assange and Wikileaks as fearless voices uncovering American intelligence secrets, but did an abrupt about-face when the revelations turned to the machinations of Hillary's campaign staff.

That dirty tricks are part  of the DNA of both parties goes, I should think, without saying. I'm afraid I remain unconvinced by the conclusion of the pro-Democratic media, to say nothing of the Democratic leaders, that the lion's share of this defect belongs to the Republicans. To offer such a distinction as self-evident is to fly in the face of the overwhelming evidence that the great bulk of the media, the popular culture, and the academy, is deeply partisan. On this I disagree with Chico Marx: I'm inclined to believe my own eyes.