Trump's Nixonian Moment

Whether the president was attempting to shut down an investigation, or simply venting his frustration, his dismissal of his FBI director evoked comparisons to the Watergate era.

Jae C. Hong / AP

And so it’s happened that Donald Trump has fired a clutch of law-enforcement officials who were engaged in the duty of investigating the president and his associates for potentially felonious behavior.

Which has prompted Republican Party leaders to declare that they are, variously, concerned or disturbed about the timing of the latest dismissal—that of FBI Director James Comey—but to otherwise pose with wet fingers in the air.

It is time for a bipartisan Select Committee, a body of respected national leaders like the 9-11 Commission, or an independent counsel to take over the inquiry. As in the Watergate scandal, almost 50 years ago, the integrity of the political process—that bedrock American asset—is at stake.

Some of the allegations under investigation involve the more base and common forms of financial corruption. But in the last few weeks, the congressional testimony of Comey and former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates have revealed how seriously they viewed the possibility that the outcome of the 2016 presidential election was altered by a Russian plot.

There is, as yet, no proof that Trump or members of his campaign team colluded with the Russian government, much less settled on a quid pro quo.

The White House has alternative facts and explanations for the firings. Yates was not sacked for warning that Trump’s choice for national-security adviser, Michael Flynn, was vulnerable to Russian blackmail, it says, she was dismissed for failing to carry out Trump’s ban on immigrants from several Muslim lands. Former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara was not fired for investigating Trump and his aides, the White House insists, he was let go from his New York posting in the traditional patronage shuffle of a change of administrations.

But if these two explanations are plausible, the reason given for Comey’s dismissal is not. Does anyone believe that Comey was fired for his own clumsy intervention, which favored Trump, in the 2016 election? Until yesterday, it was Democrats who wanted the FBI director’s head for reviving the issue of Hillary Clinton’s emails last fall—which, as she has argued in recent days, was a contributing cause to her defeat.

There are two more likely possibilities.

The first is that Trump is acting like Richard Nixon, who took similar actions in his frantic attempts to evade prosecution in the Watergate scandal.

Nixon knew that he was guilty of obstructing justice and sought to secure the evidence of his crime—contained on the White House tapes—by dismissing special prosecutor Archibald Cox, and forcing the resignations of Attorney General Elliot Richardson and his deputy, William Ruckelshaus, in October 1973. What followed was a political firestorm, and came to be known as the Saturday Night Massacre.

The other possibility, which cannot be dismissed, is that Trump is merely being Trump: Barking out an order without thinking through the consequences.

The continuing questioning of his legitimacy as president, and the resultant dilution of his authority, must be profoundly irritating to a man who has shown—in his ongoing demeaning of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, and his weird insistence that his election victory, or Inauguration Day crowds, were bigger and more imposing than they actually were—such sensitivity to criticism, and to challenges of his power.

John Ehrlichman, an aide to Nixon, used to compare his boss to the Queen of Hearts (“Off with their heads!”) from Alice’s adventures in Wonderland. Nixon was always spouting orders—foreign lands to be bombed, aides to be fired, universities and newspapers to be punished—as a form of restorative, beneficial venting. Aides like Ehrlichman knew when to take him seriously—or when to let the matter simmer for a day or two, and determine if Nixon was really serious. Nixon, in a 1969 memo, explicitly delegated that responsibility to his top advisers: Trump may be wise to do so as well. The Comey firing reeked of “punishment first—rationale later.”

Nixon was stunned when the Saturday Night Massacre ended so badly for him. A new special prosecutor—Leon Jaworski—was named to the job, and carried on as ruthlessly as Cox. And, within days, Democratic Majority Leader Thomas “Tip” O’Neill was announcing that the House would open impeachment proceedings. He had not realized, he said in his memoirs, how deep the acid of Watergate had corroded his political standing. Trump seems to be stung, as well.

Nixon’s sins—the cover-up of a burglary at the Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate office complex in Washington—are analogous to what may be happening today: a cover-up of Republican involvement in the electronic break-in of the Democrats’ computer network at the party headquarters last year. And all the president’s men, today, are acting like Trump has something to hide. Truthfulness, candor, and full disclosure are not concepts that leap to mind when defining Donald Trump or his administration.

There were independent Republicans—men like Senators Howard Baker of Tennessee and Lowell Weicker of Connecticut, or House Judiciary Committee members Larry Hogan of Maryland and William Cohen of Maine—who were willing to put country before party in 1973 and 1974. And, in the end, it was Republican congressional leaders like Senators Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania and Barry Goldwater of Arizona, and House Minority Leader John Rhodes of Arizona, who conveyed the message to Nixon, that it was time to go.

These men were spurred by public opinion, which was crafted in a very different media environment. Republicans, in general, were more moderate in those days (Goldwater was a prime source for the reporters at The Washington Post) and less fearful of a challenge from the militant right in the party primaries. The GOP had an “11th commandment,” to not speak ill of fellow Republicans—but it did not extend to excusing felony.

Republicans who fear the political costs that the party would pay for a failed presidency should consider the Nixon years. Little in politics is permanent. In the weeks after Nixon resigned, the GOP suffered in the 1974 mid-term elections. But the party lost the White House in 1976 by only a narrow margin, and reveled in the new conservative era that was launched by Ronald Reagan in 1980.

It may well be that, unless or until the voters give a licking to the GOP at the polls in Virginia and New Jersey next fall—or young and ambitious Republican contenders are persuaded that the path to the 2020 presidential nomination lies over Donald Trump’s body—that Congress will decline to act.

It will be up to the rest of us—independent Republicans, independents, and Democrats—to apply the pressure. We may not succeed. But to use a line from a play that John Adams and George Washington were fond of quoting: "We can't guarantee success, but we can deserve it."