“You can get work done, and you can make progress,” says David Gergen, who worked in the Nixon White House during Watergate and then in the Clinton White House during the early days of the Whitewater probe. “Investigations can weaken the White House, but you have to convince everybody else to keep working. I think it’s extremely important that everybody keep their bearings, that they’re not panicked, they’re not lashing out.”
But that sort of message control, and staff control, has been beyond the abilities of the Trump team since the start, making it even more challenging for them to achieve now. Moreover, the task of keeping an even keel starts with a firm hand on the helm—and this White House has struggled to cope with a president whose announcements often take his own staff by surprise. Nixon’s temper was legendary; Clinton, Gergen recalls, was prone to volcanic but short-lived outbursts, but he too was largely predictable. By contrast, “the present White House doesn’t have any sense of what the current president is going to say or do next.”
Nixon and Clinton were not alone in facing special-prosecutor investigations—Ronald Reagan did as well, for Iran-Contra. But that case is perhaps less useful as an analogue. For one, it concerned the conduct of foreign affairs, circumscribing the president from global moves in a different way. For another, although Reagan achieved few major things after the start of the Iran-Contra affair, he was also deep in his second term, a point at which presidents often achieve little anyway.
Both Nixon and Clinton viewed foreign affairs as a place where they could make a difference—both in the world and in their political standing—even as they lost traction domestically. Congress and the political press were consumed with their scandals, but overseas, the executive branch could work largely on its own.
It helped that both Nixon and Clinton invested a great deal of effort in foreign affairs. Nixon was the most traveled president up to that time, setting the precedent for the frequent-flying commander in chief, and had built genuine relationships with many of his counterparts abroad. In August 1973, a New York Times survey of foreign leaders found that “although foreign leaders and public figures now seem to take the Watergate scandal more seriously than they did a few months ago, the affair has not so far cut deeply into their widespread support for Mr. Nixon’s course in foreign policy,” and that “there has been no sign that Watergate has crippled any ongoing negotiations or otherwise set back normal diplomatic business.”
Speaking to the Miller Center at the University of Virginia in 2005, Clinton’s national-security adviser, Sandy Berger, recalled a feeling of solidarity during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
“The president received a lot of support from foreign leaders during this period. They were somewhat mystified,” Berger said. “I think most foreign leaders are the subject of attack for some reason or another. Maybe there was a certain identification with the siege that Clinton was under and feeling that they, not necessarily for a similar kind of transgression, but that they had felt the brunt of an angry press and an angry Congress and could understand what Clinton was going through.”