Will Richard Nixon's Three-Pronged Defense Work for Trump?

As Mueller’s investigation heats up, the president is drawing directly from Nixon’s playbook. This time, it might actually succeed.

President Richard Nixon points at the camera.
President Nixon tells a White House news conference in 1973 that he will not allow his legal counsel, John Dean, to testify on Capitol Hill in the Watergate investigation. (Charles Tasnadi / AP)

No president has loomed as large over Donald Trump as Richard Nixon. Since he launched his campaign, when Trump appealed to his own Silent Majority through calls for law and order along the borders and in the cities, the comparisons have never stopped. As the congressional and Justice Department investigations into the Trump campaign and administration’s dealings with Russia have unfolded, the comparisons with Watergate have been front and center. Some of the comparisons have been useful, pointing to relevant precedent, while others have been off the mark.

But now that Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation is entering a new and more intense phase, as the prosecutor and his team seem to be circling closer to the president himself, one thing is clear—President Trump is drawing directly from Richard Nixon’s playbook as he mounts a three-pronged strategy to fight the investigation.

Claiming that the president can’t actually obstruct justice, an argument that emanated from the White House this weekend, stems directly from Richard Nixon’s famous comment to television interviewer David Frost in 1977. “When the president does it, that means it’s not illegal,” Nixon said. The comment shocked many Americans who were surprised to hear such a brazen defense of executive prerogative from the disgraced president, but the comment reflected how he had actually perceived his authority while in the Oval Office. As Watergate unfolded, the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel had concluded that a president could not be indicted or criminally prosecuted. Nor did Nixon respect the power of a special prosecutor.

Whereas much of the nation was outraged in October 1973 when the president moved to have Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox fired, Nixon believed that he had the authority to make whatever decisions were necessary involving executive-branch appointments. In a letter to Robert Bork, who was the only person willing to carry out the order, he accused Cox of refusing to comply with his orders and said: “Clearly the government of the United States cannot function if employees of the executive branch are free to ignore in this fashion the instructions of the president.” Invoking executive privilege, he refused to turn over White House recordings to Congress or the Special Prosecutor Leon Jaworski, warning that doing so would “set a precedent that would cripple all future presidents by inhibiting conversations,” until the Supreme Court forced his hand in July of 1974.

His expansive views of the presidency went far beyond the investigation. Before the nation ever heard the term Watergate, the president had aggressively flexed his presidential muscle when he impounded funds appropriated by Congress—refusing to spend the money—and conducted a secret war in Cambodia. President Trump is trying to claim the same kind of complete, unaccountable presidential power, and will depend on this claim in the coming months as he faces heightened scrutiny.

Since executive power might not be enough, President Trump is also escalating his campaign to discredit the multiple institutions that are investigating him. The president’s attacks on “fake news” continue and he has intensified his criticism of the FBI, the Justice Department, and now he is unloading a full-scale assault on Mueller and his team. This part of Trump’s strategy is also very Nixonian. President Nixon loved to go after his attackers. The press was a favorite target. Like Trump, Nixon saw a liberal media establishment that was out to get him. While Nixon was more restrained in his comments about specific reporters, he too unleashed an ongoing barrage against how journalists wanted to bring him down from power because he was too conservative and because he was not part of the establishment.

Nixon, who saw the press as the “enemy,” was not shy about his feelings. He attacked the press in speeches, he kept an “enemies list” of reporters who didn’t like him, and the Department of Justice took an aggressive stand against journalists who withheld sources. When one reporter asked him in September 1973 about his feelings on the loss of public confidence in his leadership, Nixon curtly responded: “It’s rather difficult to have the president of the United States … by innuendo, by leak, by, frankly, leers and sneers of commentators—which is their perfect right—attacked in every way without having some of that confidence being worn away.” William Paley, the chairman of the Columbia Broadcasting System, responded to the “repeated attacks” on the press by insisting that they would “continue to do an outstanding job in newsgathering, reporting and analysis…”

Nixon also blasted the Democratic Congress for fomenting the entire Watergate investigation as a partisan coup. “I’m going to hit them and destroy them and they’ll be destroyed … absolutely destroyed,” the president told Al Haig. “They don’t realize what they’re up against…” Vice President Gerald Ford, later the so-called healer of the nation, complained in April 1974 that Democrats were guilty of the “endless exploitation” of Watergate. He characterized the investigation as a political strategy geared toward the 1974 midterm elections. “We cannot let the Watergate issue be turned into a smokescreen that will conceal the real November election issues from coast to coast.” In his 1974 State of the Union address, Nixon declared to the nation, “One year of Watergate is enough.” In attacking their opponents, both Nixon and Trump were willing to lie, to obfuscate, and to conceal for the purposes of surviving.

And finally, there is Trump’s effort to shore up political support with the base of the Republican Party, the third pillar of his defense strategy. In recent days, we have seen the president take a number of steps that seem disconnected, but which all point to an effort to solidify support within key parts of the GOP. He is close to obtaining a massive tax cut that thrills the business and Wall Street backers of the party. For a tax cut like this, they might be willing to hold their nose about everything else. The president openly endorsed Roy Moore in Alabama’s Senate election, despite the multiple allegations of sexual misconduct with underage girls and an extremist agenda on issues like gay rights, a defiant move aimed at exciting evangelical conservatives who see this candidacy as a shot against abortion. He announced that the administration will roll back federal protection of land in Utah, which is music to the ears of right-wing opponents of conservation who have been pushing these kinds of measures since the 1980s. He announced that the U.S. will recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel an explosive move since it could inflame violence in the region. The decision was partly intended to bolster support with some conservative American Jews who have been willing to turn a blind eye to his flirtation with anti-Semitic organizations in exchange for this decision.

Nixon also appealed to the right in the final months of his presidency. As Meg Jacobs argued in Panic at the Pump, Nixon took a series of major policy steps in his final years that aimed to bolster his support with conservative Republicans at a time that his future seemed in peril. He listened closely to Alexander Haig, then chief of staff, who said it had become vital by 1974 to “hold in line our traditional support.” Nixon moved away from most of the centrist compromises that defined his administration in the first term, and shifted to a much tougher deregulatory stance on economic and energy policy.

With Nixon, the three-pronged strategy did not work. In the end, the revelations became so damning that the court of public opinion turned against him and Congress prepared to move forward with impeachment. President Trump might actually be able to pull off what Nixon failed to accomplish. He has a number of advantages that Nixon lacked—from a Congress controlled by fiercely partisan Republicans whose political calculations have led them to stand by their president regardless of almost anything that he does, to a conservative media that perpetually broadcasts his points of view.

Those who believe that a damaging investigation will inevitably produce negative political results for President Trump should not be deluded. The questions on the table will be: What can Robert Mueller and his team do to counteract Trump’s counteroffensive? Can they withstand the kind of attacks that they will continue to face, which will only become worse as the president becomes more frightened, and will the final report that his team produces be so damaging that it has the capacity to break through the partisan firewall that has insulated this president? Will the Republican Congress ever take a more proactive stance, or might there be a Democratic Congress after 2018 to pick up the slack? Can Mueller carve a legal path, accepted by the courts, that opens the president to criminal prosecution?

If the answers are no, Trump might very well be able to pull off what eluded Nixon in the dark days of the summer of 1974. The president might outlast the investigators regardless of what they find.