“When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal."
It’s unfair to Richard Nixon to be compared to Donald Trump. Nixon was ashamed of his behavior and proved it when a British game show host got the best of him in an interview that resulted in the incredibly incorrect statement Nixon uttered above. I’m not sure Trump is capable of feeling shame, but we can’t ignore how similarly the Trump Administration is unraveling like the Nixon Administration did as a result of Watergate.
The Trump/Nixon Differences
Nixon was more popular than Trump is or has been. Trump limped into the White House thanks to the Electoral College. He lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by two percent (48.18 percent to 46.09 percent). Nixon, however, won reelection in 1972 in one of the biggest landslides in American political history (60.67 percent to 37.52 percent). So these two Presidents started from vastly different measures of popularity.
After winning reelection, Nixon’s job approval rating according to Gallup was 50 percent. Trump entered his first term as President with a job approval rating of 45 percent, but his post-midterm job approval rating is just 38 percent—falling six percentage points in less than a month. That sudden drop is no doubt in response to Trump coercing the resignation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who recused himself from Robert Mueller’s investigation of the Trump campaign’s potential participation in Russian meddling in the 2016 Presidential Election.
Trump replaced Sessions with former ambulance chaser and potential defrauder of veterans, Matt Whitaker, Sessions’ former Chief of Staff, which is apparently legal, even though the order of succession at the Department of Justice doesn’t include the Chief of Staff on the list. The executive order Trump signed on March 31, 2017, doesn’t list the Chief of Staff as a potential successor either, but does state that “the President retains discretion, to the extent permitted by law, to depart from this order in designating an acting Attorney General,” which was the case when Barack Obama was President, too.
Nixon’s job approval rating dropped eight points between Dec. 11, 1972, and Jan. 12, 1973, as a result of The Washington Post’s continued reporting on the break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Hotel that occurred June 13, 1971. But it wasn’t until Nixon’s Attorney General, Richard Kleindienst, resigned, along with top White House staffers, H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, on April 30, 1973, that Nixon’s job approval rating reflected his guilt.
Attorneys General can Smell Guilt
It’s generally not a good sign for Presidents when U.S. Attorneys General resign amid scandal, whether coerced to do so or not. Attorneys have a pretty good sense of people’s guilt and tend to be pretty good at covering their asses. Kleindienst wrote the playbook Sessions is simply following in an attempt to avoid the fate of John N. Mitchell, the Attorney General who ran Nixon’s 1968 and 1972 Presidential campaigns and was imprisoned for 19 months due to his involvement in the Watergate break-in and cover-up. And Trump is trying to improve upon the playbook Nixon wrote on covering up election fraud, but Trump is leaving his friends out to dry just as Nixon did.
Gordon Liddy, leader of the group of five men who broke into the DNC headquarters, told Attorney General Kleindienst that the break-in was directed and funded by the Committee to Re-Elect the President (CREEP), and that Kleindienst should arrange the release of the burglars to reduce the risk of exposing CREEP’s involvement in the break-in. But Kleindienst refused and ordered the Watergate burglary investigation to proceed like any other. He resigned April 30, 1973. Nixon's approval rating had dropped 19 points in roughly three months.
Just like Trump failed to ask Sessions if he would be willing to undermine Mueller’s investigation prior to appointing him Attorney General, Nixon failed to ask Kleindienst’s replacement, former Secretary of Defense Elliot Richardson, if he would do what Kleindienst wouldn’t and undermine the Watergate investigation. When ordered to fire the top lawyer investigating the Watergate scandal, Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox, Richardson responded by resigning on Oct. 20, 1973—five months into his tenure as Attorney General. Like Sessions, Richardson had promised Congress he would not interfere with the special prosecutor’s investigation. At this point, Nixon's approval rating was 27 percent—down another 21 points since Kleindienst's resignation.
Nixon then ordered Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus to fire Cox, the original Mueller. He refused and also resigned. Nixon then ordered the third-most-senior official at the Justice Department, Solicitor General Robert Bork, to fire Cox. Bork considered resigning after firing Cox, but Richardson convinced him not to in order to ensure proper DOJ leadership. Bork served as acting Attorney General until Nixon appointed William B. Saxbe to the position on Jan, 4, 1974, his approval rating still hovering at 27 percent.
You could say Trump has avoided some of the mistakes Nixon made, but he’s still mired in scandal and using any opportunity afforded him as President to undermine Mueller’s investigation into his campaign’s potential participation in Russian meddling in the 2016 Presidential Election. The appointment of Whitaker is to Trump as Bork was to Nixon; Whitaker just hasn’t fired Mueller yet, and might not have to if his idea to slow the investigation to a halt by cutting its funding works.
Sessions smelled guilt on Trump when he recused himself from the Mueller Investigation. That was Sessions covering his ass, and that odor has only worsened as Mueller’s investigation has resulted in indictments or guilty pleas from 32 people and three companies...so far. Some suspect a big announcement coming from Mueller, as eight members of his team worked Veteran’s Day—a paid day off for federal employees.
Barring White House Reporters a Tell-Tale Sign of Guilt
On Wednesday, CNN correspondent Jim Acosta’s White House press pass was suspended indefinitely. Acosta asked Trump whether he thought his calling a migrant caravan in South America an “invasion” demonized immigrants. The President answered “no,” adding that he wanted the immigrants to come to this country but do so legally, and that Acosta’s definition of invasion differed from his. Trump then went on to tell Acosta that he should focus on running CNN and let him run the country, and if he did, their ratings would be much better.
Trump attempted to take a question from NBC News correspondent Peter Alexander, but Acosta withheld the microphone from a White House intern and asked if Trump was concerned about the Russia investigation, to which Trump responded by calling it a “hoax” and told Acosta to “put down the mic,” stepping away from the podium when Acosta asked if he was worried about indictments. Acosta yielded control of the microphone to the intern, and Trump told Acosta that “CNN should be ashamed” to have him working for them, calling him “a rude, terrible person.”
Alexander defended his fellow free-press member: "In Jim's defense, I've traveled with him and watched him, he's a diligent reporter who busts his butt like the rest of us.” Trump responded by saying, “Well I'm not a big fan of yours either.” Trump continued to insult reporters during the press conference, calling a question from PBS correspondent Yamiche Alcindor “racist.” She asked if Trump thought calling himself a nationalist emboldened white nationalists. Trump also told April Ryan of American Urban Radio Networks to “sit down” repeatedly.
Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders is now being accused of circulating a doctored video of Acosta’s interaction with the White House intern. Sanders originally cited Acosta “placing his hands on” the woman as reason for his barring, but in defense of a lawsuit brought by CNN, the White House is now citing Acosta’s “disruptions” as reason for the suspension of his press pass.
If these aren’t the nervous actions of a guilty man’s administration, I don’t know what is. Nixon barred Washington Post reporters from the White House for everything but press conferences on Dec. 11, 1972. This was long after he sued The New York Times for publishing stories citing the leaked “Pentagon Papers,” a classified study of the Vietnam War that revealed the Nixon Administration had escalated the war despite knowing it couldn’t win the war. The Post came to The Times’ defense and published stories from the “Pentagon Papers” on June 18, 1971...just like NBC News and even Fox News is coming to the defense of Acosta and CNN today.
It took a year and a half for The Post to wear out its welcome at the White House with its Watergate coverage. Mueller’s investigation has been ongoing for a year and a half.
How Long Until the End of Trump?
Democrats will have the votes to impeach Trump in the House of Representatives when the new Congress is convened on Jan. 3. House Democrats already introduced five articles of impeachment in November 2017, and only need a majority vote on one to force a Senate trial overseen by the chief justice of the Supreme Court, John Roberts. Impeachment doesn’t mean Trump is removed from office, however.
Nixon’s Senate trial lasted two months, and it was a full two years between the Watergate break-in and his resulting resignation, so if Trump’s timeline is as similar as it has been thus far, if he’s to be removed or if he’s to resign from office, it’s likely to happen sooner rather than later, but unlikely to happen at all. In fact, Congressional Democrats and Democratic Presidential candidates would likely prefer to run against a Trump White House rather than a Mike Pence White House, who is beloved by the Koch Brothers.
It’s not likely that Congress will remove Trump because two-thirds of Senators would have to find the President guilty in order for Vice President Pence to take over. Unless Senate Republicans up for reelection in 2020 (there are at least 20) feel they’d be better served running under a Pence Presidency than the Trump Administration, don’t expect Congress to remove the President. But Congress didn’t need to vote for Nixon to resign, and similar pressure on Trump—like criminal charges brought by Mueller—might bring similar results.
The more Mueller digs, the more he seems to be digging Trump’s political grave, so don’t be surprised if come February or March of 2019, Trump is doing what Nixon did on Aug. 9, 1974—resigning. But if there’s any shame to be pried from Trump’s soul to give us what we all need to heal as a nation, it’s going to require one hell of a game show host.
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