Echoes of Nixon in modern-day tale of ‘Watergate on steroids’
Like his predecessor, the president confronts a problem largely of his own creation
Donald Trump needed just four months to accomplish something that took Richard Nixon more than four years.
It was not until October 1973, when Nixon fired special prosecutor Archibald Cox, that talk of impeaching the 37th president began in earnest.
With Mr Trump’s presidency far younger, reports that he fired James Comey, the FBI director, after asking him to abandon his investigation of Michael Flynn, the national security adviser, have triggered similar calls for Mr Trump to be ousted.
“This is kind of like Watergate on steroids,” said Nick Akerman, who was an assistant special prosecutor in the Watergate case.
Washington was still reeling yesterday from news that Mr Comey had written memos about his private conversations with the president, with one quoting Mr Trump saying of the Flynn investigation: “I hope you can let this go.”
The suggestion of obstruction of justice — the first article of impeachment lodged against Nixon — caused a flowering of Watergate references. Congressman Justin Amash, a Michigan Republican, said that if Mr Comey’s account was correct, impeachment was warranted. Al Green, a Democratic congressman from Texas, added that the president had “committed an impeachable act”.
Those comments came hours after Senator John McCain, the former Republican presidential candidate, said Mr Trump was enmeshed in a morass of “Watergate size and scale”.
Some veterans of that rancorous era said the current crisis might be more serious, since Mr Trump was accused by his opponents of having colluded with a foreign power, Russia, to disrupt last year’s voting. Likewise, the Comey sacking, reminiscent of the “Saturday Night Massacre” that claimed Cox, may herald a crisis turning point.
“The Saturday Night Massacre woke up the nation, which had been pretty indifferent to what the Nixon White House characterised as a ‘third-rate burglary’,” said Richard Ben-Veniste, a Watergate special prosecutor. “The firing of Comey has ignited a similar feeling.”
Like Nixon, Mr Trump confronts a crisis largely of his own creation. In 1972, Nixon acted to halt an inquiry into the men who had burgled the Democratic party HQat the Watergate hotel.
After more than two years of denials, the White House in August 1974 released the tape of a conversation — held on June 23, 1972, six days after the break-in — in which Bob Haldeman, the White House chief of staff, obtained the president’s approval for a cover-up. As the Oval Office tape recorder whirred, Nixon endorsed the idea of having the CIA director tell his FBI counterpart to back off because of phoney national security concerns. “Good. Good deal! Play it tough,” Nixon said. “Good job, Bob.”
More than four decades later, a few players from the Watergate era remain active. Bob Woodward, the journalist who broke many of the biggest stories, still writes for the Washington Post.
Hillary Clinton, who was a young lawyer working for the House judiciary committee on articles of impeachment, is re-emerging after her election defeat.
Congressman John Conyers, who moved to impeach Nixon before Watergate, chairs the judiciary committee and is calling on the White House to surrender any recordings of conversations between Mr Trump and Mr Comey.
As a young White House aide, Patrick Buchanan advised Nixon to burn the tapes. He says comparisons between the two episodes are overstated. By the time Nixon fired Cox, the president had sought the resignations of his two top
‘The atmosphere, astonishingly, is almost like it was in 1973’ Patrick Buchanan
White House advisers and his attorneygeneral and seen several campaign aides convicted of crimes. Nothing like that storm has yet hit Mr Trump, says Mr Buchanan, who blames the current crisis mood on hostility between the outsider president and “the permanent regime in Washington”.
He says: “The atmosphere, astonishingly, is almost like it was in 1973.”
Mr Buchanan adds that a “tally ho spirit of the anti-Trump media” is fuelling a growing hysteria. During Watergate, White House aides worried about twice-daily news deadlines. Today, a 24hour news cycle, dominated by social media, acts as a crisis catalyst.
There are differences between the contemporary crisis and Watergate. Democrats controlled both Houses of Congress in 1972. With Republicans in charge of Capitol Hill today, there is little likelihood that formal impeachment proceedings will begin any time soon.
But Mr Trump is vulnerable. Nixon, who began his second term with 68 per cent support in a Gallup poll, fell to just 24 per cent on the eve of his resignation. Mr Trump, who lost the popular vote in November, is backed by just 36 per cent of voters in the latest Quinnipiac Poll.
The former White House counsel who warned Mr Nixon of “a cancer growing on the presidency”, said Mr Trump had not learned Watergate’s lessons. “I don’t think this president seems to know that history very well,” John Dean told CNN. “He seems to be making the same mistakes Nixon made.”
Richard Nixon with transcripts of the White House tapes in 1974