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.”

— AP

Richard Nixon with tran­scripts of the White House tapes in 1974

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