Would Trump Go as Qui­etly as Nixon?

Newsweek - - Departments - BY JEFF STEIN @Spytalker

an un­sea­son­able icy cold swept into Wash­ing­ton in mid-de­cem­ber, like a ce­les­tial omen that win­ter was com­ing for Don­ald Trump’s pres­i­dency. With the sen­tenc­ing of three for­mer key aides, in­clud­ing his per­sonal lawyer Michael Co­hen, and the guilty pleas and pros­e­cu­to­rial co­op­er­a­tion agree­ments of oth­ers, the ad­min­is­tra­tion seemed sus­pended be­tween the end of the be­gin­ning and the be­gin­ning of the end. In guarded con­ver­sa­tions on the edges of hol­i­day cock­tail par­ties in the cap­i­tal’s power cor­ri­dors, Repub­li­cans, Democrats and long­time “deep state” bu­reau­crats seemed to rec­og­nize that a turn­ing point had been reached. The end, per­haps, was in sight, if not near.

“I can’t imag­ine he’ll es­cape the traps Robert Mueller has set for him,” one top for­mer na­tional se­cu­rity of­fi­cial whis­pered, speak­ing of the spe­cial coun­sel in­ves­ti­ga­tion on con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause he deals with the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion on in­tel­li­gence is­sues. “Then there’s the New York stuff [in­ves­ti­ga­tions of Trump’s foun­da­tion, the Co­hen scan­dal] and now Democrats com­ing into power in the House. He’s in a very tight spot.”

With the var­i­ous vises tight­en­ing, con­ver­sa­tions turned toward an­other icy specter: Would Trump leave the

White House if prompted to do so by an in­dict­ment or im­peach­ment vote?

The pres­i­dent him­self re­vived jit­ters over the prospect of go­ing rogue when he pre­dicted in a Reuters in­ter­view on De­cem­ber 9 that “the peo­ple would re­volt” if he were im­peached. Ear­lier in the year, he no­to­ri­ously crowed ap­proval of Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping’s abo­li­tion of term lim­its. “I think it’s great,” he said. “Maybe we’ll give that a shot some­day.”

Trump’s warn­ing of a pop­u­lar up­ris­ing on his be­half drew wide­spread mock­ing. “I think he has con­fused the word ‘re­volt’ with ‘re­joice,’” went one typ­i­cal Twit­ter com­ment. But oth­ers wor­ried over armed Charlottesville-style mobs de­scend­ing on the cap­i­tal, the me­dia out­lets Trump calls “en­e­mies of the peo­ple” or even syn­a­gogues. “There is po­ten­tial for a lot of street vi­o­lence,” re­tired three-star Army Gen­eral Mark Hertling tells Newsweek.

No mat­ter that an im­peach­ment hear­ing in the House alone seems far off, given the cau­tion of key Democrats on the mat­ter, not to men­tion Repub­li­can con­trol of the Se­nate. “Many trem­ble at the idea, fear­ing how Trump’s sup­port­ers will re­act to an im­peach­ment in­quiry, wor­ry­ing that it will fur­ther po­lar­ize an al­ready deeply di­vided na­tion or that there will not be enough votes in the Se­nate to con­vict him, even if the House votes to im­peach,” for­mer New York Rep­re­sen­ta­tive El­iz­a­beth Holtz­man, a mem­ber of the

House Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee that voted to im­peach Pres­i­dent Richard Nixon, writes in her new book, The Case for Im­peach­ing Trump.

Nixon had sim­i­lar fan­tasies of “the peo­ple” com­ing to his res­cue as Congress and pros­e­cu­tors closed in. But as it turned out, the “crea­ture of the estab­lish­ment,” as Water­gate chron­i­cler El­iz­a­beth Drew re­cently de­scribed Nixon in The New York Times, bowed to re­al­ity and re­signed: “Nixon, a lawyer who had been a mem­ber of the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives, a sen­a­tor and a vice pres­i­dent, was more ac­cept­ing of the po­lit­i­cal or­der.”

But the cur­rent oc­cu­pant of the Oval Of­fice, she pointed out, is an en­tirely dif­fer­ent crea­ture. “Mr. Trump, with no gov­ern­ment ex­pe­ri­ence, and lit­tle knowl­edge of how the fed­eral gov­ern­ment works, has been a free if malev­o­lent spirit, less likely than even Nixon to ob­serve bound­aries,” Drew wrote. But Holtz­man ex­pressed con­fi­dence in an in­ter­view that the pres­i­dent would go when im­peach­ment was in­evitable. “He’s a lot of bravado, but in the end he’s a cow­ard and a wimp,” she says.

If Nixon’s fi­nal days are any guide, how­ever, the sys­tem is in for a whole lot of shak­ing be­fore Trump ex­its. He has al­ready fol­lowed Nixon’s path in try­ing to rid him­self of his prin­ci­pal neme­ses, FBI Di­rec­tor James Comey and At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions (re­placed with a pli­ant temp, Matthew Whi­taker). But he has stopped short of fir­ing spe­cial coun­sel Mueller, as Nixon did with in­de­pen­dent Water­gate pros­e­cu­tor Archibald Cox, in the in­fa­mous “Satur­day Night Mas­sacre” of Oc­to­ber 1973; that pro­voked a na­tional up­roar and the res­ig­na­tions of At­tor­ney Gen­eral El­liot Richard­son and his deputy, Wil­liam Ruck­elshaus.

Trump could also reach into Nixon’s play­book to in­cite some sort of mil­i­tary or for­eign-pol­icy cri­sis with Iran, China or North Ko­rea to di­vert at­ten­tion and rally pub­lic sup­port for him as com­man­der in chief. Two days after fir­ing Cox, Nixon rat­tled Wash­ing­ton (and the world) when U.S. forces were put on De­f­con 3— one step short of war—sup­pos­edly to de­ter a Soviet in­ter­ven­tion in the Mid­dle East. But with his pres­i­dency tee­ter­ing the fol­low­ing Au­gust, con­cerns grew that Nixon might even de­ploy mil­i­tary units to Capi­tol Hill to evict Congress and fore­stall im­peach­ment.

Nixon’s de­fense sec­re­tary James Sch­lesinger and the Joint Chiefs of Staff were keep­ing “a close watch to make cer­tain that no or­ders were given to mil­i­tary units out­side the nor­mal chain of com­mand,” ac­cord­ing to a con­tem­po­rary ac­count in The Wash­ing­ton Post. “Specif­i­cally, there was con­cern that an or­der could go to a mil­i­tary unit out­side the chain of com­mand for some sort of ac­tion against Congress dur­ing the time be­tween a House im­peach­ment and a Se­nate trial.”

In the end, noth­ing came of it, as Nixon ac­cepted the se­cret prom­ise of a par­don from Vice Pres­i­dent Ger­ald Ford if he would leave of­fice quickly, ac­cord­ing to sub­se­quent ac­counts through the years. But to oth­ers, it was a close call. Dur­ing a meet­ing with the Joint Chiefs of Staff in De­cem­ber 1973, 10 months into the tele­vised Se­nate Water­gate com­mit­tee hear­ings, Nixon “kept on re­fer­ring to the fact that he may be the last hope, the eastern elite was out to get him. ‘This is our...last chance to re­sist the fas­cists [of the left],’” re­called one of the chiefs in a 1983 At­lantic Monthly piece by jour­nal­ist Sey­mour Hersh. “His words brought me straight up out of my chair. I felt the Pres­i­dent, with­out the words hav­ing been said, was try­ing… to find out whether in a crunch there was sup­port to keep him in power.”

Oth­ers thought Sch­lesinger, in par­tic­u­lar, had been over­come by a kind of Seven Days in May para­noia. The de­fense sec­re­tary had come “unglued,” one of the chiefs said.

Hertling, com­mand­ing gen­eral of the U.S. Army in Europe be­fore re­tir­ing in 2012, also thinks a Nixon coup sce­nario by Trump is far-fetched. “The mil­i­tary takes an oath to de­fend the Con­sti­tu­tion, not the per­cent­age of peo­ple sup­port­ing the pres­i­dent,” he says. “I don’t know of any [gen­eral] who would vi­o­late the law, the Con­sti­tu­tion and their oath to sup­port such an or­der from the pres­i­dent.”

Trump could ex­pect even less sym­pa­thy, much less sup­port, from mil­i­tary lead­ers who have ques­tioned— pri­vately, of course—his fit­ness for lead­er­ship. De­part­ing White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, a re­tired Ma­rine Corps gen­eral, has called Trump “un­hinged,” ac­cord­ing to the Bob Wood­ward book Fear, which in­cluded out­go­ing De­fense Sec­re­tary James Mat­tis, an­other Ma­rine gen­eral, say­ing the pres­i­dent had the in­tel­lect of “a fifthor sixth-grader.” In his fi­nal ad­dress as na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser in April, with Trump in the au­di­ence, Army Gen­eral H.R. Mcmaster de­plored “those who glam­or­ize and apol­o­gize in the ser­vice of com­mu­nist, au­thor­i­tar­ian and re­pres­sive govern­ments.”

Forced into a cor­ner, Trump may

“How much fur­ther might Trump go in 2020, when his own name is on the bal­lot—or sooner than that, if he’s fac­ing im­peach­ment?”

well—like the dic­ta­tors he so en­vies— se­cretly wel­come vi­o­lent upris­ings by his devo­tees. In ad­di­tion to his in­cit­ing re­marks after the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Vir­ginia, re­sulted in the death of a coun­ter­protester by a white su­prem­a­cist (“There are very fine peo­ple on both sides”), he blamed the me­dia “for the anger we see to­day in our so­ci­ety” when an out­spo­ken Trump zealot as­saulted a Pitts­burgh syn­a­gogue killing 11 and wound­ing six. Even more omi­nously, he re­jected the CIA’S re­port pin­ning the killing and dis­mem­ber­ment of Wash­ing­ton Post colum­nist Ja­mal Khashoggi on Saudi Crown Prince Mo­hammed bin Sal­man. (“Maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!”)

“How much fur­ther might he go in 2020, when his own name is on the bal­lot—or sooner than that, if he’s fac­ing im­peach­ment by a House un­der Demo­cratic con­trol?” El­iz­a­beth Goitein, co-di­rec­tor of the Bren­nan Cen­ter for Jus­tice’s Lib­erty and Na­tional Se­cu­rity Pro­gram, wrote in The At­lantic. He could de­clare an­other “na­tional emer­gency,” like he did with the Cen­tral Amer­i­can car­a­van in Mex­ico, she wrote, “a de­ci­sion that is en­tirely within his dis­cre­tion.”

Pres­i­dents from Abra­ham Lin­coln (who sus­pended habeas cor­pus) through Franklin Roo­sevelt (Ja­panese-amer­i­can in­tern­ment camps) to Ge­orge W. Bush (war­rant­less wire­tap­ping, CIA black-site “en­hanced in­ter­ro­ga­tion tech­niques”) have reg­u­larly as­serted or in­voked emer­gency pow­ers. Un­der leg­is­la­tion passed by Congress dur­ing World War II, Goitein wrote, Trump could “ac­ti­vate laws al­low­ing him to shut down many kinds of elec­tronic com­mu­ni­ca­tions in­side the United States or freeze Amer­i­cans’ bank ac­counts.” And, of course, he could de­ploy troops any­where, in­clud­ing the Capi­tol. Tom Ricks, a mil­i­tary af­fairs jour­nal­ist, thinks the Pen­tagon would balk at that. “My bet is that mil­i­tary pro­fes­sion­al­ism runs so deep,” he says, “that the Joint Chiefs and other se­nior lead­ers would be quick to point out that they can’t fol­low il­le­gal or­ders.”

Like­wise, says Holtz­man, “some way or an­other, the sys­tem will work. If the ev­i­dence is so strong that we have the votes, then he bet­ter lis­ten to that.”

But back in her day, the Demo­crat­ic­con­trolled Congress was care­ful to win over Repub­li­cans be­fore mak­ing its fi­nal drive to oust Nixon. In Jan­uary, they’ll have a 36-seat ma­jor­ity in the House, while Repub­li­cans added two seats to their con­trol of the Se­nate. And none of the GOP’S lead­ers have bro­ken with Trump, no mat­ter how many mis­deeds pile up.

The pres­i­dent has other ad­van­tages Nixon lacked. His base is “larger and more co­he­sive than Nixon’s. And Nixon had noth­ing re­motely like the pro­pa­ganda or­gan that Mr. Trump has in Fox News,” wrote Drew, whose sem­i­nal 1975 book, Wash­ing­ton Jour­nal: Re­port­ing Water­gate and Richard Nixon’s Down­fall, re­mains in print. “The big ques­tion,” she added in the Times, “is whether there will turn out to be a ma­jor dif­fer­ence be­tween the two men when it comes to hon­or­ing the de­ci­sions of the law, or of the pub­lic.” The jury’s still out on that.

Trump has fol­lowed Nixon’s path in try­ing to rid him­self of prin­ci­pal neme­ses. Clock­wise from top: With act­ing U.S. At­tor­ney Gen­eral Whi­taker; a pro­tester in 2017; Nixon’s res­ig­na­tion wave.

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