Trump should learn from Nixon

Texarkana Gazette - - OPINION - J. Bern­stein

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump pushed At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions to re­sign on Wed­nes­day. Matthew Whi­taker, Ses­sions’ chief of staff, who has ex­pressed hos­til­ity to Spe­cial Coun­sel Robert Mueller’s in­quiry, will step in as act­ing at­tor­ney gen­eral and, ac­cord­ing to re­ports, take over su­per­vi­sion of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

The pres­i­dent has the right to re­place his cab­i­net of­fi­cials. Af­ter all, it’s not un­usual, as Trump said in his press con­fer­ence ear­lier Wed­nes­day, to have some turnover af­ter an elec­tion.

But the head of the ex­ec­u­tive branch does not have the right to at­tempt to end in­ves­ti­ga­tions of him­self, his cam­paign and his ad­min­is­tra­tion. Those kinds of ac­tions are called abuse of power and ob­struc­tion of jus­tice.

For the mo­ment, there’s no sign that Trump is at­tempt­ing ei­ther a rapid or a slow-mo­tion re-en­act­ment of the so-called Sat­ur­day Night Mas­sacre of 1973, when Richard Nixon or­dered the fir­ing of a spe­cial pros­e­cu­tor, which con­tributed to the chain of events that ul­ti­mately led to the pres­i­dent’s down­fall.

Nor do we know how the Amer­i­can peo­ple in gen­eral or Repub­li­cans in Congress in par­tic­u­lar would re­act to such a move by Trump. Sev­eral Repub­li­can sen­a­tors have re­peat­edly warned him not to try; on the other hand, they have re­frained from tak­ing pre-emp­tive ac­tions to make it im­pos­si­ble.

The ap­pro­pri­ate ac­tion at this point would be for both Trump and the act­ing at­tor­ney gen­eral to make clear state­ments that the in­ves­ti­ga­tion will con­tinue with­out in­ter­fer­ence.

It would also be ap­pro­pri­ate for Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee Chair­man Chuck Grass­ley and other Se­nate Repub­li­cans to make pub­lic dec­la­ra­tions of their re­spect for the of­fice of the spe­cial coun­sel. They should in­di­cate that they will re­quire any new nom­i­nee for at­tor­ney gen­eral to make the same no-in­ter­fer­ence pledge that the com­mit­tee de­manded of El­liot Richard­son when he was nom­i­nated for the job in 1973. It’s promis­ing that Repub­li­can Sen­a­tors La­mar Alexan­der and Jeff Flake, and Sen­a­tor-elect Mitt Rom­ney all spoke Wed­nes­day about the im­por­tance of al­low­ing an in­ves­ti­ga­tion to go for­ward. Sen­a­tor Su­san Collins of Maine also weighed in:

Whether Se­nate Repub­li­cans ful­fill that re­spon­si­bil­ity or not, Nixon’s ex­am­ple should make it clear to Trump that any ac­tions he takes to sub­vert the in­ves­ti­ga­tion are likely to back­fire.

In 1973, Nixon at­tempted to fire Spe­cial Pros­e­cu­tor Archibald Cox, and even­tu­ally found some­one to do so af­ter the at­tor­ney gen­eral and the deputy at­tor­ney gen­eral re­signed in protest. The re­ac­tion was so vir­u­lent that Nixon was forced within days to back down en­tirely. A new spe­cial pros­e­cu­tor was ap­pointed and given at least as much in­de­pen­dence as Cox had, and Nixon com­plied with sub­poe­nas that had been the im­me­di­ate cause of the con­flict. Not only that, the Sat­ur­day Night Mas­sacre marked the first time in the Water­gate scan­dal that the im­peach­ment of the pres­i­dent was not only dis­cussed openly, but thought to be a real pos­si­bil­ity.

One can never prove th­ese things, but it’s not a stretch to ar­gue that if Nixon had com­plied with Cox’s de­mands in the first place, he might well have sur­vived. Nixon was guilty of the un­der­ly­ing crimes, which were surely im­peach­able. But Congress might not have acted had it not been for Nixon mak­ing it clear the rule of law was on the line.

We can­not know whether pub­lic opin­ion in 2018 would echo what hap­pened in 1973. But we do know that Trump got into this mess in the first place in large part be­cause he fired James Comey, the FBI di­rec­tor, pre­sum­ably to end the in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the 2016 elec­tion. That episode ap­pears to have dam­aged Trump’s ap­proval rat­ings and cer­tainly dam­aged his stand­ing in Wash­ing­ton, and brought about Mueller’s ap­point­ment as spe­cial coun­sel.

We also don’t know what Mueller’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion has found. There’s much spec­u­la­tion about ad­di­tional in­dict­ments and a fi­nal re­port that could harm the pres­i­dent. It is far from clear that try­ing to force out Mueller would stop any of that. But it will force peo­ple to take sides, and Trump should not count on even pre­vi­ously loyal Repub­li­cans to fol­low him into bla­tant dis­re­gard of the rule of law. Many of them didn’t en­dorse his fir­ing of Comey. They prob­a­bly wouldn’t sup­port him now, when the in­cen­tives for stick­ing with him are the low­est they’ll ever be. Just as with Nixon, even if Trump might be guilty he could still make his sit­u­a­tion a lot worse.

If he cares at all about his pres­i­dency, Trump should not go down Nixon’s path.

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