Is Trump Acting Like Nixon Did During Watergate?
Ray Smock is the director of the Robert C. Byrd Center for Congressional History and Education at Shepherd University. He was Historian of the U. S. House of Representatives from 1983-95. He is co-editor of the two volume Congress Investigates: A Critical and Documentary History (2011).
Within minutes of the breaking news about President Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey, Brian Williams on MSNBC wondered if this was like Richard Nixon’s “Saturday Night Massacre,” when President Nixon, his back to the wall in the Watergate investigation, fired the Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox, on Oct. 20, 1973. Nixon ordered the Attorney General to abolish the office of special prosecutor. Refusing to do so and in protest, the Attorney General Elliot Richardson and the Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus resigned. Nixon then turned to the U.S. Solicitor General Robert Bork, to carry out the firing of the special prosecutor.
Nixon badly misjudged the mood of the country which wanted the investigation to go on. The President was fighting against the release of his White House tapes at the time. Public outcry and concern from Congress led Nixon to re-establish the office of special prosecutor and he started turning over limited numbers of White House tapes. Not long after this dramatic series of events Time Magazine ran an editorial calling for the President to resign. Nixon responded by saying he was not a crook. It would take another nine months of national agony and turmoil before the weight of evidence and the move toward impeachment was so strong that the President did resign.
That was then. We can learn a great deal from Watergate that might help inform us about the current situation. Mostly we can learn how a president tried to use high officials to insulate and protect him from the investigation. We easily forget how extensive this web of conspiracy and obstruction of justice was. Sixty-nine people were indicted in Watergate-related crimes, 48 were convicted, including seven of the burglars, but also two U.S. Attorneys General, two Counsels to the President, the President’s chief of staff, and dozens of others. It was not just about Nixon. It was massive corruption in the White House.
Today’s salvo with President Trump firing the FBI director while his own campaign is under investigation for possible collusion with Russian agents, is a completely different context and a completely distinct set of investigations. We should carry historical analogies only so far. With events breaking rapidly it is impossible to give this firing a well-rounded context. It is within the President’s authority to remove the FBI director. Director Comey has become a lightning rod with the way he has publicly injected information about investigations into a presidential election. His actions at best seem arbitrary and inconclusive, yet they were explosive revelations in the middle of a political campaign, where the FBI had no place.
Trump’s letter firing Director Comey is disturbingly Trumpian. Trump uses the letter to remind the public that on three occasions Director Comey told Trump he was not being investigated for his involvement with Russians during the campaign. In other words, Trump uses his letter firing the FBI director to focus on his own innocence. The letter started out being about the President not the FBI director. Then the President told Comey that he was not the right person to lead the agency anymore.
Earlier, Trump fired Acting Attorney General Sally Yates because she had serious reservations about the constitutionality of Trump’s Muslim ban. He should have listened to her. It was the same Sally Yates that alerted President Trump that his pick to be national security adviser, General Mike Flynn, could possibly be blackmailed by the Russian government. She was doing her job of protecting the president and the United States. Trump kept Flynn in office another 18 days before firing him.
Our current Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, picked because he was one of the first senators to come out and campaign vigorously for Trump, has been forced to recuse himself from any direct involvement in the Russian investigation because he had contact with the Russian ambassador that he did not reveal to the Senate during his confirmation hearings.
I must say that this murkiness in high places of government, this uneasy feeling that things are helter-skelter in the White House is causing me to experience similar levels of frustration, angst, and confusion just like a lot of us felt during the slow unfolding of the Watergate nightmare.
The investigations into the Russian involvement in the presidential election of 2016 must go on. They cannot be scuttled until all the evidence is in, one way or another. The investigations into the Trump campaign’s involvement with Russian agents must go on. The House and Senate investigations have been a series of false starts plagued by partisan obstruction. I am concerned that these investigations are being conducted with inadequate staff and too few hearings. House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes flamed out in a partisan ploy that was highly embarrassing. It forced him to recuse himself from the investigation he was leading.
Who is left to investigate? Long ago I called for the need to renew the office of special prosecutor and to move these investigations to an independent body of highly skilled non-partisan professional people of the highest integrity. We have such people in this country. We have the talent, we have the skills, we have the honesty and integrity in this country to do this thing right. The American people will never be able to fully trust the President and his administration until this is cleared up. Unfortunately, it might take two years or more to get to the bottom of this mess. But we should start right now.
But here is the rub. The special prosecutor law expired in 1999. Congress would have to pass it again; President Trump would have to sign it. Then, under provisions of the law, it would be the President on the advice of Attorney General Sessions, who would appoint the special prosecutor. Does anyone see a problem here?
We used special prosecutors to investigate Iran-Contra under President Reagan, and to investigate President Clinton in the Whitewater cases and in the Impeachment of President Clinton. President Trump, whether innocent of wrong-doing or not, is not above the law. We learned that much from Richard Nixon.