The Nixon tapes and Donald Trump
Since President Trump’s inauguration, and even before, there have been countless comparisons between the 37th and 45th presidents of the United States. Some of the comparisons make sense, while others do not.
For this reason, when I was called upon to ask a question at the 16 May, 2017 CNN town hall debate between Governor John Kasich and Senator Bernie Sanders, and I chose to ask a question about Richard Nixon and Donald Trump. For more than a decade now, I have been transcribing the secret White House tapes of President Richard Nixon. To date, I have transcribed more than anyone else, and have made the audio available as a free public service online.
Perhaps the most important similarity between Nixon and Trump is that each trusts no one more than he trusts himself. That led Nixon to record more than three thousand hours of his conversations and telephone calls secretly, so that he alone had the complete record of what was said in his presence. I suspect that if Nixon’s tapes had not played a starring role in his downfall, he would have retired to California as planned and wrote his Churchillian multi-volume memoirs. Or, if he had not taped at all, odds are he would have completed his second term. It was not until the revelation that he had taped that we could satisfy Senator Howard Baker Jr.’s admonition to discover “what did the president know and when did he know it.” Taping was the key; the tapes showed what Nixon knew and when he knew it.
In the case of Trump, discussion is now swirling over whether he taped, and whether he is still taping. I, for one, hope he is. In fact, the historian in me wishes that all presidents did. Not voluntarily, but according to statute. Wouldn’t it be great if we could one day know the truth? Even if the tapes were sealed for 50 years, or until everyone that was recorded is dead? And, if the president acted up, taped conversations could be the ultimate act of accountability to the people.
As long as Trump avoids his ‘Watergate’, his tapes will remain secret. Of course, that is if he is disciplined enough not to share them when it suits his interests. That could be a big if. The Trump Tapes would then be processed some decades from now for eventual public release by the National Archives and Records Administration according to the Presidential Records Act.
On the other hand, if Trump has tapes, or is taping, doing so would be a high stakes gamble. As Nixon said to David Frost in 1977, “I gave them a sword, and they stuck it in and twisted it with relish.” Nixon’s tapes were the sword, a sword that could be used against Trump, too, if he is not careful. Nixon and Trump could end up having even more in common.
When Nixon’s White House staff discovered they had been secretly taped, their reactions varied. Some believed the president was entitled to a verbatim record of their communications, even if it meant being secretly recorded. Others felt betrayed. Still, others went on to have political careers, never fully independent from their old boss. With each new opening of Nixon tapes – approximately 700 hours have yet to be released – the same old fears return. “What did I say? What did he say about me?”
For a president, the appeal of taping is multifaceted. It is the chance to nudge history, to shape it. A president dares not leave his historical legacy in the hands of those who opposed him, or even to benign neglect. Also, as a general rule, a president cannot expect to be treated fairly during his lifetime. Tapes can be very helpful to overcome this – a way of leaving your unfiltered thoughts to future generations.
Every president desires to create some degree of mythology about himself, his words, and his actions. Presidents do this a number of ways. They invite selected historians in, on their terms, to record what they see and hear. Although the group and moment must be chosen, a president must not be afraid of the fact that they might not all be friendly to him. The president will still control the rules of engagement, and can invite them to see and hear things that serve the president’s purpose.
Presidents have also established a council of historians, whether formally or informally. President Obama did this, and recent historians have called for the role and membership of this group to be more formalized. Meetings can be formal or informal, and as frequent or infrequent as the president desires. Going beyond the group, a president sometimes takes a historian into their confidence, and uses them to nudge history. Leaders have been doing this since at least the time of Alexander the Great.
If there is one thing President Trump seems to appreciate, it is that it is better to be hated than forgotten. But he needs some mythology. The Kennedy White House did this with the creation of Camelot. Richard Nixon, despite the fact that many of his advisors recommended that he burn his tapes, remains an active topic of debate – arguably more so than any other modern president. Even President Reagan’s premature departure from public life due to Alzheimer’s during his final decade of life helped to create the mythology of Reagan with us today.
I do not think Trump will ever be universally loved, but that does not bother him as much as we think. A president can still be consequential, significant, momentous, and history-making without being liked. But Trump will need a little mythology. Taping could help.
Just don’t get caught.