Rethinking America

Watergate and Trump – Then and Now

Nixon resigned knowing that if he didn’t he would be impeached. It’s hard to imagine Trump ever resigning, no matter what the evidence.

Credit: Gage Skidmore www.flickr.com

Takeaways


  • Many Americans are appalled by Trump’s behaviour. But so far there is insufficient evidence of impeachable offenses likely to secure overwhelming public support.
  • Impeachment will fail unless enough Republican members of Congress become convinced that Trump represents an acute danger to American democracy.
  • Nixon resigned knowing that if he didn’t he would be impeached. It’s hard to imagine Trump ever resigning, no matter what the evidence.
  • Trump looks as if he is keen to hurl most of his former associates under a bus now that they are on their way to prison.

I sat in the court room in Washington in late December 1974 as James Neal made his final summary remarks as lead prosecutor in the most important of the Watergate trials.

Neal declared that if government officials “commit crimes,” “cover up” their mistakes, “strike foul blows,” or “assault the temples of justice,” then, “when these things occur, society must call those responsible to account.”

That demand is now ringing loudly in the offices at the House of Representatives of the Oversight, Judiciary and Intelligence committees. They are moving with speed to accumulate evidence to hold president Trump and his White House associates to account.

So far, the allegations against president Trump do not compare with those that were pursued by president Richard Nixon and his cronies. In 1973/74, as the evidence accumulated, so Congress launched an impeachment process, Nixon was forced to resign and some of the most powerful men in the nation went to prison.

Public support

Millions of Americans are appalled by Trump’s behavior and many of his policies. So far, however, there is insufficient evidence of impeachable offenses likely to secure overwhelming public support.

According to a widely respected opinion poll, American voters by a margin of 59% to 35% oppose the launching of impeachment proceedings.

Impeachment is a political process and it will fail unless enough Republican members of Congress become convinced that Trump represents an acute danger to American democracy as defined by the Constitution.

Constitutional tests

James Neal’s words are the inspiration and driving motivation behind the zeal of today’s New York and Washington public prosecutors as they go after President Trump.

They are determined that the U.S. Constitution will prevail in the face of Trump’s daily assaults on the Department of Justice, on judges who disagree with his decisions, with the leaders of the U.S. intelligence services and with the FBI – in sum, with America’s institutions of justice.

Nixon’s attack on the institutions of justice was worse. Important figures in the Watergate cover-up included Attorney General John Mitchel, Assistant Attorney General Robert Madian and White House Counsel John Dean.

Nixon forced the firing of Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox. So far Trump has desisted from dismissing special counsel Robert Mueller.

As each day produces new headlines and cable TV anchors breathlessly declare more “breaking news,” it may appear that Trump’s transgressions dwarf those of an earlier era.

Obviously if hard proof surfaces demonstrating that an FBI investigation was warranted in 2017 to discover if Trump had been compromised by the Kremlin and became, in effect, a Russian agent, then matters would be different.

On the basis of currently available public evidence, Nixon and his team were more dangerous crooks.

Going to prison

Trump associates who have been indicted so far and who will go to prison include a former campaign manager and his deputy, a national security advisor, a former business lawyer and sundry others holding less important posts.

Only one of them had a top-level White House office – national security advisor Michael Flynn who held that post for less than one month before being forced to resign.

By contrast, when Neal made his memorable speech, the defendants included John Mitchel, Robert Mardian and White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman and Deputy Chief of Staff John Erlichman.

John Dean was the lead prosecution witness who had earlier pleaded guilty to participating in the cover-up.

Mitchel, Halderman and Erlichman were sentenced to two and a half to eight years in prison for their roles in the Watergate cover up, for obstructing justice and for perjury. Madian received a lesser sentence. John Dean was sentenced to one to four years, but in the event his cooperation with prosecutors meant he was jailed for just four months.

Nixon looked better abroad

For many people around the world, Trump appears more malign than Nixon ever did. Widespread international antipathy has resulted from Trump’s embrace of vicious dictators from North Korea, Egypt, Russia, and Saudi Arabia, his vile language and lack of civility, and his hostility towards the United States’ closest traditional allies in Europe and in Canada.

I recall by contrast that there were many West Europeans in the 1970s who viewed Richard Nixon as a statesman who had opened the door to Mao’s China, who had the experience to stand up to the Kremlin and who, in addition, had the widely-admired Henry Kissinger at his side.

Nixon’s publicly declared goal of ending the Vietnam War, despite the bombing atrocities that he ordered, sufficed to mollify many concerned members of the European foreign policy and political establishments.

Even after Nixon was forced from office, and even after there was evidence of the secret bombing of Cambodia that Nixon had ordered, there were many Europeans who believed that Congress had made a mistake and that the world was under greater security risks as a result. Now, it is very hard to find Europeans who want Trump to stay in office.

Watergate was a confusing and complex set of investigations and for many people around the world it seemed difficult to fathom that the U.S. president really could have had anything to do with what, after all, was a bungled office burglary.

By contrast, Trump appears a totally credible thug, and his former friends, such as Michael Cohen, attest to the fact.

Hard evidence

Watergate was a nasty conspiracy organized at the very highest levels of the U.S. government. It may have never been exposed had not Alexander Butterfield, a deputy assistant to the president, revealed in the course of the first few sessions of the Congress’s Watergate investigation in July 1973 that White House audio-tapes existed of vast numbers of private White House conversations.

It would take a further 12 months before all the evidence from the tapes came to light and proved beyond a doubt that Nixon was at the center of the Watergate cover–up.

The case against Nixon built slowly and many of the critical pieces of evidence, which greatly influenced public opinion, only came to light because of brilliant investigative reporting.

By contrast, Trump’s current and former associates seem to have an endless appetite to talk to the press and to talk to public prosecutors.

Trump’s troubles are multiplied by his own daily desperate efforts at self-justification and deriding public prosecutors, the FBI, the Democrats and the media, which he constantly declares is “the enemy of the people.”

Nixon was mostly tight-lipped. His public comments on the Watergate events were few and far between. His nationally televised statement in late April 1974 from the White House, where he said he was releasing transcripts of the key tapes and stressed that he was not a “crook” proved to be a disaster.

The published transcripts were redacted and key portions were missing.

Nixon was mostly loyal to the people who served him and who were hauled into court because they broke the law. Trump looks as if he is keen to hurl most of his former associates under a bus now that they are on their way to prison.

In August 1974, Richard Nixon resigned knowing that if he did not, then he would be impeached by Congress. It is hard to imagine Trump ever resigning, no matter the amount of evidence.

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About Frank Vogl

Frank Vogl is co-founder of Transparency International and author of Waging War on Corruption: Inside the Movement Fighting the Abuse of Power. [Washington D.C., United States]

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