When President Richard Nixon decided in late October 1973 to force out the attorney general and replace him with someone who would fire the special prosecutor haunting his life, he went through the chain of command until he got to the third person in line, the solicitor general, who did the deed. Now here we are again, with another president wanting to be rid of an investigation by a special counsel that threatens his presidency.
But rather than follow the regular order, as Nixon had, President Trump selected as acting attorney general a lackey who had been chosen as chief of staff to the attorney general because of his TV appearances as a private citizen in which he echoed the president’s position on the special counsel’s investigation into Russia’s role in the 2016 election. Among other things, he’d parroted Mr. Trump’s obsessive line, “There was no collusion.” It has been broadly assumed that this man would, one way or another, end the special counsel’s investigation.
Whether, as some legal scholars argue, Mr. Trump’s choice was unconstitutional, since the new acting attorney general has never been confirmed by the Senate, or was simply unwise since his choice was blatantly self-serving, the differences in the ways the two presidents have approached getting rid of an inconvenient prosecutor are informed by their different backgrounds.
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. 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.
As president, Nixon tried to bend the constitutional and political systems to his will. He interfered in the Democratic Party’s process for picking his future opponent. And he challenged the separation of powers — setting off the constitutional crisis that Watergate was. But as far as Nixon moved toward fascism, Mr. Trump has been going further.
This isn’t to suggest that Nixon was a sweetheart, or meek in his efforts to save himself. But his background as a creature of the establishment inhibited his actions.
One systemic and critical difference between Nixon’s situation and Mr. Trump’s is that Nixon faced a Democratic Congress, while Mr. Trump has enjoyed a completely Republican-controlled one. (That changes when the Democrats take control of the House in January.) Under Mr. Trump there has been more reluctance to allow top figures to testify before congressional committees than there was under Nixon.
Each president tried to stir up public impatience with his perceived persecution and thus pressure investigators to hurry up, but Mr. Trump makes Nixon look like a pussycat.
Nixon officials were prone to saying things like, “Enough wallowing in Watergate,” while, for example, in early August, Mr. Trump tweeted, “This is a terrible situation and Attorney General Jeff Sessions should stop this Rigged Witch Hunt right now.” Mr. Trump has done much more than Nixon did in trying to damage public trust in whatever their prosecutors might come up with.
Mr. Trump’s allies among Republican leaders of House investigatory committees have sought to undermine the jobs of not just the special counsel but also key figures in the Justice Department and the F.B.I. Such goings-on didn’t happen in Watergate.
Mr. Trump has other structural advantages over Nixon. Nixon’s base nearly melted away in the face of evidence of his guilt in a cover-up. Mr. Trump’s base has yet to be so tested, but it’s larger and more cohesive than Nixon’s. And Nixon had nothing remotely like the propaganda organ that Mr. Trump has in Fox News. (There was no cable TV in Nixon’s time.)
Though both men have shown hatred of the press, Mr. Trump has gone much further by encouraging violence against it. And, as far as we know, Mr. Trump has been less prone than Nixon to using levers of the bureaucracy to punish his perceived “enemies,” but he may be catching up. For example he appears to have moved to raise postal rates to hurt Amazon, whose owner, Jeff Bezos, also owns The Washington Post.
The big question 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. Nixon shied from challenging John F. Kennedy’s narrow electoral victory in 1960 not out of magnanimity but because he concluded he couldn’t make the charge of fraud stick. Mr. Trump, as we’re seeing, needs no evidence before charging election fraud.
When the Supreme Court ordered Nixon to turn over the White House tapes, he obeyed. And after Republican elders went to the White House to tell him that he lacked the political support to survive as president, Nixon yielded to their implication that he should leave office. Nearly impossible as it is to imagine a similar scene involving the current president and his pusillanimous party, Mr. Trump has given us reason to wonder whether he would defer to legal findings against him or even to a re-election loss in 2020 — if, that is, he’s still in office then.
Elizabeth Drew, a political journalist who covered Watergate for The New Yorker, is the author of “Washington Journal: Reporting Watergate and Richard Nixon’s Downfall.”
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