WASHINGTON — It is no small thing that as of today, the 112th of Donald Trump’s presidency, he has presided over a scandal about a (cyber) break-in at Democratic Party headquarters, his own “Saturday Night Massacre,” protests in the streets and campuses, war with the news media, and disputes about leaks and White House tapes.
Nixonian? It took Richard Nixon five years and six months to compile such a record. The Trump administration has been like “Nixon speed-dating,” says Nicole Hemmer, a scholar of the presidency from the Miller Center at the University of Virginia.
There are differences. If anything, Trump is more cynical than his predecessor. Nixon hoped we would believe his lies. Sheltered by right-wing media, Trump shrugs off the sleuths and fact-checkers; he doesn’t seem to care.
Because Trump has this Barnum-like bluster, it is not possible presently to parse his wild and conflicting statements and reach a judgment that, like Nixon, he has been obstructing justice. The president and his aides are acting like they have something to hide: after six years of study as a Nixon biographer, I assure you their exterior behavior mirrors that of their Watergate counterparts. But, in the end it might just be Trump being Trump.
He may have felt the G-men closing in, and so dismissed FBI director James Comey, the man who was leading the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and other allegations of wrongdoing.
Or, Trump may have become irritated by some tic in Comey’s testimony to Congress, judged him too ambitious, looked up at the portrait of Andrew Jackson for inspiration, and had the man fired. After all, they loved it when he did it on reality TV.
Or it could all be ego — not illegality. The continuing questioning of Trump’s legitimacy as president, and the resultant dilution of his powers, must be profoundly irritating to a man who has shown — in his ongoing demeaning of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, and his insistence that his election victory, or Inauguration Day crowds, were bigger and more imposing than reported – such sensitivity.
We don’t know. And that has prompted calls for a select committee of Congress, or a panel of respected national leaders like the 9/11 Commission, and/or an independent counsel to take over the inquiry. The hijacking of a presidential election by a foreign antagonist like the Russian state would be, if proven, a monstrous crime against democracy, with weighty potential repercussions — from the makeup of the Supreme Court to tax fairness, from the availability of health care, to the wars in the Middle East.
It was against that background that Comey became the third top Department of Justice official to be axed as they led probes of alleged wrongdoing by the president or his associates.
Trump’s actions sparked immediate comparisons to the Saturday Night Massacre of October 1973. It was a singular moment in our history that still fascinates — and resists easy comparisons.
Nixon knew that he’d obstructed justice, and sought to secure the White House tapes that would, one day, reveal his crimes. He ordered the dismissal of special prosecutor Archibald Cox, and forced the resignations of Attorney General Elliot Richardson and his deputy, William Ruckelshaus, when they refused. Ultimately, it fell on Solicitor General Robert Bork, the third-ranking official at Justice, to do the job.
It was a moment of high drama, felt by the participants. Sons of Massachusetts were prominent participants. Richardson sent a note to Cox, his old Harvard law professor, citing this quotation from Homer: Now, though numberless fates of death beset us which no mortal can escape or avoid, let us go forward together, and either we shall give honor to one another, or another to us.
The Globe’s Marty Nolan joined a hundred other reporters, rushing to the White House, dressed in the military jacket that he happened to be wearing that Saturday evening. Sprinting up the driveway, he saw a CBS television correspondent — a veteran newsman who had covered the JFK assassination and the Cuban Missile Crisis — “trembling as an autumn leaf. He knew this was big.”
At NBC, broadcaster John Chancellor delivered the breaking news bulletin that interrupted the primetime lineup. “The country tonight is in the midst of what may be the most serious constitutional crisis in its history,” he said, somehow omitting the Civil War.
Al Haig, the White House chief of staff, cabled Secretary of State (and former Harvard professor) Henry Kissinger, who was on his way home from a Middle East peace negotiation. “The situation is at a state of white heat,” Haig warned. “An impeachment stampede could well develop.”
A squad of FBI agents arrived to secure the doors — and seal the files — at Cox’s office: the administration didn’t want any of the prosecutor’s staff carrying out evidence and leaking it to the press. James Doyle, a former Globe reporter who was working for Cox as his spokesman, gathered up some family photographs and a print of the Declaration of Independence he had hanging on his wall. When FBI agent Angelo Lano tried to stop him, Doyle barked: “It’s the Declaration of Independence, Angie . . . Just stamp it `void’ and let me take it home.”
“We got lucky with Watergate — good prosecutors, and tapes! It came out well,’’ Doyle says now. “This time, the firestorm of outrage is missing, replaced by the incoherence of cable news, the incompetence of the executive, and a one-party majority. Tragedy as a segment of The Apprentice.”
Nixon had some cause to be wary of Cox. The Harvard Law School professor had salted his staff with leftward-leaning prosecutors, including a dozen former staffers of John and Robert Kennedy. They had ranged far beyond their original mandate to examine topics unrelated to Watergate, like Nixon’s purchase of waterfront property, and his friend Bebe Rebozo’s business affairs.
But the country didn’t see it that way. What followed the firing was universally described as a political “firestorm.” Nixon’s standing slipped further when the White House revealed that there were gaps – including one famous 18-minute gap – in the tapes that Cox was seeking.
Then news reports raised another issue: Had Nixon been evading taxes? He responded by releasing his tax returns to Congress and the public. It was the start of a 40-year tradition, honored by his successors, until broken by Trump. Nixon famously declared, to a convention of reporters, that “People have got to know whether or not their president’s a crook. Well, I am not a crook.”
In the House of Representatives, Majority Leader Thomas “Tip” O’Neill Jr. of Massachusetts announced that the House would do its duty, and the House Judiciary Committee was assigned the task of weighing impeachment. It was an arduous (and in those days, rare and frightful) path.
The public outcry compelled Nixon to appoint a new special prosecutor, Leon Jaworski, who carried the fight for the tapes to the US Supreme Court. Nine months later, after losing at the high court and releasing the “smoking gun” tape that showed him directing the Watergate cover up, Nixon resigned.
The Trump White House has alternative facts and explanations for its firings. Acting Attorney General Sally Yates was not sacked for warning that Trump’s choice for national security adviser, Michael Flynn, was vulnerable to Russian blackmail, the White House says; she was dismissed for failing to carry out Trump’s ban on immigrants from several Muslim-majority nations.
And then-US Attorney Preet Bharara was not fired to stop his investigation of Trump’s health and human services secretary, Tom Price, for possible improper stock-trading, or corruption among Russian officials, the White House insists; he was let go from his New York posting as a matter of patronage, the usual practice when there’s a change of administrations.
But if these explanations could be plausible, the reason given for Comey’s dismissal is not. How many believe that Comey was fired for his actions in the 2016 election, which so favored Donald Trump? As Trump pointed out, it was Democrats, until very recently, who wanted the FBI director’s head for reviving the issue of Clinton’s e-mails at a critical moment last fall.
But Trump himself gave us cause to dismiss as false the earlier statements about why he fired Comey, in an interview with NBC News: “And in fact, when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, ‘You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story.’”
Republicans in Congress have announced their “concern” about the timing of Comey’s dismissal — but as yet blocked calls for an independent investigation. There is a shortage of Lowell Weickers or Bill Cohens in today’s Washington — moderate Republicans who showed, during Watergate, a devotion to duty over partisan politics. The maverick Senator John McCain of Arizona, who has led the calls for a select committee to investigate “Russiagate,” is one notable exception.
Until the GOP pays a price at the polls in statewide elections in Virginia and New Jersey next fall, or in the midterm elections in 2018, it is hard to imagine a day like that in August 1974, when Senators Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania and Barry Goldwater of Arizona joined House Minority Leader John Rhodes of Arizona in the Oval Office and informed Nixon that he’d best resign, because he’d lost his party’s support. There are Republicans with dreams of replacing Trump as the party standard bearer in 2020, but for the moment they must button their lips, or be accused of infidelity.
A new FBI director will be named, grilled in Senate hearings, and eventually take office. The bureau, and Trump’s supporters in Congress, insist that the investigation of Russian interference will go on with the same energy and professionalism. But the questions now exist: Can the new director act aggressively, and with honor, and not be daunted by Trump’s dismissals of Yates, Bharara, and Comey? Or will he or she be intimidated?
And was this Trump’s intention all along?
John Aloysius Farrell, a former Globe reporter and editor, is author most recently of “Richard Nixon: The Life.” He also has written biographies of Clarence Darrow and Thomas P. “Tip’’ O’Neill Jr.