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What can Watergate teach us about the Trump White House?

- May 18, 2017

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) recently told a fundraising dinner that “We’ve seen this movie before. It’s reaching Watergate size and scale” — and certainly the references to Watergate are scaling up. Last week (only last week?) my social media feed featured Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor whose firing by Richard Nixon sparked the “Saturday Night Massacre.” As of Tuesday, the Watergate greatest hit in heaviest rotation is instead (with apologies to the great Robert Cray) “Smoking Gun.”

But it’s not the same. And remembering that is important.

What was the Watergate ‘smoking gun?’

The phrase refers to a June 23, 1972, conversation between President Richard Nixon and his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman — the tape of which, when released in August 1974, put the metaphorical weapon right in Nixon’s hands. It proved that Nixon knew about and had been involved in the cover-up of the Watergate scandal from the very start.

The transcript of the start of the “smoking gun” conversation of June 23, 1972, that led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation from office. (Source: Nixon Library.)

Recall that the June 23 conversation came a few days after burglars were caught breaking into the Democratic National Committee offices at Washington’s Watergate complex. The break-in had been commissioned by the Committee to Re-elect the President, and supervised by Howard Hunt, a former CIA agent with an office in the White House. Haldeman knew that a $25,000 check given to the Nixon campaign, but signed over to the burglars, had been unearthed by FBI agents. He and the president had already discussed their options: In his diary entry of June 20, Haldeman noted that after talking in “considerable detail” with the president, “the conclusion was that we’ve got to hope the FBI doesn’t go beyond what’s necessary in developing evidence and that we can keep a lid on that.”

Nixon’s efforts to get the FBI to look away were far more clever than Trump’s 

This brings us to current events, and the New York Times report that President Trump asked now-former FBI director James Comey to drop the investigation of then-just-barely-former national security adviser Michael Flynn.

In response to the news, Nixon’s former White House counsel John Dean said, “Nixon was impeached for just this sort of act.” (Actually, Nixon resigned before he was formally impeached). “Donald Trump has committed the exact offense that forced Richard Nixon to resign,” proclaimed a Vox headline.

The 1974 Articles of Impeachment approved by the House Judiciary Committee did prominently feature “obstruction of justice.” The promise (threat?) of new White House “tapes” has already emerged — and, suddenly, so has a special counsel. But the cases do not serve as an “exact” analog. Nixon’s efforts to stymie the FBI were rather more clever and even more harmful than Trump’s are alleged to have been.

For one thing, Nixon did not have to create a vacancy at the top of the FBI — he had one. J. Edgar Hoover had died in May 1972 after nearly 50 years as director. Nixon named Justice Department official L. Patrick Gray as acting director while dangling the permanent job to keep Gray loyal. It worked. Gray kept the White House informed about the burglary investigation, and when asked to “deep six” problematic paperwork from Hunt’s White House safe, he did just that, burning it in his home fireplace. Dean wrote later that “we could count on Pat Gray to keep the Hunt material from becoming public, and he did not disappoint us.”

Second, the June 23 conversation set in motion a plan that revolved around Hunt’s ties to the CIA and the background of the burglars, Cuban exiles who knew Hunt from the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion. “I think that this has one plus to it, Chuck,” Nixon told his aide Charles Colson on June 21. “The Cubans.” The idea was for White House aides (not Nixon) to leverage the CIA to block the FBI. The idea was that “the Cubans” had complicated pasts (true), that they were involved in covert operations (false), and that CIA should warn the FBI from pushing too far. Nixon told Haldeman:

Get these people in, say: ‘Look, the problem is that this will open the whole, the whole Bay of Pigs thing’ …. Just say this is sort of a comedy of errors, bizarre, without getting into it.….They [CIA] should call the FBI in and say that ‘we wish for the country, don’t go any further into this case,’ period!

This diversion worked, briefly. CIA Deputy Director Vernon Walters told Gray that it would be better to “taper the matter off” with the five burglars already arrested. But Gray wasn’t sold; he warned Nixon in July that he thought White House staff were “confusing the question of CIA interest” in ways that could damage the president. Nixon brazened it out — he was shocked to hear it! — and told Gray to undertake an “aggressive and thorough investigation.”

Even so, the third strand of the White House attempt to manipulate the FBI had a promising start. Dean was assigned to work with Assistant Attorney General Henry Petersen, who was overseeing the investigation for Justice. Haldeman reported happily to Nixon on July 20 that:

Dean … laid out the whole scenario to him of what actually happened, who is involved and where it all fit. Now, on the basis of that, Petersen is working with that knowledge, directing the investigation along the channels that will not produce the kind of answers we don’t want produced.

Nixon came back to the question on July 22:

There is a reasonable chance that nothing happens, then just let it go. Dean is talking to whom on this? … We ought to put a Bureau man in there somewhere.

Haldeman suggested Associate Director Mark Felt: He “is pushing to try and be our boy.” Nixon agreed: “[I’m] hoping he is our boy.”

And then it fell apart

Far from being Nixon’s “boy,” Felt turned out instead to be “Deep Throat,” the famous source for so much of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s Watergate reporting for The Washington Post. In part, as Max Holland documents, this was because he was angry at having been passed over for the FBI directorship in favor of Pat Gray. But Gray, for his part, when finally nominated to become the bureau’s permanent director in February 1973, wound up undermining the White House, too — by testifying honestly about his actions.

“He has been totally unwilling all along to take any guidance, any instruction,” Dean told Nixon in March. “We don’t know what he is going to do.” Even so, Nixon survived in office for another 17 months — indeed, for more than a year after the existence of the White House tapes were revealed in July 1973.

Trump isn’t Nixon 

While Watergate is a tempting analogue, this week’s revelations are more a rhyme than a repetition. Trump’s alleged intervention with the FBI would represent a different sort of abuse of power than Nixon’s, far less systematic (what is described here is only one small part of the Watergate scandal) and less well concealed.

As Nixon chronicler Rick Perlstein recently put it:

I actually think the comparisons [with Trump] at this point obscure more than they reveal. Nixon was just so shrewd, so strategic. … Nixon was so much the smoother criminal: everything was buffered through intermediaries and cutouts.

On the other hand, Trump has already topped Nixon in one regard. Nixon’s famous defense was that “when the president does it, that means it is not illegal.” In the Trump White House, when the president does it, that means it is “wholly appropriate.”