Investigating President Trump with Watergate prosecutor Nick Akerman: podcast & transcript

Chris Hayes speaks with former Watergate prosecutor Nick Akerman about what the Nixon scandal can teach us about our current political moment.
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It’s time we talked about Watergate. The crime, the greed, the paranoia and the investigation; how does one of the most significant criminal conspiracies in the history of the American Republic help to inform us about what’s unfolding with Robert Mueller’s investigation?

Former Watergate prosecutor Nick Akerman tells the story of what it was like on the inside of the investigation. Hear him explain the exact moment he knew President Richard Nixon was guilty, the vast gap between what we know and what Robert Mueller knows, and how he thinks we ended up back here nearly 50 years later.

CHRIS HAYES: Did you think, when Nixon went down, when you guys issued your report, you'd done your job, you'd gotten your man, that like some kind of cathartic event had occurred and a new era was dawning?

NICK AKERMAN: Yeah, I mean, I think that it was almost inconceivable to me that this could ever happen again.

CHRIS HAYES: Hello and welcome to “Why Is This Happening?” with me, your host, Chris Hayes. Okay. So I don't think I'm alone in spending a lot of time recently thinking about Watergate, right? I mean it's basically everywhere all the time. Right now the top selling book in America is of course Bob Woodward who was famously part of the Woodward and Bernstein team that broke open Watergate. You've got the hit Slate podcast from last year called “Slow Burn,” which to me was part of what kind of re-triggered my interest in Watergate. But the reason that we're all obsessed with Watergate right now and we're thinking about Watergate is because the last time that a president of the United States faced such serious sustained investigation and criminal inquiry was Watergate. And there's this line about history doesn't repeat, but it rhymes and there's a lot of rhymes. Right? I mean the threats to the special counsel, the fact that there was a break in of the DNC in both cases. They broke in to the DNC in Watergate. They were actually breaking into repair a phone tap that had broken. The time they got busted was them breaking in because they bugged the phones and the bug went south. So they were breaking in to repair the bug on the phone in the DNC, which is just bonkers in enough itself.

So you've got the break in the DNC in Watergate and then you've got the break in to the DNC servers in the case of “Russia-gate,” if you want to call it that. Of course, Watergate is the origin of all the “-gates” that we attach to everything. You've got a president who is paranoid, constantly thinks that there are enemies lurking within, probably right. You've got a president who is kind of simultaneously waging a kind of culture war fetishizing law and order while either being directly involved in or countenancing tremendous amounts of criminal activity.

Nixon's the guy who created our modern law and order politics. He gave a law and order speech in 1968 at the convention hall, and he was a criminal surrounded by criminals, engaging in tons of crimes every day, all the time — big, big league crime doer, Richard Nixon. And now we've got a president who just cannot pass up any opportunity to stand in front of a bunch of sheriffs or cops or any kind of law enforcement, who then when he's not doing that, is basically defending the honor of Al Capone as getting the raw deal 'cause he got pinched on a tax deal, making excuses for the various criminals around him, including Paul Manafort who were getting bum deals and Michael Flynn, pardoning criminals like Joe Arpaio who was found criminally in contempt of court. Like that's the law and order guy in both cases, Richard Nixon, Donald Trump — law and order dudes, lots of crime doers around them.

Image: Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump gives a thumbs up as his campaign manager Paul Manafort looks on during Trump's walk through at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland
Then-presidential nominee Donald Trump gives a thumbs up as his campaign manager Paul Manafort looks on during Trump's walk through at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland on July 21, 2016.Rick Wilking / Reuters file

So there are a lot of parallels and there are parallels that play out on our show every night. We have taken to booking a lot of folks, particularly two individuals in particular who were on the team of prosecutors that investigated the president of the United States during Watergate. Jill Wine-Banks, who you may recognize from our air and Nick Akerman. And every time each of them are on, we talk about sort of the news of the day and there's always this kind of reverberation and they will sprinkle in references to what happened back in the day when they were in Watergate. But I always leave the interview thinking I wanna actually just sit down with them and like get the story of what the hell was it like to be a young investigator in the special prosecutor's office, investigating the president of the United States during Watergate. That is a hell of a thing to live through. So Jill Wine-Banks lives in Chicago, but Nick Akerman works like three blocks from 30 Rock. Recently we just emailed Nick, said, "Nick, come over. We'll talk Watergate." So Nick Akerman, who was a former Watergate prosecutor, he's a partner now at Dorsey and Whitney. He's an MSNBC contributor. Nick Akerman came over and talked about what it was like to be a fresh faced, just graduated young lawyer in Washington D.C., investigating them with significant criminal conspiracy in the history of the American republic.

First, let's start with how did you end up on the team in the special counsel’s office investigating Watergate? How'd that happen?

NICK AKERMAN: Well, at the time, I was in a very boring job that the Federal Trade Commission investigating trusts and breaking up monopolies which-

CHRIS HAYES: Let me just say-

NICK AKERMAN: Takes forever.

CHRIS HAYES: Yes, but important work which has been-

NICK AKERMAN: Very important work.

CHRIS HAYES: Largely abandoned in the last 40 years and no one ever does it anymore.

NICK AKERMAN: Absolutely, but from a lawyer's standpoint, not the most exciting thing you can do.

CHRIS HAYES: Where'd you go to law school?

NICK AKERMAN: Harvard Law School.

CHRIS HAYES: Oh, I've heard of that one. And you graduated from Harvard Law and went right into that FTC job?

NICK AKERMAN: Actually it was then known as Health, Education and Welfare, to do management consulting and improving the programs in the department until they found out I had worked on Democratic campaigns and then I was pushed out of those positions and put into limbo, which I found out in a very strange way and wound up going to both of my senators Kennedy and Brooke complaining about it.

CHRIS HAYES: Wait a second. So you graduated Harvard Law and you go to work in the government. Idealistic, young Nick Akerman.

NICK AKERMAN: Exactly.

CHRIS HAYES: And it's the Nixon administration.

NICK AKERMAN: Precisely.

CHRIS HAYES: In what year?

NICK AKERMAN: 1972.

CHRIS HAYES: So... How old are you?

NICK AKERMAN: I'm 25.

CHRIS HAYES: All right. 25-year-old, fresh... That's young. Fresh out of Harvard Law, dewy-eyed Nick Akerman down from Cambridge, goes to Washington, D.C., goes to work in the government in 1972 in the Nixon Administration, which is itself an interesting choice.

NICK AKERMAN: Exactly. But I was working in Health, Education and Welfare.

CHRIS HAYES: Right. So you thought, "I'm gonna get in there and do good stuff."

NICK AKERMAN: And take care of these social programs and make them work better and really improve the situation.

CHRIS HAYES: And someone found out that you were a Democrat.

NICK AKERMAN: Exactly. And so I was put into deep freeze limbo basically-

CHRIS HAYES: Wait. So were you in a civil servant job or were you in a political appointee?

NICK AKERMAN: I was in civil servant job.

CHRIS HAYES: Well they-

NICK AKERMAN: That shouldn't make... No they... Right-

CHRIS HAYES: Wow.

NICK AKERMAN: Yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: Man, talk about a Nixonian thing. So you get a civil servant job in what's then called “HEW,” right?

NICK AKERMAN: Right.

CHRIS HAYES: Health, education, welfare. That later gets broken up-

NICK AKERMAN: Right.

CHRIS HAYES: And turned into a bunch of different agencies and someone like rats you out as a Democrat and pulls you out of a civil service job.

NICK AKERMAN: Exactly.

CHRIS HAYES: Which is illegal.

NICK AKERMAN: It is totally illegal. And as it turned out later on, that's exactly what I was investigating.

CHRIS HAYES: That's exactly it. Right? Like that is... That line ends up being a very crucial line in the entire Watergate-

NICK AKERMAN: It was one of the areas-

CHRIS HAYES: Situation.

NICK AKERMAN: Sure. It was one of the areas of investigation where they were trying to clean out the agencies of people who they suspected of being Democrats.

CHRIS HAYES: People you might even call deep state loyalists.

NICK AKERMAN: Exactly, exactly.

CHRIS HAYES: And Nixon's paranoid about this. I mean Nixon is consumed with the idea that he is sitting in the middle of a house that is in the midst of a termitic infestation.

NICK AKERMAN: Totally. I mean part of what happened there was all a result of his paranoia and the people around him playing off that paranoia. I mean one of the chief culprits here was a fellow by the name of Charles Colson, who was the counsel to the president, a former marine, a tough guy, and he was able to play Nixon like a fiddle.

CHRIS HAYES: So you get... but you pulled out of there, you end up at the FTC, and then how does... looking into breaking up trusts, how does the opportunity to join the special counsel come about?

NICK AKERMAN: Well, what happens is in May of '73, Cox is appointed Watergate special prosecutor.

CHRIS HAYES: And Archibald Cox had been a professor at Harvard Law.

NICK AKERMAN: Exactly. And-

CHRIS HAYES: A liberal.

NICK AKERMAN: Yes. And had been the former solicitor general and the professor who was helping him set up the office was James Vorenberg, who had been my criminal law professor who I'd worked with one summer on a project relating to juvenile delinquency in Massachusetts and was very close to. I meet with them and I'm suddenly setting up the office for them and working to put that all together in May of '73.

CHRIS HAYES: Talk about... I mean imagine going for a bureaucratic job doing trust stuff, monopolies, to the center of the most watched legal work in the country.

NICK AKERMAN: If not the world. I mean that's exactly right. It was suddenly just being dropped into this storm.

CHRIS HAYES: Did you get... When they said... When the conversation says, "Do you wanna come join us on this mission?" Did you get like a fight or flight, like adrenal animal feeling in your body, like, "Oh, my God?”

NICK AKERMAN: It was, "Oh, my God." But at first, I was a little reluctant. I said, "Gee, do I really wanna do this?" In retrospect, that was absolutely nuts.

CHRIS HAYES: Well why wouldn't you wanna do it?

NICK AKERMAN: It's just the change. It was kind of like moving from one job to another so quickly.

CHRIS HAYES: Right.

NICK AKERMAN: And I just did it. I mean, I couldn't-

CHRIS HAYES: You just loved the FTC so much.

NICK AKERMAN: Oh and I was so bored. I mean, I was so happy to get out of there. No two ways about it.

CHRIS HAYES: But so... Then you decide like, "Yes, I would like to go join the special counsel’s office."

NICK AKERMAN: In about three seconds.

CHRIS HAYES: I mean, what's so nuts here too is that... Is it the AG that appoints Archibald Cox?

NICK AKERMAN: It was. Yes, Elliot Richardson who was the Attorney General at the time.

CHRIS HAYES: What's crazy about the Archibald Cox appointment and in the case of Robert Mueller. Right? The appointment of Robert Mueller, it's like he checks all these boxes. Like he was a Republican.

NICK AKERMAN: Right.

CHRIS HAYES: He's a Marine and a war hero and served both Republican and Democratic administrations, crossed over them. He's a known entity in Washington and a respected figure and kind of tough law and order guy. Archibald Cox is like a Harvard Law liberal. It's like the... I mean Nixon must've lost his mind, that this guy... Nixon's got this enormous chip on his shoulder about the eastern elite and the Ivy League snobs and this Harvard Law liberal gets the job and then starts just hiring all his former students.

NICK AKERMAN: Well actually he was hired by one of his former students, Elliot Richardson-

CHRIS HAYES: Right. Of course.

NICK AKERMAN: Was a student of his at Harvard Law School.

CHRIS HAYES: Small world.

NICK AKERMAN: Exactly. And even though he may have had a reputation because he was in the Kennedy Administration, he did have a reputation for excellence, for integrity.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah.

NICK AKERMAN: And he was somebody that everybody thought was obviously qualified for the job.

CHRIS HAYES: Qualified, but also I would just say that like his politics were clear, like he was not a Republican and not a conservative.

NICK AKERMAN: That's right and there was no-

CHRIS HAYES: No one was pretending he was.

NICK AKERMAN: But you know what was interesting, was I thought that actually Nixon made the biggest mistake in firing him because he was very reluctant to think... He couldn't bring himself to believe that Nixon did anything wrong.

CHRIS HAYES: Wow.

NICK AKERMAN: I mean in some ways he was very, very conservative in the sense of the old school type thinking-

CHRIS HAYES: Very interesting.

NICK AKERMAN: "This is the president of United States. I can't believe that he did anything wrong." Whereas I was ready to believe it in about three seconds.

CHRIS HAYES: Okay. So you get hired, they bring you in, you set up the office. What is your understanding? Again, I'm just trying to think... Like what was I... I was like writing freelance articles in coffee shops when I was 25. So what... Like what is your understanding of your brief here and what is the kind of “Esprit de Corps” among this group that gets assembled to investigate the president of the United States?

Dean,John Dean
John Dean, former White House counsel to President Nixon, in 2012.Alex Brandon / AP file

NICK AKERMAN: Well, it's pretty close. I mean in the sense that we were working probably 12-hour days, seven days a week. It was very, very intense. We ultimately broke up into different task forces. I was part of what was known as the plumbers taskforce and wound up actually just about investigating everything across the boards and being put into grand juries and questioning people. I must've had everybody from the two top assistants to the president, H. R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, down to a Rosemary Woods and just about everybody you can think of. All of the major figures that were involved in this. I spent a lot of time with Howard Hunt trying to find out what he knew, a lot of time with John Dean during that investigation-

CHRIS HAYES: And these are... You're questioning them?

NICK AKERMAN: Right. Right. But it was absolutely amazing because I was questioning everybody from the head of the CIA to you name it.

CHRIS HAYES: At this point, you're 26, 27?

NICK AKERMAN: Oh, maybe. Yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: So you got this 27 year old from Harvard Law. He's got the head of the CIA in front of him.

NICK AKERMAN: Exactly.

CHRIS HAYES: And Howard Hunt and H. R. Haldeman.

NICK AKERMAN: And I'm sure people were not too happy to see some kid-

CHRIS HAYES: I mean, are you kidding? I would fricking lose my mind.

NICK AKERMAN: Yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: I got work to do kid.

NICK AKERMAN: Well, I gotta tell you, it took a little bit of doing to-

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah. Were you like naturally... As I think about this and I try to put myself in those shoes. What was your internal emotional relationship to conflict? How able were you to deal with that power dynamic?

NICK AKERMAN: Probably not as well in the beginning, but I kind of forced myself to do it. I mean, I'll never-

CHRIS HAYES: You can't be intimidated.

NICK AKERMAN: No, you can't be intimidated. In fact, I-

CHRIS HAYES: You're the intimidator. You're the one that knocks.

NICK AKERMAN: Right. Right. But I can tell you one situation I had where it actually... I felt a bit intimidated, but I really had to come down hard. I had somebody in a lie detector test and I had this old lying agent in who was doing the lie detector test. I mean this guy was a pro. He had broken the Yablonski murder. This was a fellow who was one of the leading union leaders in the country who had been killed and this guy was an expert at the polygraph. And he came into me and said, "Why do you really care?” 'cause it all had to do with whether or not they were gonna try and maim or kill Ellsberg on the Capitol steps at a demonstration on May 3rd, 1972. And I said, "Look, it's not your job to worry about whether or not we're gonna prosecute or whether or not we're doing the right thing. You just have to go ahead and do your job. I wanna know if this guy's lying or he's telling the truth." And there I was, a 26, 27-year-old kid, basically having to face down an FBI agent who was probably in his fifties, who had been around for a long time and that's probably the first experience I had where I really had to come to grips with the fact that I gotta take charge.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah. I mean I should say here, sort of somewhat tongue in cheek like... you're a full grown adult at 26, 27. It's just that like the experience you have in the law... not that much.

NICK AKERMAN: No.

CHRIS HAYES: You're green.

NICK AKERMAN: Extremely.

CHRIS HAYES: So you just mentioned something. You just... This is an amazing thing. You just sort of said in this kind of like parenthetical clause, "I just need to know whether they're gonna try to kill or maim Daniel Ellsberg."

NICK AKERMAN: Right.

CHRIS HAYES: And that gets me to something that I think is really important to talk about. When people think about Watergate, they think about a bunch of goofballs broke into the DNC headquarters at the Watergate Hotel and they got caught.

NICK AKERMAN: Right? Third rate burglary.

CHRIS HAYES: Third rate burglary. One of the things that your work and your colleagues work reveals, is that the amount of criminal activity these folks were up to-

NICK AKERMAN: It was all over the boards, every place. You name it, they did it-

CHRIS HAYES: I mean-

NICK AKERMAN: And it was all very concerted, it was very purposeful and they knew precisely what they were doing.

CHRIS HAYES: So what's the Ellsberg deal? They tried to maim him?

NICK AKERMAN: Yeah. I mean he was gonna be speaking on the steps of the Capitol May 3rd, 1972 at the same time J Edgar Hoover's body was lying in state in the Rotunda. Chuck Colson, who was the counsel to the president-

CHRIS HAYES: And Colson is a guy who's sort of is close to Nixon and kind of oversees a lot of this activity.

NICK AKERMAN: This was all of his baby. I mean-

CHRIS HAYES: He's the guy that's kind of running this team.

NICK AKERMAN: Right. Right. He brought up the... had Howard Hunt bring up the people from Miami, the same people that three weeks later broke into the Watergate complex the first time around May 24th or 25th, and then later got caught in the middle of June. But the same people were brought up, I spoke to every single one of them. They were given pictures of Ellsberg and Kunstler and they were told with Ellsberg that they were to try to get up to him and basically kill him. I mean, that's what one of those people told me and-

CHRIS HAYES: Wait a second. The president's council, Chuck Colson, who was sort of running this team of crooks, had did a bunch of them come up and they were given orders to attack and possibly assassinate Daniel Ellsberg-

NICK AKERMAN: Exactly.

CHRIS HAYES: By the man that works directly for the president of the United States?

NICK AKERMAN: That's right. And Ellsberg's theory on all of this, 'cause I spoke to him about this afterwards, he thought that what they were concerned about was that he had classified information on the mining of Haiphong harbor at the time. So he had current information that he thought they were concerned about and that's why they were after him at that point.

CHRIS HAYES: Just to be clear to folks that don't know. Right? Daniel Ellsberg is the sort of famous whistleblower who leaks the Pentagon papers.

NICK AKERMAN: Correct.

CHRIS HAYES: Which is an internal assessment or history of all the mistakes that are made over the course of a long U.S. engagement in Vietnam.

NICK AKERMAN: Exactly. And most of it related to other presidents-

CHRIS HAYES: Yes. But it drove Nixon crazy. Totally bonkers.

NICK AKERMAN: Exactly.

CHRIS HAYES: Nixon becomes completely obsessed with Ellsberg.

NICK AKERMAN: And that's what started a lot of this.

CHRIS HAYES: Really? That's one of the starting points?

NICK AKERMAN: That's one of the starting points.

CHRIS HAYES: He wants to get back at Ellsberg.

NICK AKERMAN: Right. He wants to find out everything he can about Ellsberg to the point where he has the same people, the same Cuban Americans break into his psychiatrist's office in California.

CHRIS HAYES: This is really one of the nuttiest. They break into Ellsberg's therapist's office. One of the first dirty tricks they do. Right?

NICK AKERMAN: Right.

CHRIS HAYES: It's one of their first missions.

NICK AKERMAN: Oh yeah, yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: The president of the United States. Does he personally order it or just his people? Colson?

NICK AKERMAN: Oh, he knew everything that was going on.

CHRIS HAYES: He knew.

NICK AKERMAN: Yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: So he has his people go. This guy... Ellsberg comes forward, publishes the Pentagon Papers. Huge deal. Explosive thing. America's being torn asunder by its protest over Vietnam and his thugs go and break and rifle through the offices of Ellsberg's therapist.

NICK AKERMAN: Right. To try and find information so that, to quote a memo that was uncovered afterwards, to paint Ellsberg black in the press. They wanted to destroy him any way they could.

CHRIS HAYES: His therapist's office.

NICK AKERMAN: Right.

CHRIS HAYES: So that they could leak stuff to friendly reporters and be like, "Well, you know, he-"

NICK AKERMAN: Right. Right. And they did that with which... The assassination of Diem, the former Prime Minister of South Vietnam, they actually set up a guy by the name of William Lambert, and this was another one of the things I was investigating, who was a “Life” reporter for “Life” magazine, which was a major publication at the time. And they basically phonied up a cable, Chuck Colson and Howard Hunt, and they met with this reporter, and they made it appear that Kennedy had ordered the assassination. So they were doing that to try and undermine the Kennedys at the same time.

CHRIS HAYES: Jesus.

PENTAGON PAPERS TRIAL
Daniel Ellsberg, one-time Defense Department researcher who leaked top-secret Pentagon papers to the press, reports at the Capitol on July 28, 1971 to an unofficial House panel investigating the significance of the war documents.AP

NICK AKERMAN: So what they did is they took a cable, and they did a little cut and paste, a little bit on the Xerox machine, and lo and behold there was a phony cable.

CHRIS HAYES: So they doctor a phony cable, which they leaked to a reporter to make it look falsely that Kennedy had ordered this assassination.

NICK AKERMAN: Exactly.

CHRIS HAYES: Which he had not done.

NICK AKERMAN: Which he had not done.

CHRIS HAYES: So there's just this team of crooks running around being dispatched to do-

NICK AKERMAN: All kinds of crazy things. Yeah, absolutely. They had this group of people that were from Miami that had been loyal to Howard Hunt because they'd been involved in the Bay of Pigs invasion. And there was this whole group. I mean, there was a whole politics in Miami with these Cuban Americans.

CHRIS HAYES: Right. I want to start right there. We talked about Chuck Colson. Right?

NICK AKERMAN: Right.

CHRIS HAYES: He's the president's counselor. We just talked about Daniel Ellsberg, and I know this is... For everyone of your generation, everyone has-

NICK AKERMAN: Everyone.

CHRIS HAYES: The same way that I'm going to know the name of whatever, I don't know, Kellyanne Conway or whatever.

NICK AKERMAN: Exactly.

CHRIS HAYES: I'll go to the grave with that name just blazoned on my brain stem. But Howard Hunt. Who's Howard Hunt?

NICK AKERMAN: Howard Hunt was a former CIA agent who had been involved in the Bay of Pigs, and he was very close to Chuck Colson. He was Chuck Colson's person and brought into the White House to do all of these odd jobs for the administration.

CHRIS HAYES: Howard Hunt is actually working out of the White House.

NICK AKERMAN: He has an office in the White House. Exactly.

CHRIS HAYES: So this is an ex-CIA guy who had been involved in Bay of Pigs. Operationally, right? That he had actually been down there?

NICK AKERMAN: Oh, yeah. He'd been operationally involved. There's a guy Bernard Barker who put together the rest of the crew. They were all buddies from the Bay of Pigs.

CHRIS HAYES: And of course, the Bay of Pigs is an enormous disaster.

NICK AKERMAN: Totally. Totally.

CHRIS HAYES: Kennedy orders it. They get sabotaged. They barely escape. It's a huge embarrassment for Kennedy. Hunt, he's basically... The CIA particularly at that point, they're doing lots of real messed up covert stuff.

NICK AKERMAN: As well as the FBI.

CHRIS HAYES: And they're bringing someone like that to work in the White House to basically run the political version of illegal dirty tricks, sabotage, and covert action on behalf of the elected president.

NICK AKERMAN: Exactly.

CHRIS HAYES: That's what Hunt does.

NICK AKERMAN: That's what Hunt does.

CHRIS HAYES: And his buddies are all Cuban exiles in Florida.

NICK AKERMAN: In Miami, right, who don't realize that what they're doing... I mean, they think they're doing something for their country when, in fact, they're just doing these criminal matters for the White House.

CHRIS HAYES: Oh, so they're not... They're not read in on what they're actually up to? They're getting these orders and thinking it's legal?

NICK AKERMAN: They're thinking they can do it. They think it's because the president of the United States is ordering it.

CHRIS HAYES: They think it's authorized essentially.

NICK AKERMAN: Right, exactly. They think somehow it's authorized just like the Bay of Pigs was authorized. I mean, it's totally crazy.

CHRIS HAYES: So Hunt is running this thing. It starts with Ellsberg, but it expands, right? At one point, they think about bombing the Brookings Institution.

NICK AKERMAN: Well, there was discussion about that. That was another guy by the name of Caulfield who was involved in that. There were a whole series of-

CHRIS HAYES: I just want to be clear. They bat that idea around. They don't pursue it, but it's in a kind of "let's just run it up the flagpole, see if it catches wind" kind of idea. They're sitting around an office like, "I don't know, maybe we'll firebomb the Brookings Institution."

NICK AKERMAN: Oh, they did all kinds of crazy things that just came up as ideas like that. One of the most amazing examples that I came across was the White House actually got this guy Robin Ficker, who was a state legislator in Maryland, to believe that he was talking to Kennedy campaign operatives. And they talked him into going up to New Hampshire and setting up a write-in campaign for Ted Kennedy because they wanted to undermine Muskie, who was the leading contender at the time for the Democratic nomination. And this guy actually believed it. He went up there and did it. He set up a table. He campaigned.

CHRIS HAYES: In '72, to screw Muskie, who they from the very beginning they set their sights on as the biggest threat, they want to undermine him, and they do all sorts of crazy, the term of art they used “ratfucking” against Muskie. One of the things, they get an actual state rep from Maryland, send people who pretend to be representatives of Teddy Kennedy-

NICK AKERMAN: To set up a write-in campaign-

CHRIS HAYES: Jesus.

NICK AKERMAN: ...against Muskie. And Kennedy wasn't going to run, but-

CHRIS HAYES: And he thinks he's talking to actual legit-

NICK AKERMAN: Legitimate Kennedy staffers, exactly.

CHRIS HAYES: Okay. So they're doing all this stuff, so that's one part of it. Basically, a big part of Watergate or understanding Watergate is Howard Hunt and Chuck Colson are running basically a dirty ops team out of the White House. Is that a fair way to characterize it?

NICK AKERMAN: Yeah. Yeah, I think that's a fair way. And there were others, too, that were part of that team. I mean, it goes across to the Attorney General of the United States, John Mitchell, who was having a meeting in his office about how they were going to run these operations with another guy by the name of Gordon Liddy, who was the other person involved with the break in.

CHRIS HAYES: Liddy is there that night at the Watergate, right?

NICK AKERMAN: Right. Right.

CHRIS HAYES: He's one of the people who gets caught.

NICK AKERMAN: Exactly.

CHRIS HAYES: All right. So you've got this crazily criminal covert operation that is getting run by Nixon's henchmen. That's the sort of substance of what's at the heart of this, right?

NICK AKERMAN: The substance is Nixon's paranoia, his idea that he's got people after him, creates an enemies list. He's looking at the IRS to audit people. He's looking at all kinds of ways to use the federal agencies to go after what he considers his enemies.

CHRIS HAYES: So he is paranoid. He thinks he is besieged by enemies outside and inside. He thinks there's a group of deep state loyalists that are out to get him. And he wants to use his executive power to cross every line both in terms of norm and law to punish, persecute, disrupt, and sabotage his enemies.

NICK AKERMAN: Exactly. And he's got people around him who are encouraging all of that.

CHRIS HAYES: And people around him whose whole lives are lived in these gray areas. If you're a CIA guy who did Bay of Pigs, that's just a world in which you're not really too worried about legal niceties. Running ops for the CIA in 19-whatever-

NICK AKERMAN: The '60s, right.

CHRIS HAYES: ... in the 1960s, you're not real lawyered up.

NICK AKERMAN: Right, exactly. It was pretty much the Wild West. I mean, even with the FBI. I mean, there was this term called "black bag jobs" where people would actually go in and break into places without a court order, without any kind of authority, and we wound up investigating a lot of those.

CHRIS HAYES: And steal stuff. Here's my question to you. You sort of painted out a little bit of the scope of what is ultimately revealed. At what point do you think you guys realized, "Oh, the president's guilty"?

NICK AKERMAN: Oh, I can tell you exactly when that was. That was when we got the tapes. That would've been in December of '73 after the White House was ordered to produce those tapes. And we listened to those tapes, and essentially it backed up everything that John Dean said in his Senate testimony. And you had Nixon on there basically talking about payment of money to Howard Hunt to keep him quiet. So it was pretty obvious at that point. What's sort of interesting is the public had not a clue in December of '73 what the evidence was because it was all under wraps. We couldn't-

CHRIS HAYES: So John Dean publicly testifies, and it's this huge deal because Dean says basically the president knew, and the president's a liar, and the president has been directing and overseeing this criminal conspiracy, and the White House goes to war with John Dean, and it's basically John Dean's word versus Richard Nixon's.

NICK AKERMAN: Just like you see with Donald Trump today going after witnesses, going after the special counsel. We were in a similar position. We wouldn't say anything. We were just as quiet-

CHRIS HAYES: You guys were not leaking.

NICK AKERMAN: We weren't leaking. We weren't saying anything.

CHRIS HAYES: You're sitting on this evidence-

NICK AKERMAN: Knowing that it's going to come out. It's got to come out, and you knew at that point that Nixon was toast. I mean, there was no way-

CHRIS HAYES: So you got the tapes before the public did.

NICK AKERMAN: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. We got the tapes because we subpoenaed the tapes. That was-

CHRIS HAYES: So you subpoenaed the tapes, the Supreme Court rules, I think 9-0, right? Unanimous-

NICK AKERMAN: 8-0. It was... I keep wanting to say "Renchberg" because that's how Nixon referred to him, but it was Rehnquist. Had to recuse himself because I think he was in the Department of Justice at the time.

CHRIS HAYES: Right, okay. So Rehnquist recuses, but it's unanimous.

NICK AKERMAN: Right. But it's eight zip.

CHRIS HAYES: Eight zip. They say, "You got to hand the tapes over." And I've always thought about this moment as fascinating because it's funny, Nixon is so criminal, so lawless, but they do turn over the tapes.

NICK AKERMAN: They do.

CHRIS HAYES: They could've destroyed them.

NICK AKERMAN: They could've, but at that point it was hard because they had lawyers involved, and they had the tapes.

CHRIS HAYES: Right. There's too many lawyers involved that are going to allow you to countenance that.

NICK AKERMAN: Right, yeah. You just couldn't do it at that point.

CHRIS HAYES: So you get the tapes. The tapes to you... There's a moment. There is a moment. This is the thing with Trump. There's just this “MacGuffin,” right? It's the suitcase in “Pulp Fiction”… it the opens up, and the leg comes out, and it's like, "What is in there?" I just... Maybe what's in there is proof of innocence of the president of the United States. I don't know.

NICK AKERMAN: He's not acting that way, though.

CHRIS HAYES: He certainly isn't acting that way. All I'm saying is there is some set of facts about what actually happened in the world. Who did what, what they knew, when they knew it. And I just want to know. I just want to know. And to think that you guys are sitting in some room listening to the tapes when the whole world wants to know what's on those tapes, and you're listening being like, "Oh, my god, Nixon is discussing the cover up."

NICK AKERMAN: Right. Yup, he's gone. And-

CHRIS HAYES: Did you all know that? Do you all look at each other like-

NICK AKERMAN: Oh, it was so obvious. I mean, I think you've got probably pretty much the same thing going on now. I mean, what we don't know is what Mueller knows. I mean, we just see the tip of the iceberg. We see little pieces coming in that we can all speculate, we can make reasonable judgments based on what we see. But what I really find fascinating now is trying to figure out what's going on when I know they know a lot more than I do.

Image: Pres. Richard Nixon w. arms outstretched w. veed f
President Richard Nixon gestures with arms outstretched at doorway to helicopter as he departs after his resignation in Washington on August 9, 1974.Bill Pierce / The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images file

CHRIS HAYES: Right. And so in December 1973, that's your light bulb, that's the moment of, "This guy will be gone. He's done. He's toast. It can't-"

NICK AKERMAN: Right, right. But before that, it was one step after another realizing all this other criminality that was going on. I mean, including, I mean, even after that point, understanding how Nixon cheated on his taxes and just all of the things that he did. I mean, he was very petty, very greedy. He donated, as other presidents had up to that point, his papers to the U.S. government. You get a tax deduction for doing that. Well, in 1969, they changed the tax code with the Tax Reform Act of '69, which he lobbied against the provision that would continue to allow presidents to take that deduction, which all presidents had from Harry Truman straight through to Nixon. And so what he did when he realized he hadn't made the deduction prior to the passage of the law, he backdated a deed to the U.S. government to make it appear that he did, which is tax fraud. And then-

CHRIS HAYES: Wait, wait, wait, wait. I'm confused. Before the law changed, he hadn't affirmatively signed something saying, "I'm going to turn my papers over?”

NICK AKERMAN: In 1969, correct.

CHRIS HAYES: He didn't do that.

NICK AKERMAN: He just didn't do that.

CHRIS HAYES: They changed the law, and they got rid of it. They got rid of the ability to-

NICK AKERMAN: Gone, right.

CHRIS HAYES: There's basically a tax break for presidents that's in the tax code that says, "If you give your papers over, you can write off the value of those papers against your taxes."

NICK AKERMAN: Right.

CHRIS HAYES: Richard Nixon doesn't get his shit together to affirmatively get in under the wire in '69 and say, "Oh, I'm going to do this," so he then backdates it. He fabricates a backdated deed.

NICK AKERMAN: Exactly. And puts that in as part of his tax return. But then, on top of all that... Here's the part that's the real irony here. Here's what makes it so amazing. There is one exception to that new law, and that is tape recordings, that you can still donate to the government the value of tape recordings. So what does Nixon do?

CHRIS HAYES: Oh, my god.

NICK AKERMAN: He puts the tape recording system into the White House, into the Oval Office and into his office in the Executive Office Building so that he can over time use the same appraiser he'd been using for the papers, this Ralph Newman, who could-

CHRIS HAYES: Are you fucking kidding me?

NICK AKERMAN: No. Who could put any number he wants on these things. He could sanitize those tapes. And for the rest of his life, he would have a huge, huge tax deduction. The irony is-

CHRIS HAYES: So he creates the taping system in the White House for a tax deduction.

NICK AKERMAN: Exactly. Which the irony is, in the end, that's what does him in. That's why he winds up having to leave office because the proof in the pudding was all in those tapes.

CHRIS HAYES: Unbelievable.

NICK AKERMAN: Yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: It's hard not to make these parallels. They lurk over this whole conversation. I am reminded of a conversation I had, an exchange I had with someone that worked in the Tower Records in Trump Tower in, I think, the 1990s. Their flagship Tower Records store, it's a music chain, in Trump Tower. And they had, and I remember these from being a high school student in New York, they had these listening stations, which were pretty cool. You'd go in, you could listen-

NICK AKERMAN: Right, I remember those.

CHRIS HAYES: And mixed in with, say, top 40, there would one or two local acts who would pay Tower Records a hundred bucks to be able to be in a listening station. It was kind of cool because you can discover new artists. Somehow Donald Trump gets wind of the fact that the local artists are paying the store a hundred bucks to get in the booth and sends word to the general manager of the store that he wants a cut of the hundred bucks that are coming in from local indie bands in New York. I mean, that's a level of greed that I don't even have the... I have no subjective wherewithal to understand it.

NICK AKERMAN: Totally off the charts.

CHRIS HAYES: That's what you're telling me about Nixon. That's the same-

NICK AKERMAN: Oh, it's the same thing. I mean, I remember-

CHRIS HAYES: It's the same personality.

NICK AKERMAN: When I was going through all this stuff, I remember seeing a memo that he wrote to his tax preparer asking whether or not he could deduct the cost of his business suits as being president of the United States as a business deduction. And just having left law school and taken a tax course, I mean, that is insane. There's no way you can do that. I mean, where was this guy coming from?

CHRIS HAYES: Buddy, you're the president.

NICK AKERMAN: Right. Why would you want to deduct your suits? But it got to that level. That's how greedy this guy was.

CHRIS HAYES: It's funny because I think that the scope of all this, people's takeaway of Watergate is that the president was a crook, the break-in was supervised by him, and he covered it up, and it's not the crime, but it's the cover up. But the sheer scale and scope of what Nixon was up to I think doesn't actually get communicated generally.

NICK AKERMAN: No, no. People don't realize how widespread it was.

CHRIS HAYES: Just completely lawless.

NICK AKERMAN: Oh, I mean, it was also what they did with demonstrators and basically sending out goon squads to beat up demonstrators. It was orchestrated from the White House. It was talked about in the White House. And the whole program with the enemies list and trying to go after enemies using the federal agencies. I mean, what I found interesting was that it just that the bureaucracy was so well-attuned to being careful that a lot of this didn't happen because people in the bureaucracy didn't let it happen, and I think you see some of that happening even today.

CHRIS HAYES: Wow, that's a real-

NICK AKERMAN: Right. Which is amazing.

CHRIS HAYES: There are some crossover… I was gonna say… between these two series. There's some crossover characters.

NICK AKERMAN: Oh, definitely.

CHRIS HAYES: Roger Stone.

NICK AKERMAN: Roger Stone I had in my office questioning him in, oh, sometime in 1973, in the fall of '73. He was a witness at that time with respect to that incident with Ellsberg on Capitol Hill. What they did is they organized a bunch of young people, and Roger Stone was pretty young then. I mean, I was young, but Roger Stone was really young. And they put together a bunch of counter-demonstrators to go up there when Ellsberg was speaking to kind of deflect attention so that the Cuban Americans from Miami could get up to the stage to get after Ellsberg or Kunstler. So they were used as a diversion. Now, I don't think he had any reason to believe he was part of a diversion as such.

CHRIS HAYES: A diversion for the physical assault.

NICK AKERMAN: For the physical assault, correct.

CHRIS HAYES: Did they ever carry it out? Did they beat him up?

NICK AKERMAN: They didn't get to him, no. No, they never got to him.

CHRIS HAYES: So he was just a young right-winger who thought he was doing a Daniel Ellsberg counter-demonstration.

NICK AKERMAN: As best I can tell. Now, he also was involved in this whole effort in New Hampshire as well. I mean, he was sent up there by the Committee to Re-Elect the President, also known as “CREEP,” to go up there and make a donation from the Young Socialists, $500, to the McCloskey campaign. Now, if you recall, McCloskey was a congressman from California, an anti-war Republican who was running against Nixon in the New Hampshire primary.

CHRIS HAYES: So they wanted to taint him.

NICK AKERMAN: Right.

CHRIS HAYES: And then they leaked the story.

NICK AKERMAN: And then Roger Stone leaks the story that he's from the Young Socialists and, "I just donated $500 to McCloskey."

CHRIS HAYES: That's Roger Stone's lifetime career M.O. in a nutshell.

NICK AKERMAN: Exactly.

CHRIS HAYES: That story. I mean, that's what he's been doing-

NICK AKERMAN: Ever since. Ever since. And who knows what he did this time. I mean, I think he's in a lot deeper trouble than he was before. Certainly with the Russians and dealing with Guccifer 2.0 and WikiLeaks, et cetera.

CHRIS HAYES: By the time you hear this, it's entirely possible that he has been indicted.

NICK AKERMAN: No question about it.

CHRIS HAYES: He says he expects that to happen.

NICK AKERMAN: Yeah, and I totally expect that he'll be indicted.

CHRIS HAYES: When you think about the waters the guy swam in, he's got a Nixon tattoo on his back.

NICK AKERMAN: Yeah. Right.

CHRIS HAYES: It wouldn't be a super shocking plot twist.

NICK AKERMAN: No, and he and Trump devised this whole crazy scheme where he supposedly leaves the campaign and he's fired, which he never was fired.

CHRIS HAYES: Oh, you think that was just a ruse?

NICK AKERMAN: Oh, that was a typical Roger Stone ruse to put him undercover so he could do things without having it go back to the campaign.

CHRIS HAYES: Right. Right, right, right. He's just... Right. He's a cutout, basically.

NICK AKERMAN: Exactly. When you look at the timing on all of this it just fits in perfectly as to what he was doing. When you look at what the Russians did it all coincides.

CHRIS HAYES: He goes outside the campaign so that what Roger Stone does, Roger Stone's just doing as a private citizen. This is your theory.

NICK AKERMAN: Right.

CHRIS HAYES: He's just doing it as a private citizen, and that's kind of some of the stuff that Nixon's folks would do, right? They're running these sort of parallel entities.

NICK AKERMAN: Exactly. It was the same kind of M.O.

CHRIS HAYES: When people say, you just talked about “CREEP” and the payouts to Hunt, when people talk about the famous line, right? This is the other thing that kind of comes down through the lore of people that don't embed themselves in Watergate, didn't live through it, is the “follow the money,” right?

“Deep Throat,” later revealed to be a top official of the FBI named Mark Felt, is telling Woodward follow the money. What does that mean?

NICK AKERMAN: Well, it was only significant to try and find out where the money came from into all of this and who had it and where it went. It wasn't really the kind of breaking point of all of this. The money was important. They had lots of cash.

What's interesting is Nixon has his own personal lawyer, like Trump had his own personal lawyer, sort of as the bag man. This was a guy by the name of Herb Kalmbach who essentially took care of all these monies that were spread around and wound up helping the office kind of identify where all this illegal money came through.

CHRIS HAYES: Right, because my understanding is if you're running an off-books operation out of the White House, which they are, that is, doing illegal things, which they are, you have to pay people to do this.

NICK AKERMAN: Costs money, yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: It costs money.

NICK AKERMAN: Yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: You got to pay for your operation, right? You're going to fly the Cubans up to do whatever.

NICK AKERMAN: Right.

CHRIS HAYES: They're not going to pay for it themselves, right? Then the question becomes where's the money comes from? The money generally comes from off book donations that are being made to “CREEP” right?

NICK AKERMAN: That's right.

CHRIS HAYES: That are then being channeled through and then paid for the off book criminal dirty trips and sabotage.

NICK AKERMAN: Exactly.

CHRIS HAYES: That's the basic equation.

NICK AKERMAN: They basically in a slush fund that they used.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah.

NICK AKERMAN: That's exactly right. Again, if you're talking about Mark Felt, first of all ...

CHRIS HAYES: This is the man later revealed to be Deep Throat.

NICK AKERMAN: Exactly. We considered indicting him at one point. He was lying to... He went to the Grand Jury. He lied about what he knew about these national security wire taps that were put in by the FBI that would've implicated L. Patrick Gray and also shown that he had lied and perjured himself before the Kennedy committee when he was being considered for permanent appointment to the FBI. It's kind of interesting.

CHRIS HAYES: Who's L. Patrick Gray?

NICK AKERMAN: L. Patrick Gray was the acting FBI director who was nominated by Nixon to be the permanent FBI director, who, by the way, also took stuff out of Hunt’s safe and burned them afterwards. This was the guy who was going to be the FBI director.

CHRIS HAYES: He was a Nixon loyalist, covering for Nixon?

NICK AKERMAN: Right, and also a crook.

CHRIS HAYES: Jesus Christ.

NICK AKERMAN: Yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: How many felonies end up... How many people do time or get convictions?

NICK AKERMAN: I got to believe there was 30-some odd. I can't remember exactly, but there was a lot. He had two attorney generals, which is quite amazing. Not to mention, a number of high-level White House staffers that were convicted. It was quite extraordinary.

CHRIS HAYES: There's a great Slate podcast, “Slow Burn,” which is about Watergate. I've read Rick Perlstein's great work about Nixon and a lot of the stuff I know about it comes from that. What do you see the kind of ways to think about the parallels and places maybe where the parallels are false where people should not try to sort of put the two together?

NICK AKERMAN: Yeah. Look, Watergate was a much wider scandal in some ways. We've talked about a lot of it. It covered... Well, although I guess you start talking about taxes, you have Manafort as well, so...

CHRIS HAYES: Well, the question is... I guess the question... Right. Before you say that, it's like, when you start pulling the threads, how far does it go? Right?

NICK AKERMAN: Right.

CHRIS HAYES: The president backdating his taxes wasn't part of Watergate. It was just the fact the president was a crook and took every opportunity seemingly to...

NICK AKERMAN: You got Manafort backdating documents.

CHRIS HAYES: Right.

NICK AKERMAN: That whole trial that we just went through was all about backdating documents on one hand to make it look like he had less income and later to make it look like he had more income.

CHRIS HAYES: Right. Right, right.

NICK AKERMAN: It all depends on where he was.

CHRIS HAYES: Right.

NICK AKERMAN: You've got a lot of the same things, but I think if you go to the central matters here you have the break into the Democratic National Committee, which was kind of in some ways... No one really ever knew what they were looking for, but, here, today, what you have is kind of a high-tech break in that was done by the Russians. If it was done with the connivance of the campaign, it's even worse, and you've got a high-tech break in that basically was used to elect Donald Trump.

Those documents were used just as a campaign would use them in any situation to try and degrade their opponent. They were even used to the point of the Russians acting as a boiler room for the campaign, which is a traditional presidential campaign sort of function where you have a campaign acting, or a group of people on the campaign acting, to sort of deflect bad things that happen or negative information that comes out.

CHRIS HAYES: Right.

NICK AKERMAN: So that when you've got the situation with the “Hollywood Access,” I mean, within minutes the Russians are out there putting out this information from documents that were stolen from the Democratic National Committee to try take…

CHRIS HAYES: Well, Wikileaks publishes it.

NICK AKERMAN: Right, but this is...

CHRIS HAYES: Assessed to be part of them.

NICK AKERMAN: Right, but the whole idea is they're taking on a campaign function.

CHRIS HAYES: Right.

NICK AKERMAN: They are putting stuff out there. They're coinciding it with the Democratic National Convention. They're putting it out just when the convention starts.

CHRIS HAYES: Yep.

NICK AKERMAN: They're doing all the kinds of things that are coordinated at least with what the campaign would want to have happen.

CHRIS HAYES: Right. The timing here, the... That relates back to the kind of... In some ways the sophistication of the “CREEP” methods, right? The doing things that will in the right time and in the right way screw up your opponent.

NICK AKERMAN: Right, but here when you've got computers and you've got data, and you've got a foreign power that is our archenemy that's involved with this whole thing, it is a much more serious situation.

Where I think you're going to find it's even worse is this whole area where they were micro-targeting specific voters in specific states and try and suppress the Hillary Clinton vote. I don't believe for a second that anybody in Russia would have the ability to know what precincts, what people in what states you would target in order to suppress that vote.

CHRIS HAYES: Right. One of the things that... To me, the big differences is... This is actually something that I had to revise when I read Rick Perlstein's great book, “Nixonland” — the conventional wisdom about '72 is that whatever Nixon's crimes were it wasn't what changed the outcome of the election because Nixon destroys McGovern in a kind of historical landslide.

The thought is, well, yes, Nixon did all this stuff, but it didn't... It wasn't the reason he won the election. When you read Perlstein's book, when you see how systematic and persistent the intervention in the Democratic Party primary process was, the ways in which they tried to guide the nomination towards McGovern.

All of this stuff, you start to think, "Well, it wasn't really a fair election, even for the margin." In the case of Trump versus Clinton, he won by 77,000 votes across three states.

NICK AKERMAN: Right.

CHRIS HAYES: A butterfly flaps its wings it makes a difference there.

NICK AKERMAN: That's right. Right. Although, you don't know whether it was the Comey factor that made the difference in the end.

CHRIS HAYES: Right.

NICK AKERMAN: Or whether it was the Russian factor, or both.

CHRIS HAYES: Right, but they're not exclusive.

NICK AKERMAN: Right.

CHRIS HAYES: My point being that when you talk about the legitimacy of the election and its fairness, when you're comparing '72 and “McGovern v. Nixon” versus “Trump v. Clinton,” it's just that margin is so much closer.

There's such a more plausible counterfactual argument to be made that the dirty tricks that we know were done, whether they were done with the campaign knowledge or not or the campaign's help or not, we know the dirty tricks happened, that their effect was determinative.

NICK AKERMAN: Yeah. It had to be because, like you say, there's three states with 70-some odd thousand votes.

CHRIS HAYES: Did you think... What did you think? There's a little bit of... My dad says this, it's like I can't believe we're here again kind of about Trump and about what we're seeing. Attacks on the role of law, subversion of these norms, paranoia, the diversions of the enemies list, the lashing out at the press. There's all these...

NICK AKERMAN: All the same.

CHRIS HAYES: Did you think when Nixon went down, when you guys issued your report, you'd done your job, you'd gotten your man, that some kind of cathartic event had occurred and a new era was dawning?

NICK AKERMAN: Yeah. I think that it was almost inconceivable to me that this could ever happen again. That's what I find so amazing about where we are today, that I think after this all happened Gerry Ford became president. People don't realize the vice president even went down in this on a totally separate matter for taking bribes when he was governor of Maryland.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, just getting sacks of cash delivered to him.

NICK AKERMAN: Right. Exactly, so that when have someone like Gerry Ford, who everybody believed was a decent guy...

CHRIS HAYES: Yep. Not a crook.

NICK AKERMAN: Not a crook, competent, not a bad guy. I think people thought we had turned the corner on all this and...

CHRIS HAYES: Turn the corner. The famous line is our long national nightmare is over, right? That's the...

NICK AKERMAN: Right.

CHRIS HAYES: Did you think it in a broader epochal sense? Like, we're going to put things in place that never let it be the case that something like this happens again?

NICK AKERMAN: Well, we thought so. We had campaign finance laws that were in effect that ultimately got overturned.

CHRIS HAYES: Church Committee too.

NICK AKERMAN: Right.

CHRIS HAYES: Which starts looking into all the dirty tricks that CIA had been up to.

NICK AKERMAN: Yep, exactly. In fact, I remember having this conversation with Bob Woodward saying, "We'll never see this again in our lives." This was, like, three years ago.

CHRIS HAYES: Really?

NICK AKERMAN: Yeah, and here we are again. It's really quite phenomenal that we are back in the same situation.

CHRIS HAYES: What's your understanding of why we are back in the same situation?

NICK AKERMAN: I think it's a matter of this particular candidate. It was just an unusual kind of confluence of events. We've always had this problem.

CHRIS HAYES: Right so you think…

NICK AKERMAN: Huey Long could've been our president at one time.

CHRIS HAYES: Totally.

NICK AKERMAN: If things had gone a different way. I think we were just found at this point in our history that we... And the circumstance of... It's almost an international issue of kind of this nativism and concern about immigrants, etc. that Trump just came along. He was the Huey Long that came along when it could happen. If Huey Long hadn't been assassinated, Roosevelt might not have been reelected.

CHRIS HAYES: To you, there's a perpetual threat of this kind of thing. I guess my question is does it come down... There's a sort of interesting question about is this a structural thing or is it just fundamentally kind of personality? In some ways it seems to me that Nixon's just a deeply messed up, damaged person who never should've been president of the United States. I think that's true for the current president.

NICK AKERMAN: Right.

CHRIS HAYES: Whether or not... Whatever Mueller finds, he's just a... As a character, as a person, as a personality he is damaged in a way that makes him unfit for the office he holds.

NICK AKERMAN: Right, and I think everybody in New York understood that.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah.

NICK AKERMAN: The time I'd been around and everybody knew what this person was like. It's not a surprise.

CHRIS HAYES: No, and in fact everyone in his administration is running to every reporter they can on background to tell them that that's how they feel.

NICK AKERMAN: That's right.

CHRIS HAYES: Was Nixon like that?

NICK AKERMAN: Well, Nixon had a certain respectability.

CHRIS HAYES: Right.

NICK AKERMAN: Even though he was... He was clearly part of the establishment, he had been the vice president for Dwight D. Eisenhower, he had run against Kennedy. He had taken some tough knocks. Some people felt sorry for him, but I don't think anybody ever considered him to be as paranoid and as crooked as he turned out to be.

CHRIS HAYES: See, that's one of the things I keep thinking about. I think about Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby a lot. Here are people, prominent people, the subjects of tremendous amounts of press attention, these aren't anonymous figures, right? Appearing to commit, in the case of Cosby has been convicted of committing, serial, serious, violent offenses.

You have a serial rapist going around, and he's got this big, horrifying, evil secret. Horrifying. Harvey Weinstein, horrifying, evil secret, and the amount of time they're able to keep their secrets from coming out is shocking.

With Nixon, it's kind of the same thing in that here's a guy who's a crook and he doesn't... The bubble bursts after a very, very, very long time. I just wonder about what the hell don't we know.

NICK AKERMAN: Yeah. I think everybody was shocked. There's much more that's come out since, too, about his background and what he did with Bebe Rebozo, who was his good pal.

CHRIS HAYES: You're saying Nixon?

NICK AKERMAN: Nixon, yeah, and certainly with Trump. We didn't know much of anything because he came out of nowhere basically in terms of his winning the nomination. He hadn't been on the public stage where he was a politician, where people had the chance to...

CHRIS HAYES: Right.

NICK AKERMAN: He wasn't vetted for anything.

CHRIS HAYES: Right.

NICK AKERMAN: Nobody knew. We still don't know what his tax returns look like, although Mueller has them at this point.

CHRIS HAYES: Are you sure he has them?

NICK AKERMAN: Oh, absolutely. That takes nothing for a prosecutor to get tax returns.

CHRIS HAYES: You think he has them. One thing that ends up being clear to me is that everyone around the president, including maybe the president himself, that just assumes that there are obviously... That the president has obviously committed indictable offenses. It's just a question of whether they're germane to the inquiry at hand or whether people will quote roll on him.

If you're in that office, having been in that special counsel's office, and you get the president's tax returns and there are multiple, clear indictable offenses unrelated to Russia that are in those tax returns, what do you do?

NICK AKERMAN: I think you go for an indictment.

CHRIS HAYES: You think you indict the president of the United States?

NICK AKERMAN: Yeah. Why not? If you've got a clear case, I would do it. If you had... Again, you've got to be able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt.

CHRIS HAYES: You guys thought about doing that with Nixon?

NICK AKERMAN: Oh, I think most of the office was in favor of it.

CHRIS HAYES: Why didn't you?

NICK AKERMAN: Jaworski believed that because the impeachment was going forward...

CHRIS HAYES: At this point, impeachment is already going forward.

NICK AKERMAN: Right, it’s already going forward.

CHRIS HAYES: And Jaworski is the guy that replaces Cox.

NICK AKERMAN: He replaces Cox. We all had a lot of respect for Jaworski. He came in, kept everybody together, and just kept things moving.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah.

NICK AKERMAN: Even though I think he was right at the time, even though I was ready to indict him for just about everything. He believed that the process was moving forward, that they... House was looking at impeachment.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah.

NICK AKERMAN: The evidence was there, and that that should be done before any kind of prosecution.

CHRIS HAYES: That I think is probably prudent, but you got to wonder, they're not dummies over there in Mueller's office, and they look over on Capitol Hill and they think...

NICK AKERMAN: Right. It's a completely different situation.

CHRIS HAYES: Totally.

NICK AKERMAN: Because back then you had a Democratic House, you had a Democratic Senate.

CHRIS HAYES: Yep.

NICK AKERMAN: You didn't have Fox News blasting every single day coming up with phony statements about what the news is.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah.

NICK AKERMAN: We all watched Walter Cronkite. It was a much different world. You have to wonder if the same thing happens to Mueller what happened to Cox whether you'd have the same huge reaction that occurred when Cox was fired.

CHRIS HAYES: This is the big question about these parallels. Nick Akerman is a MSNBC legal analyst. He was on the Watergate special counsel's team. He's an attorney at Dorsey and Whitney, which is a very fancy firm. He was defend you for a pretty penny.

NICK AKERMAN: Absolutely. I only represent innocent people.

CHRIS HAYES: Only if you're innocent.

NICK AKERMAN: Right.

CHRIS HAYES: That's an important stipulation. This is great, Nick. Thanks.

NICK AKERMAN: Okay. Thank you. It was great being here.

CHRIS HAYES: Huge, huge thanks to Nick Akerman, who I just could listen to for hours. I could do a five-hour podcast with Nick Akerman who just has an exceptional way of communicating and great voice, and he's always so energetic. I always think, like, good god would I not want to go up against him in any kind of a trial setting, so huge thanks to Nick Akerman.

As always, we love to hear from you here at “Why is This Happening?” There's two main ways you can get in touch with us. One is to tweet at us on Twitter.com. That's with the hashtag Withpod, W-I-T-H-P-O-D, Withpod, or you can email us at Withpod@gmail.com. We read all those emails, we see all your tweets. We'd love to hear from you, we'd love to hear feedback, we'd love to hear suggestions, or topic for the show.

“Why is This Happening?” is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by the “All In” team and features music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work, including links to things we mention here, by going to NBCNews.com/Whyisthishappening.

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