Watergate 2.0? Trump's presidency may end like Nixon's, but comparing the two is an insult to 'Tricky Dick'

Nixon was a man of substance, with immense political experience and a record of presidential achievement. The same cannot be said for President Trump.
President Richard Nixon
President Richard Nixon smiles during the last day of the U.S. Senate Youth Forum, on Feb. 8, 1969 in Washington.AP
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By Suzanne Garment, author of “Scandal: The Culture of Mistrust in American Politics”

The comparisons between President Donald Trump’s investigations and President Richard M. Nixon’s Watergate scandal have come thick and fast.

They became more urgent recently as special counsel Robert Mueller and the Southern District of New York filed their memos with the courts about the sentencing of former Trump associates Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen. Mueller sought to reward Flynn for cooperating with investigators and punish Manafort for lying to those same investigators. Cohen got a split decision: The Southern District was less impressed than the special counsel with Cohen’s performance, and sentenced him to three years in jail.

In between the redactions and the material filed under seal, it was hard to draw bombshell conclusions. But the allegation of campaign finance violations was clear — and, perhaps more ominous than the allegation itself, it described an underlying crime that would serve as a predicate for obstruction of justice. One can see the noose tightening around the president and people close to him. Trump responded by tweeting, “Totally clears the President. Thank you!” What?

Still, the Watergate comparisons are actually an insult to Nixon.

For all the comparisons made between the scandals, much separates them. Nixon’s fall was a classic tragedy. He was a man of substance, with immense political experience and a record of presidential achievement in both domestic politics and foreign policy. His own resentments and paranoia about his perceived enemies propelled him into Watergate.

Nixon’s enemies would protest violently at the idea of Nixon as a tragic figure, a man of virtue marred by a fatal flaw. They should reconsider.

There’s no such substance with Trump. His presidency has been one piece of tawdriness after another. To see the Trump tragedy, look to the Americans who are so estranged from the country’s institutions that they seem willing to risk blowing them up in order to be heard.

True, Nixon’s enemies would protest violently at the idea of Nixon as a tragic figure, a man of virtue marred by a fatal flaw. They should reconsider.

Prior to its ignominious end, Nixon’s presidency was one of consequential domestic and foreign policy. The former included initiatives — like peaceful school desegregation across the South, broadening civil rights protections to include gender discrimination, lowering the voting age from 21 to 18, creating the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, exponentially expanding the National Endowment for the Arts — that would later lead The New York Times’ Tom Wicker, once targeted on Nixon’s “enemies list,” to call him the “last liberal president.” The foreign policy achievements included not just the historic opening of China but nuclear arms limitations treaties with the Soviet Union and major action in the Middle East.

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It is also true that the administration’s substantial policy accomplishments shared the political stage with racially and culturally divisive rhetoric — like the Nixon political team’s “Southern strategy” and Vice President Spiro Agnew’s attacks on the media. These things weren’t just political cover for progressive policy positions — they were expressions of sentiments that Nixon himself had developed over the course of his political career.

President Richard Nixon shakes hands with Chinese communist party leader Chairman Mao Zedong during Nixon's groundbreaking trip to China, in Beijing on Feb. 21, 1972AP file

Seeing today’s noxious political partisanship, we imagine that things were once kinder and gentler. In fact, civility in American politics ebbs and flows. When Nixon began his political career, it was at ebb tide — with all kinds of unappetizing creatures crawling on the beach.

In 1950, when Nixon was elected to the Senate from California, Sen. Joseph McCarthy had just begun his ugly anti-communist crusade. At the time, it seemed even more terrifying than it was.

Nixon defeated Helen Gahagan Douglas — a famous liberal, mentored in politics by Eleanor Roosevelt and married to Melvyn Douglas, a big Hollywood star. She emerged from the race branded the “Pink Lady” — an allusion to her alleged communist sympathies. Nixon, though he attacked Douglas fiercely, didn’t actually invent the label. Douglas’s Democratic primary opponent did that.

Douglas, for her part, branded Nixon for his entire political life by calling him “Tricky Dick.” No, Trump didn’t invent the tactic of belittling opponents by attaching schoolyard epithets to their names.

That ugly Senate race was the beginning. The end was the similarly ugly politics of Vietnam.

In the spring of 1970, mired in the Vietnam War, Nixon announced operations against the North Vietnamese in Cambodia. Protests ensued. National Guard troops killed students at Kent State University in Ohio and Jackson State in Mississippi. College campuses closed. Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators descended on Washington. John Dean was hired as White House counsel.

Then came the 1971 leak of the Pentagon Papers, which exposed the flawed process by which the country had been drawn into war in Vietnam and the administration’s unsuccessful legal efforts to halt publication. In response, the White House plumbers were born. They were established to plug leaks of information and became integrally involved in the crimes of Watergate.

The political clashes over Vietnam exposed the same cultural chasm that Nixon had exploited, and by which he had been bruised: liberal elites against the middle class, cosmopolitanism against traditional values, racial diversity against homogeneity, blue collar workers against hippies. All ignited Nixon’s resentments at the way he had been treated by liberals and their institutions.

In other words, Nixon was not “one of us.” The line from Vietnam to Watergate was straight and clear.

It’s also not hard to see Watergate echoes in the Trump investigation. There’s the special prosecutor, the White House scrambling to parry the investigation’s multiplying points of attack, a president trying to fight back.

There are differences in the details, of course. But there’s a bigger difference as well. Among those who did not simply hate Nixon, part of the tragedy of his presidency was the understanding that he might have accomplished much more if his resentments hadn’t propelled him into lawbreaking.

And among those who do not simply hate Trump? If he is found to have broken the law, what accomplishments and virtues of his will weigh on the other side of the scales?

This has been a bad week for considering that question. The president announced that he had struck an “incredible” trade deal with Chinese Premier Xi Jingping — only to see the markets tank when it turned out he had substantially oversold it. The president had refused to take strong action against Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman for killing Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi — only to see senators insist on hearing directly from the head of the CIA. Many emerged from their briefing saying they were far more certain of MBS’s involvement.

In other words, the deep state — or, to put it another way, U.S. civic institutions — are striking back: They’re showing that they no longer believe the president of the United States.

Even worse for Trump was the funeral of former President George H.W. Bush. Something about the ceremony of a state funeral inescapably clarifies the difference between small, mean motives and generous ones. In spite of — or because of — the Bush family’s decision to welcome Trump to the funeral and not to chide him directly, the eulogies stood as a rebuke of the president, who sat in the front row of the National Cathedral with his arms crossed and a scowl on his face.

Soon after the service, Trump tweeted that the Trump-friendly Rasmussen poll had his approval rating at 50 percent. The next day, Rasmussen dropped the number back to 49 percent.

As with Watergate, the Trump investigation is now approaching the immediate neighborhood of the president. But with Trump, unlike Nixon, there will be little to place in the balance against the investigation’s verdict.