As an Assistant Watergate Special Prosecutor who prosecuted President Nixon’s top aides and a scholar who has studied Nixon’s presidency, we wrote in the Huffington Post right after the election to warn President-elect Trump to beware of the consequences of some of his Nixonian tendencies. We now can grade him on how he is doing against those warnings. Spoiler alert: it ain’t pretty.
We wrote that it was easy to see how these two men are alike—authoritarians, privately vulgar, thin-skinned, programmed to attack detractors, and disrupters who want to stick it to an establishment that rejected them.
We passed along five pieces of advice, core lessons from the wars of Watergate. Our hope was that Trump would learn from Nixon’s downfall and clean up his act.
Sadly, a little more than a month after his inauguration, as we look at those five points and grade him, he seems to be well beyond the Nixon paranoia, especially in his hatred of the press, his blind loyalty to incompetent and shady political advisers, and his tendency to brazenly battle with reality.
1. Don’t Lie To The American People.
This was a central problem for Richard Nixon (remember the saying was: “it’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up”) – and it is for Donald Trump too.
Nixon thought he could lie with impunity because if “the President does it, it’s not illegal,” and because he was sure the world would never find out about his taping system, so he’d never be caught. But Nixon worked behind the scenes.
Unlike Nixon, Trump lies openly and with seeming indifference to getting caught. He has fibbed about everything from the size of his inaugural crowd and electoral college win, to unfounded allegations of massive voter fraud, to an alleged terrorist attack in Sweden.
He does this in an era of Google and instant fact-checking. Are these lies just to distract the public from the substance of his policies or his obvious lack of knowledge of foreign affairs and basic government? Or are they to condition many in America to “alternative facts” such that they start to ignore the truth as politically meaningless?
Whatever the reason, lying in office carries a big risk for the Trump administration and the country. This is no longer a game of “follow the shiny object.”
One lie can start a process that is difficult to reverse. In Nixon’s case, officials lied to the F.B.I and the grand jury and some received hush money to keep the cover-up going, until one-by-one they finally cracked and gave up other top officials in an effort to lessen their own criminal jeopardy. In the end, all of these officials went to jail, and Nixon had to resign.
We think Mr. Trump fails to see how lying in office differs from lying in a campaign—there are consequences and laws that apply once you are in power.
Take General Flynn, the National Security Adviser who President Trump was forced to fire for lying about discussing sanctions with the Russian ambassador before the inauguration. One, of course, is instantly reminded of Nixon’s treachery in undercutting President Johnson’s efforts to end the Vietnam War in Paris negotiations before the 1968 election. Nixon’s back-channel overtures to South Vietnam, urging them to hold off until he was elected, were called “treason” by Lyndon Johnson in a phone call with Republican Senator Everett Dirksen.
Flynn’s lie was repeated by top administration officials, including the Vice President—possibly with the VP not knowing it was lie, but by some accounts, President Trump was fully aware that Flynn was lying and that the VP was repeating the lie.
Reports are that General Flynn also lied to the F.B.I. about these discussions. Lying to the FBI is a federal crime and is exactly the sort of obstruction of justice that started the chain reaction that led to Nixon’s resignation. And this cover-up is potentially worse than Watergate because Flynn’s underlying actions were more than a felony burglary—his exploits potentially interfered with the conduct of foreign affairs, providing aid and comfort to an enemy.
Once administration officials like Flynn start lying to federal investigators, they put themselves at risk for criminal prosecution.
That leads to the hiring of lawyers, who in turn counsel clients to cut deals to avoid serious jail time, and so begins the cascade.
One informant reveals another, and each new person in jeopardy tries to strike a plea bargain, which leads to more and more damning evidence emerging.
If there is more to the Russian hacking and sanctions story, it will come out under this sort of pressure. So, in addition to being immoral and illegal, it is dangerous to start lying. Like Nixon, Trump has set the tone so that his top aides think lies are just acceptable “alternative facts.”
Our grade: F.
We want this country to continue as a great democracy and do not want the impeachment that faced Nixon to face Trump.
2. Be On Guard Against Isolation.
We warned Trump that the presidency is the world’s loneliest job and urged him to find ways to listen to voices outside of his family and closest advisers. At the very top of a huge governmental bureaucracy, a president ironically sits in an office that fosters extreme remoteness.
While there were encouraging signs that President Trump has appointed some “adults in the room” to his cabinet (Tillerson, General Mattis, General Kelly), the fact is that he seems to be advised by (some would argue controlled by) a small group of insiders (Bannon, Priebus, Conway, Miller) and his family members. These people are complete neophytes in the ways of government and are purposely creating chaos and provoking partisan infighting.
This sort of isolation worked against President Nixon. He often knew little about the whole truth of a situation (John Ehrlichman, for instance, did not tell him about the Ellsberg psychiatrist break-in until well into the Watergate scandal). Moreover, this small inner-circle for Nixon proved to be an echo chamber that caused him to believe he was succeeding when his popularity was sinking. His loss of Congressional support was the final undoing of Nixon—something that Trump risks if he continues to run his office like it is a hostile electoral campaign.
Our grade: F.
3. Don’t Seek Revenge for Every Perceived Slight.
The drive for revenge was probably Richard Nixon’s greatest flaw. He kept an enemies’ list and his tapes reveal a man whose actions were often motivated by an overpowering need for personal vengeance. Nixon regularly banned reporters who worked for major news outlets from the White House if he read what he considered to be a disparaging story in his morning press briefings.
Trump’s recent tweet that “the press is the enemy of the people” is both chilling and a frontal assault on the First Amendment. It echoes Nixon’s talk to Henry Kissinger and Al Haig on December 14, 1972. Nixon was consulting with Kissinger and Haig about bombing Hanoi to force peace negotiations that had stalled by bombing civilian centers to terrorize the enemy into a settlement.
Yet in the middle of this confab, Nixon, like a school teacher, admonished his National Security Adviser to beware of the press and others. “And also never forget,” he said on tape, “the press is the enemy, the press is the enemy, the press is the enemy; the establishment is the enemy, the professors are the enemy, the professors are the enemy. Write that down on the blackboard one hundred times and never forget it.”
Trump’s repetition of this and his need to have an enemy, a foil, is highly corrosive. Little can get done in Washington without cooperation and unity.
Our grade for Trump: F.
4. Hire A Strong White House Counsel.
We urged Mr. Trump to hire a White House Counsel who is experienced in ethics and criminal law and who would be willing to risk his or her position by telling the unvarnished truth to the President, even, or especially, when that wasn’t what he wanted to hear.
The word is that Trump’s White House Counsel, Donald F. McGahn II, was told by the then Acting Attorney General Sally Yates that General Flynn had lied about his call with the Russian ambassador and was vulnerable to blackmail by the Russians. This supposedly was revealed to White House Counsel many weeks before Flynn was forced to resign.
It is not clear if McGahn failed to demand immediate attention to this dangerous situation or if he was unable to cause the necessary results. Whichever it is, it shows that McGahn is either a weak lawyer who did not act decisively or that he did and his client paid little attention to him. Both are bad signs.
While we didn’t predict the Monday Night Massacre when Trump fired his Acting Attorney General, like our advice to Trump about having a strong and independent White House Counsel, we would have urged him to have an independent Attorney General and to applaud rather than fire her for having the courage to stand up to him in fulfilling the constitutionally-mandated role in our system of checks and balances.
Our grade: F.
5. Have A Presidential Historian on Staff. Mr. Trump, who seems to have spent little time studying American history and the presidency, would benefit from adding a presidential historian to his White House staff. So far, like our other advice, he hasn’t followed this suggestion.
Our grade for Trump: F.
We want this country to continue as a great democracy and do not want the impeachment that faced Nixon to face Trump. His actions, though, raise serious concerns that we are wading into another time of Constitutional crisis—all self-inflicted, all predictable, and all unnecessary.
Jill Wine-Banks (formerly Wine Volner) was a Watergate prosecutor, known for her cross-examination of President Nixon’s secretary Rose Mary Woods. She is former General Counsel of the Army, Chief Operating Office of the American Bar Association, law firm partner, Motorola executive, and consultant.
Jim Robenalt is the author of January 1973, Watergate, Roe v Wade, Vietnam, and the Month That Changed America Forever, and is a contributing author to The Presidents and the Constitution, A Living History (Gormley ed.). Robenalt lectures nationally with John W. Dean on Watergate and legal ethics.