As an Assistant Watergate Special Prosecutor and an author who has studied Nixon’s presidency, we write to warn President-elect Trump to beware of the consequences of his darker Nixonian tendencies.
It is not hard to see the parallels. Like Nixon, Trump is vulgar, thin-skinned, programmed to attack his detractors, and a smooth liar when it serves his interest. Both men felt the sting of an establishment that rejected them.
Trump acknowledged his link with Nixon when he began his campaign in 2015 by calling for the “Silent Majority” to rise again, a reference to a famous 1969 speech by President Nixon. And, clearly Trump took a page from Nixon’s campaign strategy by appealing to prejudices and fears to energize voters who felt they were losing their privileged place in the American hierarchy.
These similarities in their psychological makeup pose a real danger for Mr. Trump and the nation. Nixon won reelection in a landslide in 1972, yet two years later he was forced to resign in disgrace, mostly due to flaws in his personality.
So, here are some cautions for our next president taken from the hard-fought wars of Watergate:
Like Nixon, Trump is vulgar, thin-skinned, programmed to attack his detractors, and a smooth liar when it serves his interest.
1. Don’t Lie To The American People. This was the core lesson of Watergate. Facts and words will mean something to the country and the Congress after Trump takes the oath on Inauguration Day. What he says will no longer be a matter of campaign rhetoric where truth was stretched or ignored.
Had he not lied instead of stonewalling and covering-up, Nixon could have saved his presidency after the Watergate break-in.
Mr. Trump must be unfailingly honest to avoid falling into the trap that brought down Nixon.
2. Be On Guard Against Isolation. The presidency is the world’s loneliest job. At the very top of a huge governmental bureaucracy, a president ironically sits in an office that fosters extreme remoteness and fosters an echo chamber where he hears only an echo of his own views and words that flatter him.
Nixon’s inner-circle tightly controlled access to him. Worse, during the Watergate crisis, they limited the information he got and withheld critical facts, including, for example, that Ehrlichman had approved the break-in of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office.
Unquestionably intelligent men, their inexperience in government and acceptance of Nixon’s philosophy that the ends justified the means doomed the Nixon presidency. Trump needs to find ways to listen to voices outside his family and closest advisors.
3. Don’t Seek Revenge for Every Perceived Slight. The drive for revenge was probably Richard Nixon’s greatest flaw. He had 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.
As a private citizen, Mr. Trump has made extensive use of the courts and Twitter to get back at people he believed crossed him. Reports are that, had he lost, he planned to spend $20 million in a “Revenge Super PAC” to get even with Republican rivals.
Mr. Trump will need to battle against this Nixonian bent to seek retribution.
4. Hire A Strong White House Counsel. Mr. Trump needs a White House Counsel who is experienced and willing to risk his or her position by telling the unvarnished truth.
Further, it is imperative that there be attorneys in this office who are experts in the criminal law, ethics and conflicts of interest.
As a non-lawyer, Mr. Trump needs to understand that White House Counsel represents the Office of the President, not the individual in the office. Ethically, White House Counsel must protect the Office, sometimes from the very person running it.
John W. Dean, Nixon’s White House Counsel, admitted that one of the reasons Watergate bloomed into scandal was his own youth and unfamiliarity with federal criminal laws, like obstruction of justice. To his credit, Dean finally came to see the problem and warned Nixon of a cancer growing on his presidency, but by then it was too late.
It remains to be seen if Don McGahn, an election law specialist who advised Trump during the campaign, seemingly missing many conflicts of interest and foundation self-dealing violations, fits the bill.
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.
Such an advisor can remind him of how other presidents have successfully dealt with crises, and where they have failed and why.
History does not need to truly repeat itself, but personalities and biases do. Mr. Trump can avoid the blunders that resulted in President Nixon’s resignation, but only if he recognizes and guards against his Nixonian predisposition.
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.