It’s Like Trump Has Nixon’s Playbook

Real scandals, as opposed to fake ones, follow a pattern.
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Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson, 1968

Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson, 1968


Real scandals, as opposed to fake ones, follow a pattern. You start by doing something wrong, illegal, stupid, or just embarrassing. You deny it. You cover it up. You lie to investigators. You double-down. You throw people under the bus. You get caught. You continue to lie and dissemble. You engage in magical thinking that somehow it all will go away. You engage in diversionary tactics. But it doesn’t work. More people get caught in the lie. Lawyers show up. People plead. The end is near.

So there is a rhythm to it all, what Nixon’s chief of staff H. R. Haldeman called the “drip, drip, drip” of daily disclosures. You could almost set it to music.

Bill Clinton saw this in the Monica Lewinsky investigation. Somehow the truth finds its way to the surface.

But what is so strange about the Trump/Russian controversy is how eerily similar it is to Nixon and Watergate. I have been writing about it since early in the campaign. And now a lot of people are writing about it—even the BBC (“Echoes of Watergate Resurface As Trump-Russia Links Probed”)

It struck me that someone, maybe Donald Trump himself, had found a dusty old Nixon playbook from 1972 and that Trump and his campaign—and now his administration—are following it almost slavishly.

Let’s review.

The first chapter in the Nixon playbook is all about fashioning yourself an outsider who challenges the elites on behalf of the little guy, the ignored and forgotten—let’s call them “the Great Silent Majority.” Nixon coined this term in a speech about the Vietnam War and he was inundated with letters and telegrams the next day.

On July 15, 2015, at the start his campaign for the presidency, Donald Trump told a crowd in Phoenix, Arizona: “The silent majority is back and we are going to take our country back.” Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the ultimate bad-boy tracker of illegal immigrants, introduced Trump at the rally. The establishment Republicans, like John McCain, were nowhere to be found. They professed to be “confounded” by Trump and his message.

The second chapter in the Nixon playbook deals with campaign dirty tricks. Hire some thugs who will touch up your opponents. In Nixon’s case, his lieutenants brought in the so-called White House plumbers and charged them with finding dirt on the Democrats and otherwise disrupting their campaign. G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt obliged and came up with an brilliant idea of infiltrating the Democratic National Committee at its headquarters in the Watergate.

Liddy and Hunt seemed to have been replaced in 2016 by the Russians, who hacked into the servers of the Democratic National Committee just as surely as the Watergate burglars broke into the DNC headquarters (not once but twice before getting caught).

For good measure, the playbook recommends that you have the top law enforcement officer approve the infiltration. In Nixon’s case it was former Attorney General John Mitchell, who had moved over to the Committee To Re-Elect the President (called “CREEP” by Nixon enemies) in March 1972. Mitchell’s replacement, Richard Kleindienst, was told immediately after the break-in by Gordon Liddy that the men in jail were his men, yet Kleindienst, the top cop, failed to report what Liddy revealed, to either the police or FBI.

Kleindienst also lied before a Senate Committee about his involvement with ITT, a company that allegedly received preferential treatment from the Department of Justice, during his confirmation hearings.

Jeff Sessions during his confirmation hearings to be Attorney General said: “I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians.” Hmmm, seems that was a lie. Where there is smoke…

Check on Chapter Two.

The third chapter in the Nixon playbook involves provoking the intelligence agencies and the press so that leaks will spring as if from a water hose run over by a lawn mower.

In Nixon’s time, he replaced J. Edgar Hoover, who died in May 1972, with L. Patrick Gray, a loyalist who had never served in the F.B.I. Nixon did not trust Hoover’s subordinates and he wanted to shake up the leadership. Gray was undercut by the old Hoover guard, mainly by a man known as the “white rat” because of his premature shock of white hair. His name: Mark Felt, aka “Deep Throat.” Felt started leaking to Woodward and Bernstein and others to undermine Gray, not necessarily to destroy Nixon, though Nixon’s provocation didn’t help matters.

With Trump, the attack on the intelligence agencies has come in the form of tweets. The low point had to be his comparison of the intelligence agencies to the Nazis in a tweet on January 11, 2017, a little over a week before his inauguration: “Intelligence agencies should never have allowed this fake news to ‘leak’ into the public. One last shot at me. Are we living in Nazi Germany?”

This sort of lashing out was a guarantee that leaks would bedevil Trump’s administration just as they had Nixon’s.

But just to ensure the leaks would find a wide audience, the Nixon playbook calls for an all-out attack on the press. Nixon told Henry Kissinger that “the press is the enemy, the press is the enemy, the press is the enemy.” Nixon had his Vice President likewise go after the news media, which he did in a speech in November 1969. Though Spiro Agnew’s famous phrase “nattering nabobs of negativism” was a reference to politicians critical of Nixon, it has become mythically associated with Agnew’s relentless campaign against the press.

Candidate Trump viciously attacked the media, calling them “unbelievably dishonest,” “sleazy,” “disgusting,” and “slime.” He stepped up the assault once in office by cribbing exactly Nixon’s words. In a tweet on February 17, 2017, President Trump wrote: “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @CNN, @NBCNews and many more) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American people. SICK!”

The fourth chapter of the Nixon playbook involves lying to the F.B.I. and to Senate committees. Nixon’s deputy campaign chairman, Jeb Magruder, lied to the F.B.I. and the grand jury investigating Watergate. Magruder admitted that Gordon Liddy was given money by the campaign, but Magruder said it was for ordinary campaign expenses associated with security for surrogates who spoke on the president’s behalf on the campaign trail. This was a complete fabrication—Magruder later admitted he knew the money was for unlawful infiltrations into the Democratic National Committee.

John Dean, Nixon’s White House Counsel, has recently written in his book “The Nixon Defense” that the White House tapes show that Nixon himself knew that Magruder was going to lie to the authorities and even called him to buck him up before it all went down.

General Michael Flynn, Trump loyalist and for a time his national security adviser, reportedly lied to the F.B.I. about his discussions with the Russian ambassador about sanctions imposed by the Obama administration.

Here the Trump people get extra credit according to the playbook. First, as noted, it helps to have your top law enforcement officer lie to a Senate Committee, preferably a demonstrably false statement, like “I did not have communications with Russians.” But Flynn’s activities were a two-fer. He not only lied to the F.B.I. (and supposedly Vice President Pence), he also sabotaged a president’s foreign policy act (here, sanctions against the Russians for espionage), just like Nixon did with the Vietnam peace negotiations in October 1968.


The fifth chapter in the playbook calls for a press secretary who will deny the obvious. Right after the Watergate break-in, Nixon press secretary Ron Ziegler told the press that there was nothing to the story—it was just a “third-rate burglary.”

Sean Spicer on February 27, 2017, followed the script to perfection. “How many people have to say there’s nothing there before you realize there’s nothing there?” he rhetorically asked reporters at a daily briefing about the Russian story.

So far, so good.

One more add: when you are about to be cornered, think about accusing your predecessor of wiretapping you. In January 1973, Nixon investigated ways to prove that his campaign plane had been bugged by President Johnson during the 1968 campaign. Nixon claims J. Edgar Hoover told him of the wiretapping just after he was elected. Nixon wanted to dredge up this old allegation when the noose was tightening on Watergate—with the burglars on trial and the Senate poised to start up a select committee on campaign abuses.

Nixon backed away from making the charge public, recognizing how “messy” it would get—and that things just might boomerang on him given his sabotage of the peace negotiations in Paris in 1968.

Check, check, check.

Now it is time to turn the page and jump into the next phase of the game plan. This part calls for the appointment of a special prosecutor or a Senate Select Committee or an Independent Commission. This is where it really gets fun as the parade of witnesses come forward with the army of lawyers who will not sit by like potted plants, to mix scandal metaphors.

One thing is sure: the truth will out. As the Bible says: “There is nothing hidden that will not be revealed, and nothing concealed that will not be known and illuminated.”

James D. Robenalt is the author of January 1973, Watergate, Roe v. Wade, Vietnam and the Month That Changed America Forever. He lectures nationally with John W. Dean, Nixon’s White House Counsel, on Watergate and legal ethics.

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