President Donald Trump often describes himself as one of the most successful presidents. He has bragged that his administration is “just about the most successful in our country’s history.” Trump claims, “With the exception of the late, great Abraham Lincoln, I can be more presidential than any president that’s ever held this office.”
About Trump’s boasts: It depends. It depends on how you define success. On job approval the current president is setting records, but they are dubious ones. He has the lowest approval rating in history for a president who has completed less than a year in office. A Washington Post-ABC News poll released a month ago shows Trump with a 37 percent approval rating after nine months in office. In seven decades of polling, Trump’s approval rating is lower than any other president at the same point! Accomplishment! (The daily Gallup Poll has Trump’s approval rating even lower.) Trump also has a 59 percent disapproval record, giving him a -22 percent approval margin, the only president to have a negative margin in decades! Further accomplishment! (Hey, but a record is a record.)
To put Trump’s accomplishments in perspective, Barack Obama had a 57 percent approval rating with a margin of +17 after nine months as president, while George W. Bush’s approval rating stood at a whopping 89 percent with a +80 margin (the terrorist attack on 9/11 had occurred earlier). Bill Clinton, whose presidency had a rocky start, had a 52 percent approval rating with a margin of +11 after nine months in office.
Trump has another dubious accomplishment: Scandals have rocked his administration at an earlier point than in any other administration. Most serious presidential scandals occurred in a president’s second term. Bill Clinton’s impeachment for lying under oath to a federal grand jury occurred midway through his second term. The Senate failed to convict, and Clinton completed his second term two years later with high approval ratings.
The complicated Iran-Contra scandal — which marred President Ronald Reagan’s second term in office — had its origins in Democratic attempts to restrict the Reagan administration’s ability to aid the Nicaraguan opposition. To get around Congress, Reagan's top aides approved the sale of weapons to Iran in return for the release of hostages held by Tehran. Much of the money Iran paid for the weapons was then diverted to the Nicaraguan Contras. Several top aides either quit or resigned, and some Reagan administration officials were convicted of illegal activities.
Reagan’s culpability in the affair is murky. In January 1987, the president said he did not know National Security Council staff was “engaged in helping the Contras.” But, four months later, Reagan said sending covert assistance to the Nicaraguan “freedom fighters… was my idea to begin with.” Regardless of his claimed responsibility, the teflon president completed his second term a year later with an approval rating of 63 percent.
No such questions surround Richard Nixon’s involvement in Watergate. As president, Nixon helped plan and execute the affair that ended his tenure halfway through his second term, though the impetus for the coverup — the burglary of Democratic headquarters at the Watergate Hotel — occurred late in Nixon’s first term. But, the Watergate coverup stemmed in part from Nixon’s fears that investigations of the break-in might lead to revelations about his involvement in the manipulation of the Paris peace talks which the Johnson administration had begun in hopes of ending the Vietnam War. Nixon, through intermediaries, doomed the talks by promising the South Vietnamese they would get better peace terms if they waited for his administration.
Nixon’s shenanigans bear similarity to Trump’s Russian problem: A meddling in foreign policy by private citizens, contrary to the policies of the incumbent administration. But, the accusations that Trump and his campaign’s colluded with Russia potentially are far more serious as they threaten the democratic basis of American politics: Did Trump, and/or people on his behalf, collude with Russia to influence the outcome of the American election?
The immediate issue is the possible presidential obstruction of justice raised by the plea bargain of General Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser. Flynn pleaded guilty last week to lying to the FBI about meetings with the Russian ambassador to the United States during the presidential transition. Trump, via his twitchy tweeting finger, now seems to confirm he fired Flynn last February because Flynn “lied to the Vice President and the FBI.” If Trump knew then that Flynn had lied to federal officials, then Trump is potentially guilty of obstruction of justice for asking FBI Director James Comey to limit his investigation of Flynn.
Now, the story comes full circle, for Trump’s lawyer claims, as did Nixon, that the president cannot be guilty of obstruction of justice. According to John Dowd, a president “cannot obstruct justice because he is the chief law enforcement officer” of the United States under Article II of the Constitution. Dowd’s assertion has the ring of Nixon’s infamous declaration, “When the president does it, that means it is not illegal.”
The House of Representatives did not accept Nixon’s argument, impeaching him for obstruction of justice as well as abuse of power and contempt of Congress. Most legal experts believe Trump is on equally shaky ground in contending that a president cannot obstruct justice.
Nixon served more than one full term before his impeachment became a possibility. Trump has yet to finish a year of his first term, and already many are clamoring for his removal from office, me included. The only thing saving the current president is the pusillanimity of his fellow Republicans who control Congress. But, the midterm elections, less than a year away, could change all that, perhaps resulting in President Trump’s impeachment and removal from office. Now, that would be an accomplishment!