Will Donald Trump Encourage An Extralegal Culture in The White House With The Signals He Sends Out?
When Jill Wine-Banks, former Watergate prosecutor, and I wrote an article a few weeks ago for the Huffington Post about Donald Trump’s Nixonian tendencies, we tried to be positive in making suggestions of how some of the mistakes that ruined Richard Nixon’s presidency might be avoided.
The catch was that the President-elect had to stand up and acknowledge the problem: “Hi, my name is Donald, and I have a Nixon problem.”
And that problem is centered on a personality bias that seeks revenge. Historians say that history repeats itself, but psychologists, like Princeton professor Daniel Kahneman (Thinking, Fast and Slow), teach us that human biases are the things that repeat themselves. And so the worry about Mr. Trump.
The trait Trump shares with Richard Nixon is a strong and seemingly uncontrollable urge to seek vengeance against those who challenge him. See the midnight tweets, the proposed “revenge Super Pac” that Trump planned to create to go after Ohio governor John Kasich and Texas senator Ted Cruz, or his relentless threats against the “mainstream” media.
It is a personality quality born of a sense of insecurity and a belief that one’s value and worth have not been appropriately recognized. The establishment rejected both Nixon and Trump, and, well, they would show them—and then get even.
As an example, we pointed to Nixon’s obsession on the night he announced the Paris Peace Accords, ending the U. S. war in Vietnam, to go after the “doves” who had opposed his “peace with honor” war policy. We also could have pointed to Nixon’s obnoxious use of the IRS to audit his enemies. Revenge was a high priority for Richard Nixon.
Abuse of presidential power is the danger. It starts with a culture that is set at the top—one that says, “yes, we have broken the law, but so did our opponents, so fair is fair.”
Nixon generated this tone in his White House. If you take some time to pull up the Nixon tapes (online at the Nixon Library) from the week after the Watergate fiasco, you will hear Nixon justifying the break-in as nothing more than trivial political espionage that was commonplace in national elections. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, after all, had told President-elect Nixon in 1968 that Lyndon Johnson had bugged Nixon’s campaign plane. What goes around, right?
And this acceptance of the idea that it is ok to violate the law if your opponents have done the same or worse is what allows underlings to take their cues about how they should act. More, it is a signal that they are expected to slyly skirt or manipulate the law lest they be seen as weak or disloyal.
Consider that those attracted to service in the White House tend to be authoritarian personalities to begin with.
Chuck Colson, a Nixon insider, was allegedly behind the idea to break into the Brookings Institution in the summer of 1971 after the Pentagon Papers appeared in the New York Times and the Washington Post. The Administration had word that another copy of the Pentagon study had been pilfered and was in the possession of the Brookings Institution. Nixon demanded that his people retrieve the copy, by any means necessary.
Ordinary search warrants were dismissed as too risky—the process of obtaining a warrant might tip off the wrongdoers, who then could hide or destroy the evidence. Nixon justified his actions, of course, based on the wide-ranging but vague notion of national security. He worried, as did Henry Kissinger, that if the Administration could not keep its secrets, nations like China and North Vietnam would shy away from further clandestine negotiations.
Colson, and Gordon Liddy and Howard Hunt of the infamous White House plumbers unit, took the King Henry II-like directive from Nixon to an absurd end. They proposed fire-bombing the Brookings, having a fake fire-engine squad (the same Cuban-Americans who later would be the Watergate burglars) show up and in the chaos these operatives would blow the safe and grab the Pentagon binders.
It took White House Counsel John Dean to put a stop to the bizarre plan—reminding top Nixon domestic advisor John Ehrlichman that if someone died during the commission of an arson it was a capital offense punishable by the death penalty.
The point is that a president sets the organizational culture. And if the president is like Nixon, one who tends to act irrationally out of revenge motives, the result can be creation of an environment that quickly becomes extralegal. The ends will most certainly justify the means.
Trump himself may not engage in criminal acts, but he may have subordinates who take the wrong cue from his acts or statements. There is no evidence that Nixon had pre-knowledge of the plan to infiltrate the Democratic National Committee headquarters, but the people who carried out the plan had reason to think he would have approved.
The Executive Branch is the most vulnerable of our three branches of government to abuse of power. The entirety of Article II in the Constitution contains about 1,000 words, setting forth the scope of Executive authority and limits. As Nixon not so absurdly told interviewer David Frost: “When the President does it, it is not illegal.” Of course that is not true, but it is not far from the truth—the president has broad, ill-defined, and sweeping powers.
In his best Nixon impression, Donald Trump recently made a similar statement when he said that “the president can’t have a conflict of interest” when speaking to the editors of the New York Times about whether he would sever all ties to his businesses.
It is a fact is that the Executive is a separate power under the Constitution and no one really knows its exact limits. Donald Trump is not the most likely person to see limits to his power.
This is exactly why Mr. Trump needs to recognize the immense danger of the signals he sends, especially when those messages arise out of his urge to get revenge against opponents or critics. There will be an army of sycophants ready to follow the lead, even if the activity might be otherwise obviously and clearly illegal.
James David Robenalt is an author and lecturer. He wrote January 1973, Watergate, Roe v Wade, Vietnam, and the Month That Changed America Forever and is a contributor to The Presidents and the Constitution, A Living History (New York University Press). Robenalt lectures on ethics with John Dean in a program called the Watergate CLE.