Nixon aide Alexander Butterfield revealed the existence of a secret White House taping system in Senate testimony. Trump once suggested that he may have covertly taped his conversations with Comey, though on Thursday he denied doing so. Nixon claimed the special prosecutor’s office was made up of political partisans out to get him, and Trump calls Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his staff “very bad and conflicted people.” Both presidents have also sharply criticized the press, calling it the “enemy.”
As if all these parallels are not enough, Trump’s surrogates have raised the possibility that he will fire Mueller, too. Presidential confidant and Newsmax CEO Chris Ruddy told reporters earlier this month he believed Trump was considering the dismissal. Incredibly, longtime Trump supporter Roger Stone, who himself worked on Nixon’s reelection campaign, has loudly encouraged Trump to reprise the Saturday Night Massacre by firing Mueller. This despite the fact that Mueller—tapped to lead the FBI by George W. Bush in 2001 and selected by Trump’s own deputy attorney general to lead the Russia inquiry, has been on the job for only a month and is still hiring staff.
If Trump’s actions seem like a ham-fisted imitation of Nixon’s, they are no laughing matter. Senator Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said she is “increasingly concerned” that Trump will fire Mueller, and send a message that he “believes the law doesn’t apply to him, and that anyone who believes otherwise will be fired”—a perhaps unintentional allusion to Nixon himself, who once said that when a president does something, “that means that it is not illegal.” The usual limits on presidential power must apply to Trump, Feinstein argued: “The Senate should not let that happen. We’re a nation of laws that apply equally to everyone, a lesson the president would be wise to learn.”
The question is not whether Trump can fire Mueller—it is whether it would be a misuse of executive power for him to do so. Should Trump let Mueller go, it would spark a constitutional crisis the likes of which the country has not seen in four decades. The business of Congress would grind to a halt and the stock market would suffer a shock. With Comey’s dismissal as the backdrop, there could be an immediate resolution introduced in the House for Trump’s impeachment for attempting to obstruct a lawful, ongoing criminal investigation.
Rod Rosenstein, in his role as acting attorney general, followed the law in appointing Mueller to be special counsel to “ensure a full and thorough investigation of the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election” and related matters. It should be remembered that Nixon was named by the Watergate grand jury as an unindicted co-conspirator in a conspiracy to obstruct justice, and that the House Judiciary Committee cited his interference with Cox’s investigation among the grounds for voting in favor of impeachment. And only former President Gerald Ford’s pardon precluded an indictment of citizen Nixon for obstruction.
In Watergate, there were several Republicans in both houses who are remembered for putting country above party loyalty. The die-hards who stood with Nixon until the end—not so much. If Trump were to fire Mueller to cut off a full investigation, it would fall to congressional Republicans, who control both houses of Congress, to determine whether the United States continues to be a nation of laws. Americans would see whether a new
- Howard Baker,
- Lowell Weicker,
- Tom Railsback,
- Bill Cohen,
- Caldwell Butler, or
- Hamilton Fish
would step forward and join with Democrats, who would no doubt sponsor an impeachment resolution. Or would GOP lawmakers simply go along with a foolhardy reenactment of the Watergate scandal’s Saturday Night Massacre?
When the history of the Trump administration is written, one moment in mid-2017 may be seen as decisive—a moment when a staff member saved the president from himself.
On June 17, according to the report by special counsel Robert Mueller released last week, the president called White House Counsel Don McGahn at home and ordered him to tell the Justice Department to fire Mr. Mueller, just as the special counsel’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election was getting under way. Mr. McGahn declined to carry out the order.
Then, about six months later, when word of the president’s attempt to fire the special counsel leaked out, Mr. Trump met with Mr. McGahn in the Oval Office and pressured him to deny the account publicly. Again, Mr. McGahn refused.
Had Mr. McGahn agreed to do what Mr. Trump wanted—to have Mr. Mueller fired and later create a false narrative about the effort—the case that the president had attempted to obstruct justice would have been much stronger. As it is, Mr. Mueller declined to say whether the president had or hadn’t obstructed justice; the Justice Department has decided there wasn’t sufficient evidence to show he did so; and Democratic leaders in Congress, much as they are under pressure from activists in the party to impeach Mr. Trump, are skeptical they have a case for doing so.
The Trump-McGahn exchanges point to an important, larger truth: Presidents need people around them who aren’t simply yes-men and yes-women who will blindly do their bidding. They need aides willing to take the tough step of challenging the leader of the free world. One key question is whether Mr. Trump still has enough of them around him.
Anybody who manages an organization recognizes—or should recognize—the need to have subordinates who can walk the fine line between being loyal and being willing to tell the president he or she is making a mistake. Playing that role as a staff member is particularly tough in the rarified air of the White House—and especially in this White House, where the boss has shown a penchant for lashing out at anyone seen as disloyal.
Yet history is replete with examples of the need to have White House aides willing to stand up to the boss. “That lesson cries out” from the Mueller report, says presidential historian Michael Beschloss.
President Richard Nixon, a mercurial man, was self-aware enough to recognize his need for such staff work. When he was preparing to take office, he wrote a memo to his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, specifically authorizing him to ignore orders that seemed impetuous or ordered in anger. “There may be times when you or others may determine that the action I have requested should not be taken,” Nixon wrote, according to a definitive biography by John A. Farrell. “I will accept such decisions but I must know about them.”
Mr. Haldeman and others acted accordingly, a practice that proved crucial as Nixon descended into depression amidst the Watergate crisis that ended his presidency. One Nixon aide recalled years later that the president, apparently drunk, encountered him in a White House hallway late at night during the opening phases of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war and seemed to order him to unleash an American bombing attack on Syria. The order was ignored, and apparently forgotten by the president the next day.
Aides to President Ronald Reagan were frequently excoriated by conservatives for failing to “let Reagan be Reagan” when they pushed back against presidential instincts. Yet Mr. Reagan always defended his staff’s right to do so, and disputed the idea that he was being badly served by strong aides.
In his memoir, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates recounts a bitter argument with President Obama over implementation of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that compelled military commanders to discharge or separate gays and lesbians from other troops if their sexual orientation became known. That policy was being disputed in the courts, and there was a movement in Congress to change the law. Mr. Obama wanted his defense chief to suspend implementation of the policy in the meantime.
Though he supported changing the law, Mr. Gates refused, arguing that existing law couldn’t simply be disregarded. Congress soon passed legislation changing the practice, which included a period to certify that a new policy could be implemented smoothly. It’s likely the change went down better with commanders because Mr. Gates had shown the need to abide strictly by law.
Stone instructs Person 2 to do a “Frank Pentangeli” — a character from “The Godfather Part II” who famously lies to congressional investigators — and, my nostalgic favorite, Stone paraphrases a quote from President Richard M. Nixon during the Watergate coverup: “Stonewall it. Plead the Fifth. Anything to save the plan.”
There are countless presidential scandals in U.S. history, but very few of them have resulted in resignation or impeachment — which is precisely why MSNBC host Rachel Maddow was drawn to the story of Spiro Agnew, Richard Nixon’s first vice president, who resigned in 1973.
Maddow notes there are many misconceptions concerning the former vice president — including the notion that his “big sin” centered on taxes.
“When I tried to sort of thumbnail in my mind what happened in the Agnew resignation, everything I thought about it was wrong,” she says. “I had assumed that it was a Watergate-adjacent scandal, that the FBI was looking into Watergate-related crimes and they stumbled upon something in Spiro Agnew’s taxes. … All of those things were completely wrong.”
Maddow and her former producer Mike Yarvitz created the podcast Bag Man to revisit Agnew’s story. Though his resignation was officially linked to tax evasion, they say that Agnew had engaged in bribery that dated to the early 1960s, when, as Baltimore County executive, he demanded kickbacks in exchange for local engineering or architecture contracts. He continued the practice even after being elected governor of Maryland in 1967 and then vice president in 1969.