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?
As Nixon learned, Congress will not abide a president who defies its subpoenas.
The subpoenas against Nixon demanded 147 unedited tape recordings of presidential conversations; a list of meetings and telephone conversations for five specific, suspicious periods between 1971 and 1973; and copies of any handwritten presidential notes pertaining to the Watergate charges.
In response, Nixon asserted that the Judiciary Committee already had the “full story of Watergate,” and did not need to have further materials. He produced none of the 147 unedited transcripts that had been requested. (That bundle of withheld tapes included the critical June 23 tape that, when it was finally released, ultimately drove the president from office, and that Nixon had listened to many weeks earlier.)
.. In response, the committee approved Article III. It charged that the president “has failed without lawful cause or excuse to produce papers and things as directed by duly authorized subpoenas issued by the Committee.” Instead, it read, Nixon had substituted his own views as to what materials were necessary for the committee to render its judgment, and had interposed the powers of the presidency against the lawful subpoenas of the House of Representatives. His refusal to comply interfered with the committee’s ability to fulfill its constitutional duties and was, therefore, subversive of constitutional government.
.. President Trump has taken a similar approach to Nixon’s, declaring that the Mueller report should mean the end of any related congressional investigations, and that he would defy any subpoena that came from them. In response, congressional leaders have said they would take the matter to court.
That’s a good thing to do — to have the courts reaffirm what is already clear in the law — and Congress will probably win. But a court case could take months to conclude, playing into the president’s apparent strategy of running out the clock.
Roger Stone has always lived in a dog-eat-dog world.
So it was apt that he was charged with skulduggery in part for threatening to kidnap a therapy dog, a fluffy, sweet-faced Coton de Tuléar, belonging to Randy Credico, a New York radio host.
Robert Mueller believes that Credico, a pal of Julian Assange, served as an intermediary with WikiLeaks for Stone. Mueller’s indictment charges that Stone called Credico “a rat” and “a stoolie” because he believed that the radio host was not going to back up what the special counsel says is Stone’s false story about contacts with WikiLeaks, which disseminated Russia’s hacked emails from the D.N.C. and Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman.
Stone emailed Credico that he would “take that dog away from you,” the indictment says, later adding: “I am so ready. Let’s get it on. Prepare to die (expletive).”
As the owner of two Yorkies, Stone clearly knows how scary it is when a beloved dog is in harm’s way. When he emerged from court on Friday, he immediately complained that F.B.I. agents had “terrorized” his dogs when they came to arrest him at dawn at his home in Fort Lauderdale.
.. Always bespoke and natty, living by the mantra that it’s better to be infamous than never famous, Stone looked strangely unadorned as he came out of court to meet the press in a navy polo shirt and bluejeans.
He has always said Florida suited him because “it was a sunny place for shady people,” borrowing a Somerset Maugham line. But now the cat’s cradle of lies and dirty tricks had tripped up the putative dognapper. And it went down on the very same day that Paul Manafort — his former associate in a seamy lobbying firm with rancid dictators as clients, and then later his pal in the seamy campaign of Donald Trump — was also in federal court on charges related to the Mueller probe. Manafort’s hair is now almost completely white.
.. One of Stone’s rules — along with soaking his martini olives in vermouth and never wearing a double-breasted suit with a button-down collar — is “Deny, deny, deny.” But his arrest for lying, obstructing and witness tampering raised the inevitable question about his on-and-off friend in the White House, the man who is the last jigsaw-puzzle piece in the investigation of Trumpworld’s alleged coordination with Russia: Is being Donald Trump finally about to catch up with Donald Trump?
Stone, who famously has Nixon’s face tattooed on his back, is the agent provocateur who is the through line from Nixon, and his impeachment, to Trump, and his possible impeachment.
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.
Twice in just a few hours Saturday, President Trump and his representatives offered textbook examples of the fog-making rhetorical response known as the non-denial denial.
Asked during a Fox News interview whether he was a Russian agent (as the FBI suspected, according to a blockbuster New York Timesstory), Trump harrumphed, “I think it’s the most insulting thing I’ve ever been asked. I think it’s the most insulting article I’ve ever had written, and if you read the article you’ll see that they found absolutely nothing.” (Trump gave a more direct denial on Monday.)
.. Like all non-denial denials, both responses were forceful, even emotional in tone. But neither really answered the question.
That’s exactly how a non-denial denial (or NDD, if you will) is supposed to work. It suggests the speaker is responding forthrightly, without really confirming or rejecting the claim.
NDDs aren’t technically lies, but they are evasive and obfuscating. By seeming to dispute a statement without actually doing so, an NDD can raise doubts about the veracity of a damning statement. They have the added benefit of letting the non-denial denier off the hook if and when more facts emerge that confirm the original report. The denier, after all, never actually said the initial report was wrong, so he or she can’t be called on a blatant lie later.
.. In addition to their many inaccurate, misleading and baseless statements, Trump and his representatives have been frequent practitioners of the NDD:
●Following news reports that Trump intended to replace national security adviser H.R. McMaster with John Bolton in March, Sanders tweeted, “Just spoke to Potus and Gen. H.R. McMaster. Contrary to reports, they have a good working relationship. There are no changes at the NSC.” There weren’t then; Bolton replaced McMasterfour days later.
●McMaster himself provided non-denial cover for the White House after The Post reported last year that Trump had leaked details of a classified operation against the Islamic State during an Oval Office meeting with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak and foreign minister Sergei Lavrov. “The story that came out tonight, as reported, is false,” he said, adding, “At no time were intelligence sources or methods discussed. And the president did not disclose any military operations that were not already publicly known.” But the story never said Trump disclosed nonpublic military operations or discussed “intelligence sources or methods.”
McMaster’s statement never cited anything specific in the story that was false.
The “non-denial denial” phrase itself appears to have entered the lexicon during the Watergate era of the mid-1970s.
Several sources credit the late Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee with coining it in reaction to statements made by President Nixon and his spokesman about The Post’s reporting.
“As best as I can recall, Bradlee was the first to use the ‘non-denial denial’ language,” said Bob Woodward, who along with Carl Bernstein reported those stories.
At one point, Woodward said, the White House said The Post’s sources were a “fountain of misinformation,” but did not specifically challenge the reported facts. “I recall when I first heard [the phrase], I thought, ‘Ah, Bradlee was giving language to precisely what was happening.’ ”
Woodward said the most artful NDDs are issued with “such force, language and outrage that it sounds like a real denial.” What’s more, as with Trump, the Nixon White House mixed non-denials with outright denials, creating the impression that his administration was actually denying everything.
.. The Trump White House pushed back on Woodward’s most recent book, “Fear,” with its own nonspecific NDD regarding the book’s many anecdotes about infighting and chaos among Trump’s top officials. In a statement upon the book’s release in September, Sanders said, “This book is nothing more than fabricated stories, many by former disgruntled employees, told to make the President look bad.” (Trump and former White House chief of staff John F. Kelly did, however, issue more specific denials).
As a rhetorical device, NDDs are an updated version of the “red herring” fallacy, the notion that an irrelevant topic is introduced in an argument to divert attention from the original issue, said Edward Schiappa, a professor of comparative media studies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In other words, he said, “it’s just another in a long line of strategies of evasion.”
Trump isn’t unique in this, said Dana L. Cloud, a communication and rhetorical studies professor at Syracuse University. “One need only think of Bill Clinton’s reductionist use of a definitional argument when claiming that he did not have sex with Monica Lewinsky,” she said.
“It is not a set of tactics unique to Trump or any particular political party.”
.. But Trump’s NDD’s tend to fit a pattern, said Jennifer Mercieca, a professor at Texas A&M who specializes in American political discourse. His strategy typically involves a combination of
- denying knowledge of an accusation;
- denying associating with the people allegedly involved;
- asking what the victim did to deserve his or her fate; and
- accusing his accusers, “which is an appeal to hypocrisy.”
As such, Trump’s non-denial denials are different in kind and manner than earlier presidents, according to Rosa A. Eberly, a rhetoric professor at Penn State, because they assert “de facto negative evaluations” of most democratic institutions. “I don’t see [rhetoric of this kind] as an effective strategy for the long game of democracy,” she said.
Trump, Woodward said, “has taken the old Nixon strategy of making the issue the conduct of the press, not the conduct of the president, to new strategic heights. And some of it is working.”
Congress and the public must now push for protections for the special counsel.
As ethics experts, we believe Mr. Whitaker should recuse himself from the investigation. If we have ever seen an appearance of impropriety in our decades of experience, this is it: a criminal subject president appointing his own prosecutor — one who has evidently prejudged aspects of the investigation and mused about how it can be hampered.
.. Whether or not Mr. Whitaker steps aside, Mr. Trump’s audacity now demands additional safeguards. Congress must quickly put in place a plan to protect the Russia investigation before President Trump makes any further efforts to control the special counsel’s office.
.. Our proposed solution is based upon one devised by, of all people, Robert Bork when he was the acting attorney general during Watergate. Mr. Whitaker or whoever becomes the next acting attorney general must provide the same protections against interference that Mr. Bork provided to the special Watergate prosecutor, Leon Jaworski, in a 1973 Justice Department order. Mr. Jaworski received the protections as part of agreeing to replace the previous prosecutor, Archibald Cox, who was fired in the infamous Saturday Night Massacre.
The Bork order contained much stronger provisions to protect the independence of the special prosecutor investigation than is now found in the Department of Justice guidelines that govern the Mueller inquiry. These enhanced protections should be demanded from any new person given responsibility to oversee the Mueller investigation:
● The attorney general, acting or permanent, will not remove the special counsel except for extraordinary improprieties.
● The special counsel shall not be subject to the day-to-day supervision of any Justice Department official. The attorney general shall not countermand or interfere with the special counsel’s decisions or actions.
The White House counsel, Donald F. McGahn II, has cooperated extensively in the special counsel investigation, sharing detailed accounts about the episodes at the heart of the inquiry into whether President Trump obstructed justice, including some that investigators would not have learned of otherwise, according to a dozen current and former White House officials and others briefed on the matter.1
In at least three voluntary interviews with investigators that totaled 30 hours over the past nine months, Mr. McGahn described the president’s fury toward the Russia investigation and the ways in which he urged Mr. McGahn to respond to it
.. It is not clear that Mr. Trump appreciates the extent to which Mr. McGahn has cooperated with the special counsel. The president wrongly believed that Mr. McGahn would act as a personal lawyer would for clients and solely defend his interests to investigators
.. Mr. McGahn cautioned to investigators that he never saw Mr. Trump go beyond his legal authorities, though the limits of executive power are murky.
.. the two rarely speak one on one — the White House chief of staff, John F. Kelly, and other advisers are usually present for their meetings — and Mr. Trump has questioned Mr. McGahn’s loyalty.
.. Mr. McGahn that he has called the president “King Kong” behind his back, to connote his volcanic anger, people close to Mr. McGahn said.
.. Mr. Burck said that Mr. McGahn had been obliged to cooperate with the special counsel. “President Trump, through counsel, declined to assert any privilege over Mr. McGahn’s testimony
.. He wanted to take on Mr. Mueller directly, attacking his credibility and impeding investigators. But two of his newly hired lawyers, John M. Dowd and Ty Cobb, have said they took Mr. Trump at his word that he did nothing wrong and sold him on an open-book strategy.
.. As White House counsel, not a personal lawyer, he viewed his role as protector of the presidency, not of Mr. Trump. Allowing a special counsel to root around the West Wing could set a precedent harmful to future administrations.
.. Mr. Trump blamed him for a number of fraught moments in his first months in office, including the chaotic, failed early attempts at a ban on travelers from some majority-Muslim countries and, in particular, the existence of Mr. Mueller’s investigation.
.. Mr. McGahn’s decision to cooperate with the special counsel grew out of Mr. Dowd’s and Mr. Cobb’s game plan, now seen as misguided by some close to the president.
.. Last fall, Mr. Mueller’s office asked to interview Mr. McGahn. To the surprise of the White House Counsel’s Office, Mr. Trump and his lawyers signaled that they had no objection, without knowing the extent of what Mr. McGahn was going to tell investigators.
Mr. McGahn was stunned
.. Mr. Burck has explained to others that he told White House advisers that they did not appreciate the president’s legal exposure and that it was “insane” that Mr. Trump did not fight a McGahn interview in court.
.. the White House has to understand that a client like Mr. Trump probably made politically damaging statements to Mr. McGahn as he weighed whether to intervene in the Russia investigation.
.. Mr. McGahn and his lawyer grew suspicious. They began telling associates that they had concluded that the president had decided to let Mr. McGahn take the fall for decisions that could be construed as obstruction of justice, like the Comey firing, by telling the special counsel that he was only following shoddy legal advice from Mr. McGahn.
.. McGahn told people he was determined to avoid the fate of the White House counsel for President Richard M. Nixon, John W. Dean, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to obstruct justice in the Watergate scandal.
Mr. McGahn decided to fully cooperate with Mr. Mueller. It was, he believed, the only choice he had to protect himself.
.. “This sure has echoes of Richard Nixon’s White House counsel, John Dean, who in 1973 feared that Nixon was setting him up as a fall guy for Watergate and secretly gave investigators crucial help while still in his job,” said the historian Michael Beschloss.
.. By exerting attorney-client privilege, which allows the president to legally withhold information, they would have gained the right to learn what Mr. McGahn planned to tell investigators and what he might reveal that could damage the president. But the president’s lawyers never went through that process, although they told people that they believed they still had the ability to stop Mr. Mueller from handing over to Congress the accounts of witnesses like Mr. McGahn and others.
.. Mr. Burck and Mr. McGahn met the special counsel team in November for the first time and shared all that Mr. McGahn knew.
.. Mr. McGahn gave to Mr. Mueller’s investigators, the people said,
- a sense of the president’s mind-set in the days leading to the firing of Mr. Comey;
- how the White House handled the firing of the former national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn; and
- how Mr. Trump repeatedly berated Mr. Sessions, tried to get him to assert control over the investigation and threatened to fire him.
.. it became apparent that Mr. McGahn and Mr. Burck had overestimated the amount of thought that they believed the president put into his legal strategy