A showdown – maybe even a constitutional crisis – could be coming soon on the Russia investigation. So I decided to tour the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum for a little history lesson on Watergate, the scandal that forced Nixon to resign in disgrace 43 years ago this week to avoid certain impeachment.
It also devotes extensive space to Watergate. As I studied each display, I couldn’t help but wonder how it might play out with President Donald Trump.
The “Abuse of Power” display tells of the “plumbers unit.” Then, Nixon wanted to plug leaks damaging to his Vietnam policy from former Kennedy and Johnson officials. Now, the Trump inner circle is obsessed with leaks from a national security establishment “deep state” supposedly trying to bring down his presidency.
In the “Cover-Up” section, Nixon ordered the CIA to stop the FBI’s probe of the Watergate break-in. Ever since, the cliché in political scandals is that the cover-up is worse than the original crime.
Trump apparently missed this history lesson, based on his utter contempt for the rule of law in the Russia investigation. Besides repeatedly claiming the probe is a witch hunt and a hoax, he fired James Comey as FBI director over his handling of the case and bashed Attorney General Jeff Sessions for properly recusing himself. Reportedly, Trump and his lawyers have been seeking ways to undermine Robert Mueller, the special counsel who has apparently crossed Trump’s “red line” by looking into his businesses.
The Watergate gallery also details the “Saturday night massacre,” when Nixon tried to get the special prosecutor fired. To prevent history from repeating itself, U.S. senators – just before leaving for their August recess – introduced two bipartisan bills designed to protect Mueller.
There’s an extensive display on the fight over tapes secretly recorded by Nixon in the Oval Office and throughout the White House. Visitors can listen to excerpts of key conversations, including the entire infamous 18 ½-minute gap. After firing Comey in May, Trump fueled speculation that he had tapes of their Oval Office conversations before fessing up that he didn’t.
The Watergate tapes ended up being the “smoking gun” proving Nixon’s involvement in obstruction of justice. This time, any smoking gun will likely come in emails, tweets and financial documents.
The end for Nixon came when he lost Republican support in Congress. Sen. Barry Goldwater (the 1964 Republican presidential candidate), Senate GOP Leader Hugh Scott and House Republican Leader John Rhodes marched to the White House to tell Nixon he couldn’t survive and needed to step aside for the good of the country.
So who would those truth-telling elder statesmen be today? Given their tolerance for Trump so far, I wouldn’t count on Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell or House Speaker Paul Ryan. The best candidate could be Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the 2008 GOP presidential nominee, who hasn’t shied from criticizing Trump. Or maybe it’ll be Sen. Jeff Flake, who holds Goldwater’s old seat in Arizona and just published a book calling out Republicans for not confronting chaos at the White House.
Eventually, Nixon told the American people in a nationally televised speech from the Oval Office that he was resigning. Trump would probably tweet it early in the morning. The Watergate gallery ends with a video of Nixon’s emotional farewell to his weeping staff. That isn’t Trump’s style, either.
Michael Ellzey, the library’s director since 2015, didn’t want to talk much about comparisons between Trump and Nixon. I don’t blame him after the controversy caused by a tweet the library sent out after Trump fired Comey: “FUN FACT: President Nixon never fired the Director of the FBI #FBIDirector #notNixonian.”
Ellzey says he approved the tweet to correct an erroneous social media posting, but it quickly went viral.
Attendance is up at the library, Ellzey told me, because of the renovation but also due to increased engagement in politics in the age of Trump.
On Monday – Day 200 of the Trump presidency and the day before the anniversary of Nixon announcing his resignation – the Watergate gallery was busy when I overheard Phil Drury of Highland talk about the similarities. Still, he said he doubts Trump will have to resign.
“I don’t see it getting to impeachment,” agreed Armando Brescini of Long Beach. He also says Trump won’t quit, but he may be a one-term president.
He may be right.
Still, as Trump’s outrages pile up, the impeachment drumbeat gets louder – in polls, a formal resolution introduced in the House, from the thousands who have marched and from activist groups such as MoveOn.org and Indivisible. While I oppose nearly all his policies and believe Trump is unworthy of the office, I’m not looking forward to potential impeachment proceedings. It would be ugly and wrenching and would tear apart our already bitterly divided nation.
Yet if it’s a choice between that and Trump destroying our democracy, the decision is clear. Impeachment is the ultimate check in our system of government, which worked in Nixon’s time and is being tested again.
The exhibits at the library end with a video of excerpts from his funeral in April 1994. In his eulogy, President Bill Clinton urges that Nixon not be judged “on anything less than is entire life and career.” That’s what we all would like, and it’s what the library succeeds in doing.
Not that it’s going to happen, but it would be great if Trump visited. Maybe it would give him a better appreciation of the precious position he holds, and how it can be lost. A sense of history – and a little humility – could help save him from himself.