Column: It’s beginning to smell a lot like Watergate
Give Richard M. Nixon credit: When he set out to sabotage his opponents in a U.S. presidential campaign, at least he hired Americans for the job.
President Trump outsourced his dirty tricks overseas, asking Ukraine to help destroy former Vice President Joe Biden.
It has landed Trump in a Watergate-size world of trouble.
The 37th president’s path to his ignoble resignation may be the best guide we have to the possible future of the 45th — although that doesn’t mean the two scandals will end the same way.
Still, the similarities are undeniable. In both cases, a president was accused of abusing his power in an attempt to hobble one of his Democratic opponents. The initial allegations led to others, including charges of illegal campaign contributions to the president’s reelection efforts.
On Thursday, 17 federal prosecutors from the Watergate case published an open letter charging that Trump is guilty of the same offenses that brought Nixon down: abuse of power, obstruction of justice and contempt of Congress.
“The same three articles of impeachment could be specified against Trump, as he has demonstrated serious and persistent abuses of power that in our view satisfy the constitutional standard of high crimes and misdemeanors,” they wrote in the Washington Post.
Nixon tried to tamper with the 1972 election when he was seeking a second term. First he sent undercover agents to sabotage the campaign of Sen. Edmund S. Muskie of Maine, the Democrats’ early front-runner.
Then Nixon’s ham-fisted “plumbers” broke into a Democratic Party office in Washington’s Watergate complex to plant listening devices, only to be thwarted by a security guard. A two-year-long whodunit revealed numerous other crimes. Nixon quit after Senate Republicans warned him he’d be ousted from office in an impeachment trial.
Senate Republicans still support Trump — but his Ukraine imbroglio has moved at warp speed compared to Watergate. The House’s impeachment inquiry only began on Sept. 24.
Both presidents tried to shield themselves by holding onto public support — but both lost ground as evidence of their misconduct piled up.
In Nixon’s case, public sentiment changed slowly. Support for his impeachment didn’t reach 50% until June 1974, two years after the Watergate burglary.
Trump’s polls hit that mark less than a month after the White House released a rough transcript of a call that showed Trump had pressed Ukraine’s president for a “favor,” an investigation of his political enemies. Last week, a Fox News Poll found that 51% of the public already favors Trump’s removal from office.
Much of that sentiment is partisan. Some 85% of Democrats favored removing Trump from the White House, according to the poll, while 82% of Republicans said he shouldn’t be impeached at all.
But the president’s GOP base may not be as solid as it looks. A Washington Post-Schar School Poll found that 28% of Republicans support House Democrats’ decision to open an impeachment inquiry, and almost one in five Republicans said they favor removing Trump from office.
If those numbers grow, the president is in serious trouble.
What changed public opinion in Watergate was a slow parade of horrors: revelations of presidential misconduct, more tales of political sabotage, illegal campaign cash, witness tampering and presidential denials that turned out to be false.
A similar pattern is beginning to appear in the Trump White House.
Two associates of the president’s lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, were arrested last week on charges of funneling illegal foreign contributions into a pro-Trump Super PAC. And Trump’s record of denying almost every charge against him, only to admit some of them later, is lavish.
Both presidents tried to block investigations by refusing to give Congress documents and testimony. In both cases, cracks in the wall quickly appeared. Despite a White House decree that no Trump administration officials will cooperate with the impeachment inquiry, several current or former officials have testified behind closed doors, with more to come.
There are obvious differences between the two cases — and they may be as important as the similarities.
The two political parties are far more polarized and disciplined now than in Nixon’s day. In 1974, moderate Republicans and conservative Democrats formed what they called a “fragile coalition” to support Nixon’s impeachment, which gave the House effort a bipartisan sheen. One of the leaders was Rep. William S. Cohen (R-Maine), who later served as secretary of Defense under President Clinton.
No such bipartisan coalition exists today, because almost no moderate Republicans or conservative Democrats are left. Impeaching Trump is a partisan cause so far.
In that respect, it resembles the House Republicans’ impeachment of Clinton in 1998, which led to a trial in the Senate and the acquittal of the president. The impeachment effort never attracted Democratic support.
Watergate teaches one more lesson: Impeachments are unpredictable.
Nixon was determined to defy his enemies, but his own words proved his undoing. Secretly recorded Oval Office tapes showed he had personally directed a coverup; once members of Congress saw the transcripts, he was out the door in three days. Trump’s words — and Oval Office transcripts — may come back to haunt him too.
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