Richard Nixon resigns. Ollie Atkins, White House photographer
Rudy Giuliani can’t stop talking about “Spygate.” President Trump thinks it could be the worst scandal in American history, bigger than Watergate. Really?
It is hard to take Donald Trump seriously. Everything is the biggest, the best, the saddest, the worst in the mind of a salesman perpetually making a pitch. Besides, real historical comparison can’t be done by someone who knows no history. Balanced judgment can’t be exercised by a narcissist who lives in a hall of mental mirrors with reflections of only one subject. Trump’s inability to make meaningful observations about the history of presidential scandals should not stop the rest of us. In the very unusual times in which we live, it may help to revisit Tea Pot Dome, Watergate, Iran-Contra and the saga of Bill Clinton’s impeachment.
Commentators frequently say that the fundamental lesson from White House scandals is that the coverup is worse than the crime. Maybe, but maybe not. In Tea Pot Dome, the underlying crime—selling access to federal oil reserves to companies that made sizable campaign contributions and secret payments to cabinet secretaries—was a much bigger deal than the subsequent efforts to hide it.
Watergate was a carnival of criminal activity which included the circulation of fake news about political opponents; politically motivated wiretaps on journalists and government officials; midnight raids to secure confidential files from the offices of a psychiatrist; IRS harassment of enemies; and the list goes on. Buying the silence of the Watergate burglars arguably led to the unraveling of everything else. But Nixon took risks in his coverup activities because there was so much that needed covering.
Coverups in Trumpworld are common. We know that there were efforts to downplay the significance of a Trump Tower meeting with Russians, attempts to call off Michael Flynn’s investigators and conflicting statements about when and how a porn star was paid off. But covering your tracks, as Trump often does, is more problematic if the tracks lead to shocking revelations. Bill Clinton weathered the Whitewater/Lewinsky scandal because the underlying crimes were either non-existent or matters of marital misconduct. Lies certainly got Clinton in trouble, but the deepest presidential trouble comes when something truly nefarious needs to be lied about.
Is Donald Trump like Bill Clinton—underneath it all, there is more sleaze than crime? Or is he like Richard Nixon with a host of illegal activities that have to be hidden?
Much will depend on what we learn from Robert Mueller and the grand jury is still out on the connections between the Trump campaign and Russian agents in 2016. If a foreign enemy bought or blackmailed a successful presidential candidate, the efforts to cover it up would be small potatoes in a stew that would cook the presidency. If there was no collusion—as Trump says over, and over, and over again—the dimensions and consequences of the Russia scandal could dramatically diminish.
Another lesson from prior presidential scandals: sometimes they fizzle and fade. Significant mistakes made by the Reagan administration regarding arms sales to Iran and clandestine aid to the Nicaraguan Contras looked, for a time, like they might produce an impeachment or a presidential resignation. They did not. Subsequent investigation led to a consensus that Reagan had an untethered National Security Council staff and incomplete knowledge of their activities. The buck stopped somewhere in the Reagan White House, but not on the president’s desk.
Presidents who find themselves in major scandals usually survive. In Tea Pot Dome, the early death of Warren Harding ended the need to explore his role in the major crimes committed by his cabinet officers. In Iran-Contra, a loosely engaged chief executive was found not responsible for the actions of rogue White House staffers. In the Clinton scandals, personal misconduct, and the lies that accompanied it, were excused because the president’s performance of his public duties was popular.
Watergate was different. In that case, a deep state “deep throat” helped young reporters find facts about a complex web of crimes; bipartisan congressional committees conducted serious investigations; and special prosecutors and the courts did their jobs even after the president fired investigators and fought subpoenas. In Watergate, a respected press, a responsible Congress (with Republicans and Democrats working together) and officers of the court committed to the rule of law forced a presidential resignation.
In our current scandals, Donald Trump may not be the biggest problem. It may be the weakness of the institutions that are desperately needed to research and resolve controversial questions about his conduct.
This essay was published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on June 12, 2018