Donald Trump decided in the past week to launch another frontal attack on the press. “I find the political press to be unbelievably dishonest,” he said recently in a confrontational news conference at Trump Tower where he spoke about the money he raised for veterans. His comments were nothing new. In the past, he has labeled members of the media “sleazy,” “disgusting,” “slime,” and “among the worst human beings” he has ever encountered.
At the same time, Trump repeatedly threatens to “loosen” the laws of libel, so he can more easily sue newspapers and media outlets who write stories critical of him, allowing him to win “lots of money” by using the very court system he also obstinately assails.
The last president who so insistently attacked the press was Richard Nixon. Even more so his Vice President, Spiro Agnew, who once famously called members of the press “nattering nabobs of negativism” (credit speechwriter William Safire).
Comparing Trump to Nixon might be seen as unfair to Nixon, who as a one-time practicing lawyer had at least some semblance of understanding of the judiciary and the rule of law. There is no question Richard Nixon spectacularly crossed the line when it came to the obstruction of justice crimes of the Watergate cover-up. But at the end of the day, when it really counted, Nixon abided by the unanimous Supreme Court ruling in the summer of 1974 ordering him to turn over his tapes. Two weeks later he did the right thing and resigned from office—just twenty-one months after scoring one of the greatest landslides in presidential history (only FDR in 1936 and LBJ in 1964 surpassed him).
Today it is fair to presume, is it not, that Trump would have called those 1974 justices of the Supreme Court “losers” or “morons.” Can anyone genuinely argue that if Trump is elected, there is not a risk that he will ignore an anti-Trump ruling by the Supreme Court? And when he does so, will not a large segment of our electorate stand up and cheer, saying Trump is just “telling it like it is” and giving the Supreme Court its comeuppance?
For those who lived through this before with Richard Nixon, walking back into a time of constitutional crisis is a fearful and dreadful thing. Doing so with eyes wide open is even more perplexing. The fact that so many breezily accept Trump’s stated disregard for the rule of law and his disrespect for the 1st Amendment, not to mention his utter disdain for common decency, is troubling in the extreme. What are these people, including seasoned leaders like Paul Ryan and John McCain, thinking?
If you want to know what a Trump presidency will sound like, put on your headphones and take an auditory stroll through the Nixon tapes. While Nixon rarely uttered in public the kinds of things Trump says daily on the stump, Nixon was uninhibited when behind closed doors and his leadership style shows itself to be remarkably Trump-like: crude, impulsive, bullying, dangerous, and astoundingly sophomoric at times. President Nixon railed against many of the same institutions Trump decries, namely, the press, the establishment, and the intelligentsia.
Take the press. On December 14, 1972, Nixon met with Henry Kissinger to discuss their mutual frustration with the North Vietnamese in Paris peace talks (Tape 823-1, Part B). Nixon, Kissinger and Alexander Haig decided in this fateful meeting to bomb “the bejesus out of” Hanoi and Haiphong with B-52 Stratofortress war planes to force a settlement. It was one of the signal decisions of Nixon’s presidency, causing a huge firestorm in the international community and arguably awakening a Senate that previously had done little to investigate the Watergate break-in, though it had occurred six months earlier.
On the tape at meeting’s end, Nixon, who was uncommonly jealous of Kissinger’s sometimes cozy relationship with the media, can be heard lecturing Kissinger to avoid the press. “And also never forget,” he said, “the press is the enemy, the press is the enemy, the press is the enemy; the establishment is the enemy; the professors are the enemy, the professors are the enemy. Write that on the blackboard one hundred times and never forget it.”
This is the president of the United States talking like a schoolmarm with his Harvard professor National Security Advisor in a meeting where he had just ordered, without Congressional approval or oversight, the bombing of heavily populated areas of North Vietnam. Civilian casualties, both men knew, were a given.
In a call weeks later, on December 27, 1972, a petulant President Nixon spoke with his advisor Charles Colson about the need for revenge against CBS, which had been scathing in its reporting about the so-called Christmas bombings (Tape 035-017). Nixon used presidential power as a weapon to cow and intimidate the media, much as Trump says he will. In Nixon’s case, he launched IRS audits and threatened revocation or denial of radio and TV station licensing. “Whatever we can do to them, they deserve,” Colson said to Nixon. “That’s right,” Nixon replied. “One thing we are going to do is to go all out for cable. I think cable hurts all the networks. That’ll really stir them up.”
But is the danger of a Trump constitutional crisis overstated? If you listen to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, there is no reason for alarm. Trump is just show biz, and besides, as McConnell told radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt last week, “He’ll have a White House counsel” who along with others will “point out there’s certain things you can do and you can’t do.”
Really? White House counsel will act as a bulwark against President Trump’s potential abuses of power? How’d that work out for John Dean?
As it happens, I have spent a good deal of time during the last five years studying Watergate and touring the country with John Dean, Nixon’s former White House counsel, speaking to lawyers about Dean’s mistakes and his futile attempts, once he realized the cover-up was doomed, to stop Nixon. We have presented over 130 of these seminars for state and federal bar associations, law firms, Legal Aid offices, corporate counsel organizations, law schools, and college audiences. Our theme is that Dean, as a lawyer, became enmeshed in his client’s wrongdoing, and when he finally broke ranks to end the cover-up, he became the scapegoat—at least until Nixon’s secret taping system came to light and corroborated his detailed Senate testimony.
We focus an entire 3-hour course on Dean’s report-up to Nixon in his famous “cancer on the presidency” talk with the president in the Oval Office on the morning of March 21, 1973. It was all captured on tape—a fact unknown to Dean at the time. The tape shows that as White House counsel, Dean made an effort to persuade Nixon to end the cover-up, to stop the payment of hush money to the Watergate burglars, and to allow members of his senior staff, like Dean himself, to appear before a grand jury to take responsibility for their misdeeds in order to try to save Nixon’s presidency. When Dean’s efforts were unsuccessful, he hired his own counsel and started cooperating with prosecutors and then Senate investigators, including a Georgetown law professor named Sam Dash.
One of the core lessons from our programs is that Watergate spun out of control due to sheer incompetence. When, for example, Dean suggested to John Ehrlichman, who had been his predecessor as White House counsel, that they needed to hire expert criminal lawyers to deal with Watergate, Ehrlichman waved him off, sarcastically asking if there was something putrid in the water Dean drank in Alexandria where he lived.
But recently, I noticed an even bigger problem that in my view accounts for much of the bungling in the Watergate affair. After listening to countless White House tapes, I have come to believe that one of the real culprits in Watergate was Nixon’s insistence on appointing top advisors who were unquestioningly loyal. For Nixon, the fundamental criterion for entry into his inner-circle was loyalty to Richard Nixon. The result was that those people who ended up with the greatest access and influence over the president had the least amount of experience in government or even politics.
The best examples are Haldeman, Ehrlichman and Mitchell. John Mitchell was a bond lawyer with no criminal law experience who became Nixon’s Attorney General. He would be indicted and convicted for his role in approving the Watergate break-in. H. R. “Bob” Haldeman was an ad executive with a Mensa-level intellect, but he likewise had no governmental or political experience outside being an advance man for Nixon and a campaign organizer. He would become Nixon’s Chief of Staff, tightly controlling admittance to the Oval Office. The same holds true with John Ehrlichman, who was a real estate lawyer from Seattle with no political experience outside Nixon campaigns. Ehrlichman became Nixon’s top domestic advisor. Both Haldeman and Ehrlichman, known derisively as Nixon’s “Berlin Wall,” would be convicted in the Watergate cover-up trial following Nixon’s resignation.
Far from acting as mediators to Nixon’s tendency to slip into criminal thinking, Haldeman and Ehrlichman encouraged his activity, believing that their acts were politically motivated, not criminal. Dean, who was 34 years old at the time, was the only one who had the sense to realize the gravity of the situation, though he himself had taken part in the wrongdoing.
Trump is very likely a leader who demands unqualified loyalty. It goes with the cult of personality—loyalty to the leader in such cults is of foremost importance. Trump’s advisors, including White House counsel, are unlikely to be independent thinkers or the conscience of the Office of the President. If past is prologue, they probably won’t have sufficient experience to be sensitive to the easy ways a president can slip from chief law enforcer to chief law breaker.
In our most current Watergate program, John Dean and I focused intently on the weekend of April 14-15, 1973, when the Watergate cover-up finally began to break apart behind the scenes at the White House. On Sunday evening, April 15, after Nixon met with John Dean to try to talk him out of further cooperation with prosecutors, John Ehrlichman decided it was time to warn the Acting Director of the FBI, L. Patrick Gray, that Dean had flipped and was likely to implicate him.
Gray was a prototypical Nixon loyalist. Appointed as Acting Director of the FBI after J. Edgar Hoover’s death in May 1972, Gray had never even been an agent for the FBI. Hoover’s old guard, including Mark Felt—later revealed as “Deep Throat”—leaked FBI secrets about the Watergate investigation not to bring down Nixon but to undermine Gray. Felt’s point was to show Nixon that this crony of his could not control the Agency.
Days after the Watergate break-in, Gray had been given an envelope containing materials recovered from a safe that Howard Hunt, one of the Watergate masterminds, kept in an office in the Executive Office Building. Gray met with Dean and Ehrlichman in Ehrlichman’s West Wing office to receive the package. Dean and Ehrlichman wanted to dispose of politically explosive material found in Hunt’s safe (like fabricated state department cables implicating JFK in the assassination of South Vietnam’s president Diem). None of the material related directly to Watergate, but Dean wanted to be able to say he had turned over everything from Hunt’s safe to the FBI.
Gray destroyed the materials months later on his own. When Ehrlichman told Gray on the night of April 15, 1973, that Dean had discussed with prosecutors the Hunt materials given to Gray, Gray did not flinch. “The only thing I can do with this is deny it,” he told Ehrlichman. “You’re not going to back him up, are you?” Gray pleaded. He even asked Ehrlichman if there was any way to “turn off” Dean. (Tape 38-60).
Here was the Acting Director of the FBI, a lawyer by training and profession, on tape saying he would perjure himself rather than face prosecution for destruction of evidence that had been gathered in a criminal investigation. It is at once staggering and highly predictable behavior. Power twists people’s ethics, but mix immense power with a demand of ultimate loyalty and disaster is sure to follow.
Donald Trump’s attack on the press is one gigantic red flag for American voters. He is telling us in public what Nixon hid in secret, but the results will be the same, if not worse. When presidential power is leveled against a free and vibrant press for the purpose of suppressing dissent, watch out. It is a harbinger of other abuses of power to come. And don’t count on loyalists to protect the ship of state. They will be too busy protecting their very exposed backsides.
James D. Robenalt is the author of January 1973, Watergate, Roe v. Wade, Vietnam, and the Month That Changed America Forever (Chicago Review Press, 2015) and Contributing Author to The Presidents and the Constitution, A Living History (Gormley, ed., New York University Press, 2016).
This story was originally published at History News Network