President Donald Trump’s leadership has been erratic since he entered the Oval Office, but his recent behavior has turned especially alarming. Aides speak of dysfunction and chaos at the White House. Politicians, pundits and psychiatrists have long warned that Trump might lash out in destructive ways if he comes under intense pressure and senses that his leadership is threatened. Some worry that the president might try to distract attention from his troubles by provoking an international crisis or war. Washington insiders hope that top generals close to the president, such as John Kelly, H. R. McMaster and James Mattis, can protect the nation and the world if the Chief Executive goes off the rails.
There is an eerie resemblance between the current situation in Washington and conditions late in President Richard Nixon’s Administration. When the Watergate scandal endangered Nixon, the President seemed to break down. During Nixon’s final days, officials tried to prevent him from risking war, including a nuclear attack.
There are striking differences in the political situations faced by Richard Nixon and Donald Trump. Trump has much more support from members of his party than Nixon received during the last weeks of his presidency. But if special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian intervention in the 2016 election brings charges against the president and his administration for obstruction of justice, Donald Trump might react in extreme ways.
Richard Nixon did not handle adversity well. When investigations of the Watergate scandal threatened to bring down his presidency, Nixon expressed anger toward journalists and politicians in late-night telephone calls, and he drank scotch heavily. Top officials in Washington worried that the disturbed president might attempt to show strength in a time of weakness. There was reason for concern. Nixon reportedly told a group of congressmen, “I can go to my office and pick up a telephone, and in 25 minutes, millions of people will be dead.” Senator Alan Cranston warned Defense Secretary James Schlesinger about “the need for keeping a berserk president from plunging us into a holocaust.” Schlesinger ordered military commanders to check first with him or Secretary of State Henry Kissinger if the president tried to launch missiles.
Politicians and pundits have expressed worries about President Donald Trump’s authority to launch nuclear strikes, as well. They criticized Trump for asserting that his “nuclear button” was “much bigger” than the North Korean leader’s button. President Trump warned the North Koreans that if they continued to threaten, “They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”
Current apprehensions about Trump’s behavior apply to a much wider range of dangers than the kind that alarmed James Schlesinger prior to Nixon’s resignation. President Trump commands much more influence over national and international affairs than Richard Nixon did when his presidency collapsed in the summer of 1974.
Donald Trump now appears isolated in the White House, according to aides, because he no longer receives assistance from people who provided valuable emotional and practical support. Last fall, his longtime bodyguard, Keith Schiller, departed. Shiller was often at the president’s side, serving as a valued confidant. Hope Hicks, another loyal aide, announced her decision to leave recently. In many respects Hicks had replaced Schiller as the President’s trusted friend. Rob Porter, Trump’s staff secretary, played an important role as an astute adviser, as well, but he, too, exited recently. Ivanka, the president’s daughter and her husband, Jared Kushner, have also served him as important confidants. They are now under a cloud of accusations and may need to distance themselves from the Oval Office.
Trump has burned bridges with so many top figures in his administration that he cannot easily acquire a new group of trusted allies. He has often directed wrath at principal members of his leadership team. Trump allows rumors to fly suggesting that current leaders such as Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Generals H. R. McMaster and John Kelly will have to go. In this tense working environment, there has been a huge turnover of principal aides. “Morale is the worse its ever been,” a Republican strategist told the Washington Postrecently. “Nobody knows what to expect.”
Journalists now report that the president has become deeply frustrated, is seething with anger, and frequently lashes out against supposed enemies. That erratic and aggressive behavior could soon turn more severe. If threats against Trump’s leadership intensify, top officials in Washington may feel like Defense Secretary James Schlesinger, who worried about President Nixon’s capacity to govern in a time of severe personal stress. If a related emergency develops, leaders in Washington will need to step forward courageously and prevent a calamity.
Robert Brent Toplin, Professor Emeritus at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, was previously a professor of history at Denison University. He has published several books about history, politics, and film and recently has taught occasional courses at the University of Virginia. Contact: [email protected]