At first blush, it may look as if Donald Trump has finally gone the full Nixon. But if there’s one thing we can safely take away from Trump’s tweeted threat that he has taped White House conversations, it’s that he doesn’t understand Watergate any more than he understands anything else.
Nixon didn’t threaten to release tapes in order to silence anyone. It would be wrong, that’s for sure. What Nixon did, what the Saturday Night Massacre was all about, was to try desperately to hold on to those previously secret but always incriminating tapes that led, eventually, to Nixon’s resignation.
Trump must have his ’70s iconography confused. Trump’s tweet — “James Comey better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!” — is more Godfather than Watergate. What Comey should worry about it is not a recording system in the White House, but finding a horse’s head in his bed.
Or as John Dean — yes, that John Dean — just tweeted: “Obviously, President Trump is confused. He is the one who must hope there are no tapes. Honest people don’t have problems being taped.”
I don’t believe Trump has “taped” Comey or anyone else any more than I believe Trump’s tweet that Obama had “wiretapped” Trump. It’s more Trumpian bluster, but, of course, it’s not only that.
Trump doesn’t think any more about publicly threatening Comey than he does in publicly firing Comey and in publicly lying about why he fired Comey and then, after sending out all his surrogates, including the vice-president, to lie about why he fired Comey, to admit the truth in an NBC News interview with Lester Holt. In one step, he threw all his communications people under the bus (or, in Spicey’s case, into the bushes) while, at the same time, making the case for why there must be an independent investigation into all things Russia and Trump.
No one paying any attention at all can be surprised that Trump lied about why he fired Comey. We knew from the start that it was never about Comey’s mistreatment of Hillary Clinton or about Rod Rosenstein’s craven memo. It was always about, as Trump himself said, “this Russia thing.” It’s clear now, as it has been all along, that Trump fired Comey because of the FBI’s investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians.
What upset Trump enough to go off in his Friday morning tweetstorm — getting ahead of the weekend rush — was an anonymously sourced story in The New York Times about the now-infamous dinner meeting between Trump and Comey. Trump said that the dinner was at Comey’s request. Trump said that during the dinner, he had asked Comey whether he was under investigation and that Comey had directly assured him that he wasn’t.
This is another story no one believed. Whatever else you think of Comey and whatever possible missteps he might have made, you tend to trust the FBI sources who told The Times that Trump invited Comey, that Comey was wary of the invitation and did not want to accept, that he would never discuss with Trump whether he was under investigation (that, also, would be wrong; that’s for sure) and that in the actual conversation, Trump asked Comey whether he would pledge loyalty to him and Comey answered that he would offer honesty instead.
That sounds like Trump. And if that’s what Comey told him, that was the beginning of the end. Personal loyalty, not truth, is what concerns Trump, and it would have to concern him even more given the fact of the FBI investigation. His willingness to fire the FBI chief in charge of the investigation— and apparently not even realizing the blowback he would receive for it — is one more bit of evidence of how little respect, and understanding, Trump has for American institutions.
With the taping threat, Trump has ensured that all the irresistible Watergate references stay alive. And the one that should worry him most is the memory — not always perfectly accurate — that brave Republicans stood up to Nixon. From break-in to resignation, the Watergate saga took more than two years. Most Republicans were very slow to condemn, or even question, Nixon. Same for the country. The five burglars had already been indicted when Nixon was carrying 49 states against George McGovern.
When Howard Baker famously asked what the president knew and when he knew it, he was actually defending Nixon. Even when the end was near and many of Nixon’s closest advisers headed to prison, the smoking gun uncovered, 10 of the 17 Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee still voted against impeachment. Of course, Baker did eventually go after the truth, as did others. And in the Saturday Night Massacre, Cox and Richardson and Ruckelshaus did become heroes for refusing Nixon’s orders. And Barry Goldwater did lead a group of three Republican to the White House to tell Nixon it was time for him to quit.
But in our speeded up times of 24/7 cable news and nonstop Twitter, Republican politicians are not exactly keeping up, and, as a rule, they’re certainly not standing up. Most have embarrassed themselves by a tepid response to what nearly everyone agrees was Russian interference in the 2016 election. And they continue to embarrass themselves by enabling Trump, by pretending that the Trump presidency is somehow normal and shouldn’t be challenged at every turn.
Maybe the most cliched Watergate saying is that the coverup is always worse than the crime. In this case, we still don’t know what the crime is or whether there is a crime at all. But the signs of a coverup are everywhere. And if the coverup is not worse than the crime, we’re in even worse trouble than I thought.
Photo via Steve Troughton, Flickr: Creative Commons