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Americans are wired in a way that leads them to get twitchy when a president defies the norms of democratic governance. Then they begin to ask: “Is this Watergate?”
Whether or not they were around at the time, these citizens are aware that in the early 1970s, Richard Nixon was forced to leave office for having challenged our system of checks and balances among the executive, legislative and judicial branches – to the point where we had a constitutional crisis.
Nixon chose to resign rather than face certain impeachment (indictment) by the House of Representatives for, and conviction by the Senate of, committing “high crimes and misdemeanors” – the constitutional remedy for dealing with an out-of-control president.
Though Watergate was named after the botched burglary at the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters in the office building part of the Watergate complex, that crisis was about many things, some of which amounted to presidential abuse of power – in itself a separate and the most important article of impeachment against Nixon.
Similarly, while Russia is at the heart of the issues surrounding Trump, it’s a possible set of activities – perhaps also involving his commingling of his public responsibilities with his family’s private interests – that could be building toward a list of charges against Trump. It’s to be remembered that Nixon’s greatest crisis occurred in the fifth and sixth years of his presidency. Trump’s presidency is just short of five months old.
The “is-this-Watergate” question was first asked early in Trump’s presidency, when he issued statements challenging federal courts for placing holds on his ill-considered – and constitutionally dubious – travel ban aimed at people coming to the US from certain Muslim countries. But his defiance over the travel ban has remained rhetorical and contained within the court system.
Trump’s firing of the FBI director, James Comey, last week was another matter. It felt more like Watergate, and may have amounted to an impeachable offense. His original cover story was, implausibly, that the firing was based on a Department of Justice official’s scathing report on Comey’s handling of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server.
In less than 48 hours, this version was overtaken by Trump’s startling admission that his decision to fire Comey had to do with “this Russia thing”, by which he was referring to the FBI’s intensifying investigation into whether his presidential campaign had colluded with Russia in its attempt to tilt the election in his favor. This got him in potentially very deep trouble.
And whether or not Trump has what he called “tapes” of his conversation with Comey, he has a big problem: he could possibly be found guilty of intimidating a witness in a federal proceeding. If he does have them – which, given Trump’s loose association with the truth, there’s reason to doubt – they’re likely to be subpoenaed, and who is more likely to be lying: Trump or Comey?
By one legal interpretation, Trump’s firing Comey amounted to obstruction of justice, the subject of one of the three articles of impeachment drawn up against Nixon by the House judiciary committee.
But it was the atmospherics as much as anything that set off Watergate jitters in Washington last week. Like the night in October, 1973, when Nixon ordered the firing of the special prosecutor, Archibald Cox, Trump’s suddenly striking out at Comey in what was widely described as a fit of rage gave us the sense of a president out of control.
Though we sensed that Nixon would try to fire Cox – on a dark Saturday night, he went through two attorney generals who both resigned rather than do the firing – the Comey firing took us utterly by surprise.
Almost no one else in the White House knew it was about to happen and thus Trump’s staff and outside allies were ill-prepared to defend his act. Like Nixon, the president appeared to be behaving irrationally – out of control. Like Nixon, Trump gave off the picture of a beleaguered president, feeling alone and assaulted from all directions.
Both men exhibited at least traces of paranoia. (Like Nixon, Trump has referred to his opponents as “enemies”.) And at the heart of it, each man fired the prosecutor leading an investigation into his suspected illegal or unconstitutional activities.
There’s been a widespread but far from unanimous sense that Trump won’t last the four years of his presidential term. Just how and why it could end is the subject of many discussions, and a list of possible impeachable offenses is being developed by constitutional lawyers.
But that won’t and shouldn’t happen unless it’s on a bipartisan basis. When Nixon was challenged, Congress was controlled by the Democrats. Now the Republicans are in charge, at least until the midterm congressional elections in 2018, and for the time being, at least, they are reluctant to move against their president. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible over a longer period of time.
Close observers estimate that at least two-thirds of the Republican senators would like to see Trump gone. His recklessness worries them and, after all, he imposed himself on the Republican party – he isn’t of it, and has few diehard allies in it. Some are sticking with him just until they get the tax cuts they so desire.
It’s mainly Trump’s base that inhibits the Republicans; about 35% of eligible voters have been sticking with him so far, no matter what he does. While that isn’t a large enough bloc to govern the country, it’s big enough to scare an elected Republican of arousing its ire. Trump’s boastful disclosure of highly classified information, shared with the US by an ally on a strict-no-disclosure basis, to visiting Russian leaders, hasn’t helped his political situation.
But that could change if he can’t deliver the tax cuts, if he keeps making proposals that help the wealthy against the base, and if, as is likely, he’s unable to produce the jobs he promised in the election. Nixon had a base, too, until he didn’t. When Trump becomes too expensive politically for the Republicans to maintain in office, it’s quite possible that they’ll move against him.