On Jan. 30, 1974, President Richard Nixon concluded his State of the Union address at about 9:45 p.m. He closed the manila folder that held sheets of loose paper and took in the standing ovation, acknowledging applause from members of both congressional chambers.
Nixon, in his fifth year in office, was referring to the “investigations of the so-called Watergate affair.”
“As you know, I have provided to the special prosecutor voluntarily a great deal of material,” he said. “I believe the time has come to bring that investigation and the other investigations of this matter to an end. One year of Watergate is enough.”
It would be Nixon’s last State of the Union speech. Caught up in the Watergate probe, he resigned the following August.
More than four decades later, President Trump, like Nixon, took time during his State of the Union address to argue that the probes targeting him needed to end. (Trump did not specify which investigator or investigation; there are probes into his campaign, foundation and inaugural committee, which are being conducted by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, federal prosecutors and attorneys general.)
“An economic miracle is taking place in the United States, and the only thing that can stop it are foolish wars, politics or ridiculous partisan investigations,” Trump said during his speech Tuesday night. “If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation. It just doesn’t work that way.”
Philip Allen Lacovara, a former president of the D.C. Bar who served as counsel to the Watergate special prosecutor, told The Washington Post that Trump’s address “seemed like deja vu all over again.” What reminded Lacovara most of Nixon was Trump’s apparent refusal to cooperate with legislation unless the investigations were aborted.
“It certainly brought back to mind President Nixon’s similar objection that the investigation of him had gone on too long. Nixon declared that it was — in words Trump has echoed — simply a ‘witch hunt,’” he said.
Several months before Nixon’s 1972 reelection, five men were arrested in the break-in and attempted wiretapping of Democratic National Headquarters offices at the Watergate Hotel in Washington. A federal investigation ensued, and the two-term president watched as many of his high-ranking officials were implicated in and convicted of federal crimes. Several staffers stepped down. White House counsel John Dean was fired. And former solicitor general Archibald Cox was appointed to investigate Nixon’s involvement in Watergate and other offenses arising from the presidential campaign.
When Nixon appealed to Congress 45 years ago, his administration had been crippled by the scandal. He gave his State of the Union speech three months after what came to be known as the “Saturday Night Massacre.” In one fell swoop, on Oct. 20, Nixon fired Cox, abolished the office of the special counsel and provoked the resignation of Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus. Both men refused Nixon’s order to dismiss Cox, leaving the task to the third in line: U.S. Solicitor General Robert Bork.
Nixon tried to divert public attention from the Watergate investigation, according to Lacovara, suggesting the problem was with the investigators rather than with the target of the probe — a strategy strikingly similar to the one Trump has taken.
Just as in Watergate, many Trump affiliates have been charged with various crimes related to the 2016 presidential campaign, including coordination with Russian influence peddlers.
Trump’s assertions of his “unprecedented cooperation” with the special counsel’s office also reflect Nixon statements. Nixon lied to the American people when he claimed that he had provided Cox with “all the material that he needs to conclude his investigations.” In reality the Nixon White House had refused subpoenas from the Senate Watergate Committee and special counsel for presidential tape recordings for months.
Nixon, in his final State of the Union address, said that he had no intention of ever walking away from the presidency. But in just six months, the Watergate investigation unearthed his involvement in the criminal coverup. The House Judiciary Committee passed the first of three articles of impeachment in July. Less than two weeks later, on Aug. 8, Nixon resigned.
“In both situations you have respected investigators who are highly unlikely to be spending a lot of time and effort on a wild-goose chase,” Lacovara said. As it turned out, in Watergate there was real criminality to be exposed. “We’ll have to wait to see what Bob Mueller comes up with, with respect to President Trump personally.”
Amy B Wang contributed to this report.
Opinion: I miss Richard Nixon