Richard Nixon’s paranoia produced Watergate. Ronald Reagan’s indifference contributed to Iran-contra. Bill Clinton’s appetites led to impeachment. And Donald Trump’s delusions — about his singular abilities and the impunity of his office — are propelling the crisis of legitimacy threatening his presidency.
No matter how distinct presidential scandals appear in their origins, however, there is also a weary sameness to how presidents react to them, how Washington mobilizes for them, how history looms over them. Each crisis feels unprecedented at the time, yet some of the most detailed journalistic accounts of presidential disgrace in recent decades — “The Final Days,” Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s narrative of Nixon’s end; “A Very Thin Line,” Theodore Draper’s comprehensive look at Iran-contra; and “The Breach,” Peter Baker’s dissection of Clinton’s impeachment trial — reveal how uniformly White House crises can unfold, explicitly drawing from one another, reliving dramas and pivots, and affecting how future scandals are judged.
Investigations and revelations. Fury and denial. Indictments and firings. Today, the White House is in crisis mode once again, and all in Washington are playing their parts. What distinguishes the Trump scandal is how its central character appears to combine the worst qualities of his troubled predecessors. How, rather than evolving into scandal, this presidency was born into it. And above all, how perceptions of the president’s integrity and honor — which proved critical in the outcomes of past political and constitutional crises — are barely an issue for a man without moral high ground left to lose.
In the evenings, sitting alone in the White House residence, the president “surrendered to his distress, watching hours of television news or talk shows and phoning allies at home to vent.” And at a dinner with a small group of White House staffers and dwindling Capitol Hill allies, the president complained about how “the liberals and the press hated him, and so the rules were being changed and he was going to be made to pay.”
This is not President Trump in 2017, but rather descriptions of Clinton and Nixon, respectively, at the height of the Lewinsky and Watergate sagas. Indeed, one of the most recurring images of a White House in turmoil is the isolated and vengeful commander in chief, stewing at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Trump may spend lonely nights and mornings with the remote and the phone, but historically speaking, he has plenty of company.
During presidential scandals, the White House peddles the illusion that the president and top aides are undistracted, that the nation’s business remains foremost in their minds, when in fact the political challenges threaten to overpower all else. Nixon was “increasingly moody, exuberant at one moment, depressed the next, alternately optimistic and pessimistic,” Woodward and Bernstein write. He spent hours on end poring over his Oval Office tapes and pondering his survival. Though the president hoped that overseas trips and foreign policy moves might enhance his public standing, White House Chief of Staff Alexander Haig confided to a former Pentagon colleague that Nixon was “distracted, spending so much time on Watergate, it’s destroying his ability to lead.” Haig even repeatedly urged a top telecommunications policy official to not bring anything substantive to Nixon’s attention. “The President isn’t in any shape to deal with this,” he explained.
Clinton’s famous ability to compartmentalize, to carry on amid the ever-expanding inquiry by independent counsel Kenneth Starr, was largely for show, Baker reports. “In private, Clinton was consumed with the Starr investigation and its collateral damage, sometimes so preoccupied that he appeared lost during meetings.” Clinton told Cabinet members that he had woken up “profoundly angry” every day for 41/2 years. Imagine what his morning tweetstorms would have been like.
Such presidential anger requires a focal point: For Nixon, it included special counsel Archibald Cox and former White House counsel John Dean; for Clinton, it was Starr and his Republican defenders. Trump’s wrath is less discriminating, targeting special counsel Robert Mueller as well as the FBI, the Justice Department and virtually all journalists save his loyal friends at Fox News. In the same way Trump says digging into his personal finances would be a red line Mueller should not cross, Nixon regarded Cox’s attempts to secure his tapes as “the ultimate defiance” meriting dismissal.
The effort by Trump and his supporters in the right-wing media to depict Mueller’s probe into Russian electoral interference as a partisan “witch hunt” — another common phrase across these scandals — is a time-honored tactic for any White House under siege. Haig and Nixon press secretary Ron Ziegler agreed on the need to “place the impeachment issue in as partisan a light as possible,” and the Clinton team reached the same conclusion more than 20 years later. Baker describes the latter group’s strategy during the impeachment fight: “Attack the accusers, demonize the investigators, complain about partisanship while doing everything to foment it.”
Cracks invariably emerge among the true believers, the deeply conflicted and the suddenly departed members of each administration. Once a loyalist, Dean flipped and offered a catalogue of accusations against the Nixon White House before the Senate Watergate committee: wiretapping, secret funds, money laundering, cover-ups and more. The Reagan team split among senior officials who had opposed arms sales to Iran, such as Secretary of State George Shultz, and those dedicated to advancing the initiative, such as John Poindexter, the national security adviser. Poindexter, who saw himself as “the head of an American version of a Roman praetorian guard around the president, loyal and responsible to him alone,” Draper writes, was eventually convicted of lying to Congress and obstructing investigations of Iran-contra, though the convictions were reversed on appeal.
Disillusioned staffers try to make their peace with flawed presidents. Clinton aide Paul Begala “sank into a deep depression” during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Baker writes, and vowed never again to appear on television defending the president. (Spoiler: It was a vow he did not honor.) White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles sought to keep his distance from the nitty-gritty of the whole affair: When former United Nations ambassador Bill Richardson wanted to describe how he’d offered Lewinsky a job, Bowles interrupted: “I don’t want to know a f—ing thing about it!” And during Watergate, Haig and Nixon lawyer James St. Clair refused to read transcripts or listen to certain portions of the president’s tapes until late in the game. They didn’t want to know, either.
For Trump staffers and enablers, the dilemma is different. There are few illusions about their leader left to be shattered. Their true challenge is less about surviving Trump’s eruptions than simply living with the choice they’ve made, convincing themselves that service to the nation — passing a tax cut, forestalling a war, reducing immigration — is worth it.
For the presidents involved, enduring a scandal means convincing yourself of a good many things as well. Trump’s refusal to accept the U.S. intelligence finding that the Kremlin sought to tilt the 2016 election in his favor mirrors the stubbornness of his predecessors. Reagan went along with the sale of arms to Iran in an effort to free American hostages, though “always telling himself that it was not an arms-for-hostages deal,” Draper writes. Nixon lawyer J. Fred Buzhardt concluded that the 37th president lied not just to others but to himself. It was an easy tell, Woodward and Bernstein explain: “Almost invariably when [Nixon] lied, he would repeat himself, sometimes as often as three times — as if he were trying to convince himself.” And the Clinton White House held political strategy sessions in the midst of the impeachment saga, meetings that had an “unreal feel,” Baker writes, because the president and his aides would cover everything except their most overriding political challenge: saving Clinton’s presidency.
It makes Trump’s fawning Cabinet meetings — in which department heads recite prayers and offer thanks for their leader — seem almost normal.
Attaching a “-gate” suffix to every minor White House scandal is an occupational hazard of political journalism. Some overzealous commentators compared Trump’s dismissal in January of acting attorney general Sally Yates to the 1973 “Saturday Night Massacre,” when Nixon’s order to fire the special prosecutor prompted both the attorney general and the deputy attorney general to resign. It was a premature comparison but not an unusual one. During Iran-contra and the Clinton impeachment trial, the memories of Watergate were ever present — a constant reference, yardstick and warning.
Edwin Meese, attorney general during Reagan’s second term, was “haunted” by Nixon’s attempted cover-up, Draper writes, and was “determined at all costs to avoid a repetition” with Iran-contra. Mike McCurry, Clinton’s press secretary, decided to leave the White House before the impeachment proceedings got underway, in part to avoid “becoming the Ron Ziegler of his era,” Baker explains.
At times, Watergate became a call for restraint over hyperbole. House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, a Democrat, told House Republicans that Watergate should be the model for cooperation between both sides in the Clinton proceedings, Baker reports. Some took that model quite literally: The House Judiciary Committee lawyer charged with producing the first draft of the articles of impeachment was so taken by the Nixon precedent that he borrowed liberally from the Watergate-era draft, using the same three-paragraph introduction, the same wording at the start of each article and the same two concluding paragraphs. (“The Breach” notes that even a password to access committee computer files was an homage of sorts: “RODINO,” for Rep. Peter Rodino, the New Jersey Democrat who served as the Judiciary Committee’s chairman during Watergate.)
But by replicating the Watergate format, Baker argues, House Republicans were “implicitly raising the bar for the substance of the charges as well — lying under oath and covering up an affair might pale in comparison to paying hush money and using the CIA to thwart an FBI investigation of political espionage.” That was the case Democrats made. Baker summarizes in three words the argument by the White House lawyers defending Clinton before the House committee: It ain’t Watergate.
The Trump investigation is not Watergate, either, at least not yet. We are just two indictments and two guilty pleas into this thing, and The Washington Post reports that the Mueller investigation could last deep into 2018, no matter how soon the Trump White House expects it to conclude. It is precisely that longevity, however, that could exhaust the forbearance of a notoriously impatient president. Thus far, Trump and his supporters seem intent on discrediting Mueller’s inquiry rather than shutting it down. A latter-day Saturday Night Massacre or a wholesale pardoning of top aides would propel the crisis of the Trump presidency to far more precarious heights.
“Watergate was a series of discrete, unrelated transactions,” members of Nixon’s legal team concluded, according to Woodward and Bernstein. “There had been no grand strategy, just consistently bad judgment.” History’s judgment may have proved otherwise — certainly Woodward and Bernstein have come to see Watergate in far more expansive and insidious terms — but it’s not a bad description of Trump’s presidency to date, one driven not by ideology but by impulse, incompetence and the quest for loyalty and personal benefit. Henry Kissinger lamented that Nixon was “a man who let his enemies dictate to him, whose actions were often reactions.” Or as White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders has said of Trump, “When he gets hit, he’s going to hit back.”
Trump appears Nixonian in his disregard for democratic norms, Clintonian in his personal recklessness and beyond Reaganesque in his distance from the details of policy. But where the parallels and parables of past scandals fall apart is with Trump’s well-documented disregard for truth. In Watergate, Iran-contra and the Clinton impeachment, views of the president’s honesty played a significant role for the public, for administration officials and for lawmakers torn over how to proceed.
Normally, revelations of presidential deceit are consequential. When Nixon speechwriter Patrick Buchanan, among the most devoted of the president’s men, explained to Nixon family members why a damning Oval Office recording meant that resignation was inevitable, he emphasized not law but dishonesty. “The problem is not Watergate or the cover-up,” he argued. “It’s that he hasn’t been telling the truth to the American people. The tape makes it evident that he hasn’t leveled with the country for probably eighteen months. And the President can’t lead a country he has deliberately misled.” When Sen. Susan Collins of Maine (one of a handful of Senate Republicans who ultimately voted against both articles of impeachment for Clinton) was agonizing over the decision, her misgivings centered on the president’s forthrightness. “She could not get over Clinton’s recklessness — it was as if he could not stop doing wrong, could not tell the truth,” Baker reports. And some of Reagan’s worst Iran-contra moments came in statements the president made in late 1986 and early 1987, when his questionable mastery of details and shifting rationales received tough scrutiny. In a March 1987 Oval Office speech, he finally (and mostly) fessed up. “A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages,” Reagan said. “My heart and my best intentions still tell me that’s true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not.”
The current president does not even attempt to save face. Fact-checkers have documented so many of Trump’s false or misleading statements during the 2016 campaign and into the first year of his presidency that there is no presumption of honesty left to squander. Even when Trump dismisses the fact checks as fake news — in effect, being dishonest about his dishonesty — it doesn’t seem to matter. Trump’s relentless attacks against anyone seeking to hold him accountable help neutralize the impact on his supporters.
During Watergate, top Nixon aides worried that the material on the Oval Office tapes — not just the disclosures of wrongdoing but also the “amorality” of Nixon’s words and thoughts — would hurt the president and the presidency. Ziegler was adamantly opposed to releasing transcripts, Woodward and Bernstein write, because “there was rough language on the tapes,” candid discussions that would “offend Middle America, destroy his mandate.” Once certain transcripts were made public, Nixon lawyer Leonard Garment worried that president had “allowed America into the ugliness of his mind — as if he wanted the world to participate in the despoliation of the myth of presidential behavior. . . . That was the truly impeachable offense: letting everyone see.”
With Trump, we’ve already seen it, and we already know it. His tweets are his Nixon tapes; the “Access Hollywood” recording his Starr report; his heedlessness for checks, balances and the rule of law his Iran-contra affair. Offending does not destroy his mandate, it fulfills it. The expectation of integrity has given way to a cynical acceptance of deceit. As much as anything Mueller uncovers, this is the scandal of our time.