The new History Channel documentary on the Watergate scandal may not be great art, but it is timely as heck. It describes (and, unfortunately, reenacts) the downward spiral of Richard M. Nixon’s administration into paranoia, criminal conspiracy, self-delusion and ruin.
It is hard to repeat such dialogue without rubbing your hands together and letting out a cackle. But the Trump era offers many such examples of life imitating melodrama. Recently, the New York Times reported that this past spring President Trump pressured then-White House counsel Donald McGahn to push the Justice Department to start a criminal investigation of Hillary Clinton and James B. Comey. (McGahn, to his credit, warned that such an action could lead to impeachment.) Other reports indicate that Trump repeatedly asked Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein and Matthew G. Whitaker, who was then chief of staff to then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, how the Justice Department was progressing in its investigation of Clinton.
The examples pile up. Remember that Trump — knowing that his first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, had lied to the FBI — allegedly asked the then-director of the FBI, Comey, not to prosecute Flynn and to say publicly that Trump himself wasn’t under investigation. When Comey resisted, Trump fired him. Then the president asked Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats and Adm. Michael S. Rogers, then the director of the National Security Agency, to publicly affirm that there was no evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. (They, to their credit, did not comply.)
All this is Nixonian by any measure. Both Trump and Nixon share the same ideology of power — a belief that, because their enemies are ruthless, they must be more ruthless still. Both men share an obsession with hidden enemies that actually produces more hidden enemies. And both men share a view of the executive branch involving the total subservience of every public official who reports to the president.
The last point is perhaps the most significant. The United States has generally been blessed by having a strong executive branch, which has been a necessary source of adaptation and leadership. In the normal course of events, however, a president appoints officials who will join him in the faithful application of the law and the defense of the Constitution. The goal is not to appoint men and women willing to serve him outside those boundaries. So, just as it is not appropriate for Trump to order his director of national intelligence to be his personal valet at the White House, it is not appropriate to ask his DNI to provide political cover during an ongoing FBI investigation. (This is exactly the kind of thing that brought Nixon to the verge of impeachment.)
The Justice Department is a case in point. The attorney general and the director of the FBI report to the president. But this does not mean the president can order investigations to start and stop for corrupt reasons. Federal law enforcement officials have public duties. They do not owe personal fealty.
How is this principle enforced? The integrity of our political system has always depended on principled public servants willing to say “no” to great power. During the Watergate scandal, Judge John J. Sirica did it. When Nixon fired the special prosecutor, Attorney General Elliot L. Richardson and his deputy William D. Ruckelshaus resigned. By one count, five senior officials in the Watergate-era FBI — for a variety of motives — leaked material damaging to the Nixon administration. Ultimately, the health of our republic depends not only on political systems but also on flawed people who reach the limit of accommodation.
There are many reasons for pessimism about our fractured politics — including the general cowardice of elected Republicans in the face of presidential corruption and abuse of power. But will special counsel Robert S. Mueller III — who spent a decade building the reputation and independence of the FBI — really be silenced or outwitted by the clownish caricature of Nixon who occupies the Oval Office and issues a fusillade of smoking guns? Not likely. Rosenstein has managed to give Mueller the time to put down on paper the strongest case against a president without ethics or honor. And it is beyond Trump’s power to erase.