The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Spiro Agnew was Trump before Trump

Richard M. Nixon waves to Republican National Convention delegates as he stands with his runningmate, Spiro T. Agnew, in Miami on Aug. 8, 1968.
Richard M. Nixon waves to Republican National Convention delegates as he stands with his runningmate, Spiro T. Agnew, in Miami on Aug. 8, 1968. (AP)

It is about this time in his presidency that Donald Trump must be feeling like the Paul Newman and Robert Redford characters in the marvelous movie “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” Being relentlessly pursued by a posse, the men repeatedly ask in both puzzlement and exasperation, “Who are those guys?” In their case, they’re armed men paid by the railroad that they recently held up. In Trump’s, they’re accountants.

At the moment, three illustrious writers are about to publish a book of essays on past impeachment efforts — Jon Meacham on Andrew Johnson, Timothy Naftali on Richard M. Nixon and Peter Baker on Bill Clinton. This will no doubt be a worthy and immensely readable effort, but let me suggest that the template for what is happening to Trump is not the tale of previous presidents but the downfall of a now-obscure vice president: Spiro T. Agnew. He went down because his numbers did not add up.

Agnew was the thoroughly corrupt governor of Maryland chosen by Nixon for, among other things, scolding the state’s moderate black leadership for the riots that erupted in Baltimore after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Agnew was a man who insisted that a deal was a deal. The kickbacks he received on state contracts as governor continued to flow to him as vice president. One was $10,000 in cash delivered to the sacred precincts of the White House by a Maryland contractor who dutifully was making yet another installment payment. Honor among thieves and all of that.

Richard Nixon was a qualified president and less corrupt than Donald Trump, according to former Watergate prosecutor Philip Allen Lacovara. (Video: Adriana Usero, Kate Woodsome, Breanna Muir/The Washington Post)

The Internal Revenue Service was unimpressed. It not only took the position that the bribes were income for which Agnew had not paid taxes, but it was also similarly stern with the men who had bribed him: Their payments to Agnew were not a deductible business expense. The contractors were “flipped,” a term Trump knows well.

It is significant that Allen Weisselberg, the longtime chief financial officer of the Trump Organization, is cooperating with federal authorities. And it is, of course, immensely significant that Michael Cohen, Trump’s former personal lawyer and self-described fixer, has cut a deal, and so has David Pecker, a Trump friend and the head of the National Enquirer’s parent company, American Media.

Impeachment by the House and conviction by the Senate may well be the only way a president can be ousted, but that’s a political route. Prosecutors act differently. They look for crimes, and taxes are always low-hanging fruit. No matter how clever a person may be, it remains very difficult to move money around without the IRS’s nose starting to twitch. For instance, was American Media’s payment to Karen McDougal, a former Playboy model who alleges an affair with Trump, a deductible fee to a writer or a possibly non-deductible payoff on behalf of Trump? And how did the Trump Organization book the payment to Cohen for the $130,000 he paid to Stephanie Clifford, better known as Stormy Daniels? What about the Trump Foundation? Can it bear scrutiny?

What’s significant about these possible tax issues is that they might have state implications — New York, to be specific. If the feds have a problem, so could state authorities. Trump might be able to pardon his way out of any federal charges, but he has no such authority when it comes to state matters. Not that it should matter, but prosecuting Trump in the city where he is largely loathed and a state he lost by a landslide (he received only 37 percent of the vote) would prove hugely popular.

Agnew was an innovator in so many respects that it’s impossible in limited space to do him justice. He was Trump before Trump, pioneering slashing attacks on the press as both liberal and untrustworthy. He also maintained that as vice president he could not be indicted — an assertion that has never been conclusively settled. At the time, the Justice Department worried that if Nixon were forced from office and Agnew elevated to the presidency, he might even be able to pardon himself — again, an unsettled (and unsettling) question.

In the end, Agnew traded his office for a get-out-of-jail card and a measly $10,000 fine. It may be unrealistic to think Trump will be forced to do the same, but he should know that he is being pursued by the same sort of posse that got Agnew — killers in eye shades. If, as the saying goes, God is in the details, then the devil is certainly in tax returns.

Read more from Richard Cohen’s archive.

Read more:

Catherine Rampell: No collusion? We’ll see. But what about tax fraud?

Megan McArdle: The spectacular greed and stupidity of Team Trump

Bradley Smith: Those payments to women were unseemly. That doesn’t mean they were illegal.

The Post’s View: What a presidential president would have said about Cohen’s and Manafort’s crimes

Eugene Robinson: Trump the mob boss wants protection