Standing before a largely hostile Congress, President Trump couldn’t help but offer a word of warning to the Democratic House majority. But first, he did a little boasting.
“The state of our union is strong,” Trump said, repurposing last year’s adjective. To bolster that argument, he pointed to the strong economy.
“On Friday, it was announced that we added another 304,000 jobs last month alone — almost double what was expected. An economic miracle is taking place in the United States,” the president said.
He quickly transitioned.
“And the only thing that can stop it are foolish wars, politics, or ridiculous partisan investigations,” he said. “If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation. It just doesn’t work that way!”
The line didn’t prompt much of a response. Even Republicans probably aren’t terribly eager to be seen applauding a president’s call to end investigations into his campaign, foundation and inaugural committee — much less a Republican caucus that was fervently supportive of investigations into Trump’s predecessor.
Among one group, though, the line probably elicited a gasp or two: historians.
On Jan. 30, 1974, then-President Richard Nixon addressed a joint session of Congress to update it on the state of the American union. A little over a year prior, he’d been reelected as president by one of the widest margins in American history. Since that day, though, his administration had been increasingly hobbled by the ongoing investigation into the break-in at the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters at the Watergate Hotel.
Watergate was itself a wide-ranging affair, with investigations underway by the Senate and a special prosecutor. It was revealed in July of the prior year that Nixon had recorded conversations in his office; Nixon’s refusal to turn over the recordings led to his firing the special prosecutor a few months later, in October. A number of people linked to his campaign had been indicted or pleaded guilty to crimes — including a campaign aide who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI only two days before Nixon’s speech.
During that speech, Nixon covered the expected ground. At the end, though, he addressed the elephant in the room.
“Mr. Speaker, and Mr. President, and my distinguished colleagues and our guests: I would like to add a personal word with regard to an issue that has been of great concern to all Americans over the past year,” Nixon said. “I refer, of course, 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. I believe that I have provided all the material that he needs to conclude his investigations and to proceed to prosecute the guilty and to clear the innocent.”
“I believe the time has come to bring that investigation and the other investigations of this matter to an end,” Nixon continued. “One year of Watergate is enough.”
It wasn’t quite enough, as it turned out. The investigations would press on and, less than seven months after he spoke those words, Nixon would resign rather than face ouster following an impeachment in Congress.
Trump, too, has called for the probe by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III to end and his allies and spokespeople have repeatedly asserted that Mueller has spent enough time and has enough information to finalize his work. But it was the release of one specific bit of material — the so-called “smoking gun” recording in which Nixon was heard instructing an aide on how to kill the break-in investigation — in August that immediately led to his resignation.
At the time of his speech, Nixon’s political fate was already all but sealed. His approval rating was 28 percent, according to Gallup, and even among members of his own party had fallen below 60 percent.
Trump is in a better position now than Nixon was then, which is certainly an example of damning with faint praise. Trump’s approval ratings over the course of his presidency have been consistent — but generally near or below 40 percent in Gallup’s polling. Among Republicans, however, his approval has stayed well above 80 percent.
The Watergate break-in was part of a wide-ranging scheme deployed by Nixon and his aides to run up the score in 1972. The investigations into Trump are similarly about actions that took place during his candidacy. Trump has a disadvantage that Nixon didn’t, though: a reelection bid that’s now less than two years out. He also has a new Democratic majority in the House that’s champing at the bit to conduct investigations into Trump far more robust than those led by Republicans during his first two years.
Which is to say that no one is likely to be persuaded by Trump’s plea for the Democrats to keep their powder dry. The one advantage that Trump may have over Nixon is innocence. May; that’s the point of the investigations.
In January 1974, it wasn’t clear just how much guilt Nixon bore, either.