Now that Donald Trump Jr.’s emails reveal that the Trump campaign welcomed election interference by the Russians (“I love it,” Junior enthused at the promise of receiving intel on candidate Hillary Clinton from a Kremlin-linked source), it might be a good time to turn the spotlight back to President Donald Trump and whether his actions since becoming president constitute obstruction of justice.
History does not necessarily repeat itself, but sometimes it smells the same. And once again, Watergate provides a useful yardstick for measuring Trump’s Russia-gate. A review of how events unfolded over the two years of disclosures during the Watergate probe suggests a pattern: President Richard Nixon was involved in a cover-up to protect people close to him, not necessarily himself. It’s very possible that a similar story is unfolding today—that Trump’s undoing isn’t direct involvement in Kremlin-backed election interference, but rather obstrution of justice to protect both his son and his son-in-law for their role in the Russia scandal.
Let’s start with this simple fact: There is no evidence that Nixon knew about the Watergate break-in before it happened. All these years, tapes and Congressional investigations later, nothing has emerged to prove that Nixon had advance knowledge of the Watergate operation against the Democrats that was being run by Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt.
But Nixon’s good friend and former attorney general, John Mitchell, did have his fingerprints all over the Watergate operation, without question. The evidence is overwhelming that Mitchell, as the head of the Campaign to Re-Elect the President (known as “CREEP” to many) in 1972, approved the plans of Liddy and Hunt. And when Nixon found out about the break-in, he guessed as much.
It’s important to understand the nature of Nixon’s relationship with Mitchell to comprehend the president’s actions. The two were law partners in New York City after Nixon lost the governorship of California to Pat Brown, famously telling the press that he was done with politics. “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore,” he said, “because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference.”
But it wasn’t Nixon’s last press conference—largely thanks to Mitchell, who became one of the steadying forces that assisted the embittered Nixon in his journey back to public life. As a lawyer with a national bond practice (to finance public housing and other projects), Mitchell knew a lot of politicians across the country. These connections and Mitchell’s stone-faced authoritarian manner made him a logical choice for Nixon’s campaign director in 1968.
Nixon believed he would never have won the presidency without Mitchell’s guiding hand. He insisted that Mitchell take the attorney general job during his first term and then asked him to chair his reelection campaign in March 1972, just in time for the former attorney general to approve harebrained schemes of Liddy and Hunt.
In the week after the Watergate break-in, Oval Office tapes show that Nixon fretted most about whether Mitchell had been involved and what it might mean to him personally if he was implicated. Mitchell had his hands full with his mercurial spouse, Martha, who was threatening suicide if he remained in politics (ironically enough, they lived in the swanky apartments in the Watergate complex, and she told her husband that she intended to throw herself off a Watergate balcony in her manic moments).
In taped conversations with his Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman, Nixon kept coming back to the same question: Was Mitchell involved? At one point in a conversation on June 21, 1972, Nixon’s second day back in the White House after the break-in, Haldeman and Nixon considered telling the truth and letting Liddy and Hunt come forward to plead guilty to the “third-rate burglary,” reasoning that as first offenders they probably would get suspended sentences.
Nixon observed that he was inclined to go with full disclosure because, as he said, “if that’s the truth, the truth you always figure may come out, and you’re a hell of a lot better doing that than to build another tissue around the God-damn thing.”
But then he backtracked. “Let me say this,” he said to Haldeman, “if it involved Mitchell, then I would think you couldn’t do it, just because it would destroy him, you know.” He then mused that Mitchell “probably knew” about the operation, but cautioned Haldeman not to tell him about it, allowing him to have “plausible deniability,” a term that came into vogue at the White House during the Watergate scandal.
This conversation and several like it took place just before Nixon agreed to a scheme to shut down the FBI investigation into Watergate. The tape of that meeting, dated June 23, 1972, became known as the “smoking gun” tape and played a crucial role in forcing Nixon’s resignation.
The story of Nixon and Mitchell casts Trump’s actions in connection with the Russian investigation in a new light: The president may not have known directly about details of the proposed Russian interference, but he likely knew that his son and son-in-law met with individuals who had Russian connections, and thus that they would be in jeopardy if the FBI continued to dig. By this logic, it is not hard to conceive that Trump’s string of startling and obstructive decisions—asking FBI Director James Comey to discontinue the Flynn investigation, firing Comey when the Russia investigation seemed to be expanding and asking the country to move on rather than sanctioning Russia—have been to protect his children.
Nixon did not have to lose his presidency over the bungled break-in. But his personal concern for his close friend was probably the main reason he became enmeshed in a career-ending cover-up that he had no rational hope of controlling. Think of how much easier it would be to fall into that trap with the reputations of one’s own children on the line.
In the end though, as Nixon said, the truth has a way of coming out. Now, we simply await the next shoes to drop.