Home > Uncategorized > Watergate Parallels – posted 10/21/2018

Watergate Parallels – posted 10/21/2018

It is common now to read stories comparing President Trump to President Nixon. Watergate is invariably invoked.

To assess the fairness of this comparison, I think we need clarity about what Watergate was. It was so much more than a petty burglary.

Watergate was an extensive campaign of political spying and dirty tricks cooked up by President Nixon and his subordinates. The image of Watergate that we have inherited is much less than the multi-dimensional criminal enterprise it actually was.

Even now, I don’t think that all the wrongdoing of President Nixon is fully appreciated. You often hear the cliche that the cover-up was worse than the crime but in the case of Watergate, the crime was actually massive.

What began as an effort to sabotage his political opposition in the 1972 presidential race, mushroomed. The effort included: forging letters and distributing them under Democratic Party candidates’ letterheads, leaking false and manufactured items to the press, hiring goon squads to beat up demonstrators and stealing confidential campaign files.

While the 1972 election was a blow-out, the scope of Nixon’s crimes raise questions about the election’s legitimacy. Nixon did not play by the rules.

The fateful break-in at the Watergate Hotel was about repairing a listening device that Nixon’s team had installed at the Democratic National Committee.

Nixon wanted to neutralize anyone he perceived as standing in his way politically. He was paranoid. His enemies list started with 20 names including the reporter, Daniel Schorr, and the actor, Paul Newman. According to John Dean, White House counsel, there was a second master enemies list of 576 people, many who were supporters of Senator George McGovern, Nixon’s 1972 presidential opponent.

Nixon had a plan to undermine his enemies by means of tax audits from the Internal Revenue Service. Misusing his executive power was part of his game plan.

With Nixon’s approval, Charles Colson, Nixon’s special counsel, assembled the Plumbers, an off-the-record black bag group, that operated directly out of the White House. The Plumbers included ex-CIA operative, Howard Hunt, and ex-FBI agent ,G. Gordon Liddy. They hired out a team of right wing Cuban exiles who had Bay of Pigs experience.

The crew, paid through a slush fund provided by the Committee to Re-Elect the President or CREEP, concocted a series of criminal plots, some of which got carried out. The Plumbers broke into the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist looking for dirt. Ellsberg had been the leaker/whistleblower of the Pentagon Papers.

Nixon despised Ellsberg who he saw as a traitor and wanted to destroy him. There was a Colson-designed further plan, never accomplished, to physically maim or kill Ellsberg on the steps of the Capitol during a demonstration on May 3, 1972.

Other plans under consideration for the Plumbers were breaking into or bombing the Brookings Institute, kidnapping anti-war leaders so they could not disrupt the upcoming Republican National Convention and hiring prostitutes to create compromising situations for Democratic leaders like Ted Kennedy.

Former Watergate special prosecutor Nick Akerman has said that the moment prosecutors knew Nixon was done as president was when they had him on tape discussing slush fund payment to silence Howard Hunt and the other Plumbers.

Although taxes was a background part of Watergate, it must be pointed out that Nixon was a tax cheat. He shortchanged the government in paying his federal income taxes in 1970-1972. He falsely backdated a deed to get the benefit of a huge tax break on donating his presidential papers. A change in federal tax law would have prevented Nixon from taking a deduction for the donation. The fake backdated deed made him able to write off the value of his presidential papers against his taxes.

Ironically, Nixon also installed his taping system into the White House to create a tax haven for himself. The law said he could still donate to the government the value of tape recordings. Nixon had an appraiser who would put any number he wanted on the value of the tapes. Nixon saw it as a huge tax deduction for the rest of his life.

This act of greed, in which Nixon hoped to realize a fortune, was the cause of his undoing. The tapes came back to haunt him.

In comparing Nixon and Trump, I would begin with greed, a quality shared by both men. Nixon cheated on his taxes. The New York Times has reported on Trump’s tax fraud and evasion in the 1990’s. Trump still refuses to release his federal tax returns. He has also refused to place his financial assets in a blind trust, using his brand and his hotels to line his own pockets.

Both presidents have treated the presidency like a business opportunity, placing private over public interest.

Both presidents were surrounded by men convicted of criminal offenses. In Watergate, over 30 Nixon associates did jail time. Trump’s list is shorter, so far. Only Robert Mueller knows the degree of criminality, including the President’s. Laughably, both presidents advertised themselves as “law and order” candidates.

Both presidencies have featured a break-in. We know that the Trump campaign benefited from the Russian election intervention with its digital break-in. Again, only Mueller knows the extent of the collaboration but the timing of email releases by Guccifer 2.0 points to coordinated effort as does the Russian micro-targeting of specific voters in specific states.

Both presidents engaged in obstruction of justice. Nixon carried out the Saturday Night Massacre. Trump fired former FBI Director James Comey, as he acknowledged, because of the Russia investigation and has threatened to fire Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Mueller. Trump also revoked the security clearance of numerous possible witnesses in the Russia investigation. These witnesses include John Brennan, Sally Yates, and James Clapper.

Both presidents have demonstrated disdain for the law and hatred for the press and the First Amendment. After Watergate, Nixon did an interview with David Frost in which he said, “If the president does it, that means that it is not illegal”. There can be little doubt Trump shares the same view. He has tweeted that he has an absolute right to pardon himself.

Interestingly, Trump is on record admiring Nixon. Trump publicized a fawning letter Nixon wrote him back in 1987 praising Trump’s performance on the Donahue TV show. Whether Trump suffers a Nixonian fate, we will see.

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