US President Donald Trump’s firing of FBI director James Comey is unprecedented, as is much of what Trump has undertaken as president. Despite similarities with former US president Richard Nixon’s infamous Saturday Night Massacre 44 years ago, during the Watergate scandal, the political situations are utterly different.
In October 1973, Nixon, waiting until a weekend, ordered the dismissal of a newly appointed special prosecutor, Archibald Cox, who had issued a subpoena demanding that Nixon hand over secretly recorded — and, as would become clear, highly damning — White House tapes.
Nixon’s defiance was direct and the result was disastrous. Then-US attorney general Elliot Richardson and then-deputy US attorney general William Ruckelshaus resigned in protest rather than carry out the president’s order. A federal judge ruled the firing of Cox illegal. Public opinion polls showed, for the first time, a plurality of Americans favoring Nixon’s impeachment.
It was the beginning of the end. US Congress members introduced impeachment resolutions. Nixon was forced to appoint a new special prosecutor. The drama thickened for another 10 months, until the US Supreme Court unanimously ordered Nixon to surrender the tapes. A few days after that, Nixon resigned rather than face certain impeachment and removal from office.
By contrast, unless the stars realign, Trump’s firing of Comey might mark the beginning of nothing, or at least of nothing bad for the president. Trump, like Nixon, might well be guilty of grave impeachable offenses — even graver offenses than Nixon’s. Trump, like Nixon, might have feared that unless he fired the person in charge of investigating him, some terrible revelation would be forthcoming. However, even if all this is so, Trump, unlike Nixon, might very well get away with it.
The two events differ in many ways, including their timing. By the time Nixon fired Cox, the Watergate affair had been building for far longer than the allegations about Trump and Russia have, so nerves had been rubbed raw.
However, the main differences are political. In Nixon’s time, there were solid adversarial Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, and there were also some Republicans, especially in the US Senate, who put concerns about the US constitution ahead of concerns for their party.
The Senate appointed a special select committee, headed by then-Democratic senator Sam Ervin and then-Republican senator Howard Baker, which heard testimony and gathered official evidence that led to the indictment of 40 administration officials and the conviction of several top White House aides, as well as to Nixon’s resignation.
However, the present Republican congressional majorities have seemed singularly devoted to slowing and narrowing any serious inquiry into the thoroughly substantiated reports of Russian efforts to throw last year’s US presidential election to Trump.
Although there has been talk, even from some Republicans, about appointing a select committee or a special prosecutor to look into the allegations about the Russians and the Trump campaign, the resistance has been extraordinary compared with 1973.
Based on the events of the last week, Republicans evidently would rather rail against insider leaks and former US secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton’s e-mail server, than inquire into the White House’s insouciance about former US National Security adviser Michael Flynn’s alarming links to Russia and Turkey.
Without a significant shift, the congressional investigations will continue to remain confined to the standing US House of Representatives and Senate committees, where they would likely remain understaffed and under motivated.
Then there is the media. In 1973, dogged reporting by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward of the Washington Post kept the Watergate story alive, after most news outlets had dropped it. Once their reporting gained traction, the rest of the media picked up the scandal and kept up the pressure on the Nixon White House. Today, Trump can count on the fervent support of propaganda operations that Nixon could only have prayed for, including the unabashedly polemical Fox News and Breitbart News, as well as countless bloggers — and for that matter, Russian-controlled cyberbots — pumping out pro-Trump propaganda.
As I write this, one Fox commentator after another is parroting the White House’s absurd claim that Trump fired Comey because of the terrible things the FBI director did to Clinton during the campaign. One almost expects the network’s biggest star, Sean Hannity, to start leading on-air chants against Comey of “lock him up.”
The effect on anyone who recalls Trump’s cheerleading for Comey in October last year — followed by the red-hatted crowds’ ritualistic baying to jail “crooked Hillary” — is psychedelic.
However, fans of Fox News usually believe what the channel reports. In addition, while Nixon had Fox News’ future Svengali, a young Roger Ailes, behind him, Fox and the rest were still two decades away.
It is possible, of course, that Trump’s firing of Comey might push some Republicans to decide that enough is enough and follow Baker’s example. The early responses have been mixed: Although Republican senators Jeff Flake, John McCain and Ben Sasse have expressed varying degrees of disappointment, normally independent-minded senators Susan Collins and Lindsey Graham have backed Trump’s decision.
There is always a chance, in such a volatile climate, that deals might be broken, witnesses might flip and facts emerge that are every bit as incriminating as the evidence that felled Nixon.
International developments might also awaken some Republicans to the magnitude of the Russian offensive on Western democracies, an offensive which, in the wake of the French elections, feels like an undeclared war.
For the moment, though, there is no reason to see Trump’s firing of Comey as a rerun of Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre or any other event in US political history. Trump might be acting as if he has something terrible to hide, just as Nixon did, but that would not be enough under the circumstances to cause the exposure of whatever it might be.
Ironically, Trump, the self-declared outsider who lost the popular vote and squeaked into office by winning the Electoral College, finds himself, for the moment, in some ways more protected than the party man Nixon, who won the 1972 election by overwhelming popular, as well as electoral margins.
It might be unsettling to acknowledge, but history is not repeating itself, no matter how tragic or farcical things might appear. Trump might yet fall, but a lot would have to change.
Sean Wilentz is a professor of history at Princeton University.
Copyright: Project syndicate
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