President Trump Is Adopting Richard Nixon’s Defense Strategy

No president has loomed as large over Donald Trump as Richard Nixon. Since he launched his campaign, when Trump appealed to his own Silent Majority through calls for law and order along the borders and in the cities, the comparisons have never stopped. As the congressional and Justice Department investigations into the Trump campaign and administration’s dealings with Russia have unfolded, the comparisons with Watergate have been front and center. Some of the comparisons have been useful, pointing to relevant precedent, while others have been off the mark.

But now that Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation is entering a new and more intense phase, as the prosecutor and his team seem to be circling closer to the president himself, one thing is clear—President Trump is drawing directly from Richard Nixon’s playbook as he mounts a three-pronged strategy to fight the investigation.

Claiming that the president can’t actually obstruct justice, an argument that emanated from the White House this weekend, stems directly from Richard Nixon’s famous comment to television interviewer David Frost in 1977. “When the president does it, that means it’s not illegal,” Nixon said. The comment shocked many Americans who were surprised to hear such a brazen defense of executive prerogative from the disgraced president, but the comment reflected how he had actually perceived his authority while in the Oval Office. As Watergate unfolded, the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel had concluded that a president could not be indicted or criminally prosecuted. Nor did Nixon respect the power of a special prosecutor.

Whereas much of the nation was outraged in October 1973 when the president moved to have Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox fired, Nixon believed that he had the authority to make whatever decisions were necessary involving executive-branch appointments. In a letter to Robert Bork, who was the only person willing to carry out the order, he accused Cox of refusing to comply with his orders and said: “Clearly the government of the United States cannot function if employees of the executive branch are free to ignore in this fashion the instructions of the president.” Invoking executive privilege, he refused to turn over White House recordings to Congress or the Special Prosecutor Leon Jaworski, warning that doing so would “set a precedent that would cripple all future presidents by inhibiting conversations,” until the Supreme Court forced his hand in July of 1974.

His expansive views of the presidency went far beyond the investigation. Before the nation ever heard the term Watergate, the president had aggressively flexed his presidential muscle when he impounded funds appropriated by Congress—refusing to spend the money—and conducted a secret war in Cambodia. President Trump is trying to claim the same kind of complete, unaccountable presidential power, and will depend on this claim in the coming months as he faces heightened scrutiny.

 

No president has loomed as large over Donald Trump as Richard Nixon. Since he launched his campaign, when Trump appealed to his own Silent Majority through calls for law and order along the borders and in the cities, the comparisons have never stopped. As the congressional and Justice Department investigations into the Trump campaign and administration’s dealings with Russia have unfolded, the comparisons with Watergate have been front and center. Some of the comparisons have been useful, pointing to relevant precedent, while others have been off the mark.

 

 

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