Forty-six years ago on Aug. 8, Richard Nixon announced his intention to resign the presidency.
Although reelected in a 1972 landslide vote, Nixon’s crimes, including his involvement in a conspiracy to obstruct justice, were exposed by a combination of investigative efforts by the media, Congress and Special Prosecutors Archibald Cox and Leon Jaworski. Indeed, the Watergate grand jury had named Nixon as an unindicted co-conspirator. As the evidentiary noose tightened, including audio tapes demanded by the special prosecutor and ordered released by the judiciary — up to and including a unanimous Supreme Court — Nixon faced the prospect of impeachment by the House and bipartisan conviction by the Senate. He chose resignation. At the end of the day, notwithstanding his proclivities toward criminal and authoritarian behavior, Nixon was found to have a deep sense of shame.
This is in stark contrast to Donald Trump. His dodgy and imperious behavior has exceeded Nixon’s in a variety of ways, yet there is no suggestion that there is anything that can shame him. Indeed, Trump appears to be a man without the capacity for shame.
Both Nixon and Trump received Supreme Court smackdowns for their claims to be above the law. Both viewed the media as their enemy. Both claimed to be victims of prosecutorial and congressional witch hunts. Both sought to buy the loyalty of witnesses to their misdeeds with promises of pardons and executive clemency – Nixon secretly, Trump openly and brazenly. Both offered hush money to quiet witnesses against them. Both acted to dismiss duly appointed prosecutors and investigators who refused to do their bidding. Nixon lied about his knowledge of and participation in the Watergate cover-up; Trump lies about everything. But the two presidents differed in significant ways.
Nixon served honorably in wartime. Trump couldn’t remember whether it was his left or right foot that got him a deferment. Nixon had a strong Quaker upbringing, and was a top academic performer. Trump was sent away to military school — the alternative to reform school for wayward rich kids from Queens.
By every objective standard, Nixon was extraordinarily well-prepared to assume the presidency through experience as a congressman, senator and vice president. Trump is by far the least-prepared person in modern times to hold our highest office. Not only has Trump demonstrated stunning ignorance and disdain for how our government and constitutional safeguards are designed to function, he has stubbornly refused to accept on-the-job education. Nixon was a prolific reader and author; Trump watches cable TV.
This brings us to character, the place where comparisons between Nixon and Trump become more interesting. Despite his many accomplishments, it was Nixon’s character flaws — particularly his obsessive need to retaliate against his enemies, real and imagined — that brought him down. Unfortunately, Nixon surrounded himself with enablers who found advancement within the White House by catering to Nixon’s dark side, rather than wise men (or women) who might have served to temper his self-destructive impulses.
Trump’s character and temperament provide scant basis for favorable comparison with Nixon. A reflexive and impulsive bully, equally ungracious in victory and defeat, disrespectful and quick to anger, full of braggadocio. Trump’s manufactured legend of business genius is belied by six filings for corporate bankruptcy. For all his casual and unapologetic indifference to the truth, and his refusal to accept the norms of presidential behavior, like making his tax returns public, recognizing the independence of the judicial branch and the critical importance of congressional oversight in checking the power of the presidency, Trump surpasses Nixon.
Trump also exceeds Nixon’s penchant for surrounding himself with toadies. While Nixon had Attorney General John Mitchell to implement the dog whistle of his Southern strategy and tout a cynical program of law and order while greenlighting the preposterously criminal Watergate caper, Trump at first was stymied by the FBI director (James Comey) and the attorney general (Jeff Sessions). “Where’s my Roy Cohn?” the president wailed about the scabrous thrice indicted and ultimately disbarred enabler of red-baiting Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Cohn was also a beloved mentor to the young Trump, schooling him in the ways of his world, to lie, manipulate and evade — to do anything to “win.”
Trump has found his Roy Cohn in Attorney General William Barr, who has used his high office to enable Trump to avoid compliance with congressional oversight, and to remove prosecutors deemed dangerously independent and inspectors general too good at their jobs. Barr’s egregious mischaracterization of the Mueller report and cynical efforts to undo the work of his former colleague are a preview of the lengths he will go to protect Trump. Compared to Elliot Richardson, an attorney general who put the nation’s welfare above loyalty to the corrupt and out-of-control president who appointed him, Barr will be judged harshly by history.
We must prepare for the final machinations of a shameless president and his cunning accomplices whose struggle to cling to power may know no constraints. Whatever may happen in October – it should be no surprise.
Richard Ben-Veniste is an attorney in Washington. He was chief of the Watergate task force of the special prosecutor’s office and was a member of the 9/11 Commission.