Yet another Oval Office conversation was delving into yet another president’s determined wish to shut down yet another FBI investigation that had gotten way too close.
But this was 2017, not 1972.
And the art of this deal was cutting out middle men entirely. This time, the artful deal-master, President Donald Trump, chose to do all the deal-making himself.
And that is one big difference between the stunning, detailed revelations fired FBI Director James Comey made regarding his one-on-one conversations with President Donald Trump and the famously named “smoking gun” Oval Office conversation that was the unmaking of the 37th president, Richard M. Nixon.
It was 45 years ago this month that Nixon and his chief of staff, H.R. “Bob” Haldeman, plotted to get the CIA to tell the FBI to halt its investigation of the Watergate break-in and bugging by falsely claiming it would blow the cover on a national security secret. In contrast, according to Comey’s account, Trump chose to personally make repeated appeals to get the then-FBI chief to end his probe of Trump’s former national security advisor, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn. And kept prodding Comey to say publicly that Trump was not a target of any FBI investigation.
But, of course, there is one other huge difference between Comey’s disclosures and the “smoking gun” revelations. Those Nixon exchanges were called smoking because we all could hear them ourselves. Nixon’s cover-up was recorded for posterity by the president’s own automatic taping system.
On June 23, 1972, midway through a re-election campaign Nixon was leading by a wide margin, Haldeman had walked into the Oval Office and broke some bad news. And two years later, we eavesdropped with outrage as Haldeman told his boss: “Now, on the investigation, you know, the Democratic break-in thing, we’re back to the problem area because the FBI is not under control.”
The FBI had just traced money that was paid to the Cuban-American Watergate burglars, who had been caught in the act. They were paid, in part, with a $25,000 check that had been donated to Nixon’s re-election campaign.
“The way to handle this now,” Haldeman said, “is for us to have (CIA Deputy Director Vernon) Walters call (FBI Director) Pat Gray and just say, ‘Stay the hell out of this. We don’t want you to go any further on it.’
“Good, good deal!” Nixon said at the end of their discussion. “Good deal! Play it tough.” Later, Nixon elaborated: “When you get these people in, say: ‘Look, the problem is that this will open the whole, the whole Bay of Pigs thing.’ ”
Comey has no audio tapes to play for us but he brings to cringe-worthy reality his accounts of a series of meetings in which Trump tried to co-opt him. He recounts a painfully awkward dinner, just the two men alone at a table in the White House mansion’s Green Room.
Comey says Trump seemed to be engaged in “an effort to have me ask for my job and create some sort of patronage relationship.” At one point, Comey wrote, “the President said, ‘I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.’ I didn’t move, speak, or change my facial expression in any way during the awkward silence that followed. We simply looked at each other in silence.”
On Feb. 14, after a counterterrorism briefing of the president attended by six top officials, Trump excused all of them but asked Comey to remain. “I want to talk about Mike Flynn,” Trump began when the others had left. “He then said, ‘I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.’ I replied only that ‘he is a good guy.’ ”
Comey recounts Trump’s repeated efforts to get the FBI to make public the fact that he is not personally under investigation. Comey, in effect, kept passing that buck up to the acting deputy attorney general to decide. No doubt that infuriated Trump.
If Comey’s account proves accurate, Trump’s efforts to get the Flynn investigation halted could possibly be considered an effort to obstruct justice. But since he always couched it in terms of human compassion, and never issued a direct order, that obstruction finding is far from certain.
Nixon was undone by his own smoking gun. Trump must now try to coexist with the reality of Comey’s smoldering (but not smoking) memo. It promises to be, at the very best, a coexistence as chilly and unsettling as his bizarre dinner in the Green Room.
Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive.