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Trump's troubles remind us of Watergate, for good reason

President Nixon tells a White House news conference

President Nixon tells a White House news conference that he will not allow his legal counsel, John Dean, to testify on Capitol Hill in the Watergate investigation, on March 15, 1973 Credit: AP/CHARLES TASNADI

“Something Daddy said makes me feel absolutely hopeless about the outcome. He has … repeatedly stated that the tapes can be taken either way. He has cautioned us that there is nothing damaging on the tapes; he has cautioned us that he might be impeached because of their content. Because he has said the latter, knowing Daddy, the latter is the way he really feels,” Tricia Nixon confided to her diary, according to John Farrell’s biography “Richard Nixon: The Life,” as the Watergate scandal overwhelmed her father’s presidency.

Richard Nixon knew. He knew that he had been at the center of a cover-up of the June 17, 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters by burglars recruited by his re-election campaign. Six days after the thwarted attempt to bug a couple of DNC phones, Nixon directed his minions to use the CIA to block an FBI investigation of the crime. The Oval Office tape recording system captured his attempt to obstruct justice.

For two excruciating years, Nixon insisted he had known nothing of the crime and its immediate aftermath. Nixon was an experienced brawler on the national stage. He knew his campaign’s criminal enterprise would destroy him if exposed. So the 37th president lied, lied, and lied some more. Nixon lied to his family, his lawyers, his supporters and the American people. He resigned a few days after the Supreme Court ruled 8-0 that he must hand over the smoking gun of a recording.

The Watergate ordeal and the impeachment of Bill Clinton a quarter-century later feature common elements that we are seeing again as an impeachment inquiry commences into Donald Trump’s conduct. The truth could take a merciless beating from the president and his supporters as they minimize transgressions against democratic norms, spewing spittle as they rant. Trump’s detractors will try to magnify the significance of evidence and revelations when they need not.

There will be plenty of revelations. What we know now is damning on its own. In a July 25 phone call intended to congratulate Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on his election victory, Trump segued from a discussion of American military aid for Ukraine to “I need you to do us a favor, though” and pressed Zelenskiy to investigate political rival former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden’s Ukrainian business dealings.

Recording White House calls fell out of favor during Watergate, but the extended summary is bad enough. A president using foreign aid to induce the recipient to destroy a political rival is an abuse of office and reason to begin an impeachment inquiry. A few days ago, we learned that Secretary of State Michael Pompeo was one of the officials included on the call. Like Nixon, Trump lives in a world crowded with his own grievances, seeing enemies wherever he looks. He heaped abuse on the whistleblower whose complaint set this public controversy in motion when it became public. On Tuesday, Trump was bleating about a coup, convening once more his festival of conspiracies.

Watergate started as a “third-rate burglary,” according to Nixon’s allies, and ended with his resignation as impeachment approached. Nixon’s attempts to interfere with the investigation failed. When he fired the special prosecutor seeking the Oval Office tapes on a Saturday night in October 1973, Nixon’s demise became inevitable.

The call to Ukraine was probably not the first time Trump misused his office. If turnover in his administration is an indicator, the New York real estate developer has alienated many in his orbit. Following the example of the brave whistleblower and his or her sources, it’s likely that more testimony will add to congressional and public knowledge of Trump’s dangerous connivances during the past 32 months. Presidents rarely act alone and never without witnesses. One obvious Trump blunder was enlisting former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani as a servant to conduct a rogue foreign policy. Giuliani continues to humiliate himself and wound his master with bizarre, shouty cable television appearances he finds irresistible.

It will grow worse. If the House impeaches Trump, the Senate will require 67 votes to remove him from office. That will seem unlikely — until it suddenly may not. Tomorrow, or next month, we will learn more. What we discover will damage Trump and dismay serious people — including the firewall of nervous Senate Republicans.

Kevin Rennie is a lawyer and a former Republican state legislator. He wrote this for the Hartford Courant.