How Donald Trump Has Redefined Watergate

But the biggest differentiator? Trump fights, Nixon quit.

“He left. I don’t leave,” Trump said in early 2019. “Big difference. I don’t leave.”

The juxtaposition is striking to historians. “He compares himself to Nixon, but he does so with a guarded view of Nixon as a loser and Trump as a winner,” said Gerhardt. “Nixon gave up.”

To Trump, the Roy Cohn acolyte, giving up is anathema to his marketed personality. Can’t repay a loan? Countersue. Advisers telling you not to pull out the Iran nuclear deal? Do it anyway. Under pressure for touting hydroxychloroquine? Take it yourself.

Implicitly, however, Trump’s words also cast Nixon in a new light. Nixon is no longer a man whose corrupt behavior left him with no choice — resign or be fired. Instead, Trump frames Nixon as a man who prematurely walked off the battlefield.

“He’s trying to say, ‘Well Nixon just screwed up by getting caught,’” Dean said.

It’s an attitude, Gerhardt added, that pervades Trump’s entire team: “You can hear it in his lawyers’ arguments during the impeachment trial — and since.”

The consequence of a changing Watergate story

It’s been nearly five decades since the break-in at the Watergate that started it all.

The moment arguably seeded a shift in American culture. The short-term fall-out rattled society: a president resigned from office. The long-term fall-out reshaped America.

For years, post-Watergate cynicism instigated exhumations: How are elections financed? How do authorities spy on and investigate suspects? How does the government keep a check on its own malfeasance?

The answers, uncomfortable at times, spurred a “post-Watergate morality” era. Caps were placed on campaign contributions; limits were placed on government surveillance; transparency laws were strengthened; inspectors general were institutionalized; a new law codified how an independent counsel might investigate future presidents. Congress tried to rein in the president’s war powers and asserted its right to force the president to spend money it had approved.

“The greatest effect of Watergate was a string of reforms that gave more power to the Congress and took it away from what was seen to be a rampant executive,” said Farrell, Nixon’s biographer.

“You had this widespread feeling in the 1970s,” he added, “that really there was rot at the core of the apple.”

Elizabeth Holtzman, the New York Democrat who sat on the House Judiciary Committee during the Nixon impeachment investigation, authored a bill that formally established rules for appointing an independent counsel outside of the Justice Department.

“What we did in that legislation,” she said, “was to remove as much as we constitutionally could the attorney general from the prosecution, investigation of the president.”

Yoo and other conservatives saw a different outcome: a corruption of the traditional structure in which each branch — executive, legislative, judicial — checks the other branches. “Ambition would counteract ambition,” as Yoo said the founders intended.

In the decades since Watergate, many of the 1970s good-government statutes have been rolled back. The independent counsel statute expired in 1999. Court rulings eroded campaign financing restrictions. Surveillance soared after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Trump fired numerous inspectors general with no legal ramification. And when it came time to investigate Trump and his campaign, it was up to the attorney general to appoint a special counsel — exactly what Holtzman wanted to avoid.

“If you forget history, you pay a terrible price,” she said.

Inevitably, though, the years make Watergate’s lessons distant. The fault-lines become muddied. The story we tell ourselves is fuzzier. U.S. history textbooks are vague about the details.

“Watergate as the great right-and-wrong drama of one generation’s time I think has faded,” Farrell said.

And Trump can exploit that.

“Does our pretty primitive grasp of history allow manipulation of that history? Yes, it absolutely does,” said Michael Schudson, a Columbia Journalism School professor who wrote a 1992 book, “Watergate in American Memory.”

Trump, his lawyers and his supporters don’t even have to tell their own clear story about Watergate to have an impact. The insinuations that Nixon “may” have been guilty, or that Nixon only left office because he chose to quit, “injects this element of doubt,” said Matthew Dallek, the political historian, spurring suspicions “that there are conspiracies everywhere to take powerful people down.” That’s a narrative Trump eagerly flames when confronted with many allegations — from charges of sexual assault to criticism of his coronavirus response.

And if everything is “worse than Watergate,” Watergate becomes run-of-the-mill political intrigue, not the archetype of presidential corruption. It creates, Dallek said, “a kind of numbing effect.” A numbing effect Trump can use to normalize his own behavior, his critics argue.

“Truth doesn’t matter, what matters is the narrative,” Gerhardt said. “It’s much more important what people believe than what they know.”

A changing Watergate narrative creates opportunities. Opportunities for lawyers to challenge Watergate’s legal principles, as Trump’s lawyers have done, arguing the president doesn’t have to respond to subpoenas or submit to investigations. Opportunities for a president to morph already eroding post-Watergate norms, as Trump has done, attempting to bypass Congress on funding for a border wall, opining about DOJ cases involving his allies, authorizing the assassination of an Iranian commander without telling Congress.

And on and on and on.

The future Watergate story

Trump will not be president forever. His take on Watergate will recede.

Then what?

Those on the frontlines of Watergate insist the event has durability. Decades later, Nixon’s misdeeds are not factually in dispute, the loosening of post-Watergate oversight laws is not permanent, the famous court rulings of the era have been challenged but not completely upended.

If anything, they argue Trump’s time in office has spurred renewed interest in the kinds of anti-corruption laws that were passed after Watergate. They see a future that includes a resurgent Congress passing bills to prohibit some of Trump’s actions — punishing inspectors general, redirecting congressionally approved funds — the way a post-Watergate Congress moved to forbid some of Nixon’s behavior.

“He’s going to weaken the presidency,” Dean said, “not strengthen it.”

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