When President Donald J. Trump fired FBI director James Comey last week, the emerging scandal around his presidency immediately brought Watergate to mind.
Numerous commentators noted the similarities to a series of events during Richard Nixon’s 1973 effort to cover up Watergate. Nixon decided to fire the special prosecutor — Archibald Cox — investigating the Democratic National Committee break-in. U.S. Attorney General Elliot Richardson and U.S. Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus refused to follow Nixon’s order. Instead, they resigned.
Finally, U.S. Solicitor General Robert Bork agreed to fire Cox, who at the time was attempting to obtain secret White House tape recordings. Aghast at this blatant violation of procedure and the public trust, other appointees across the Nixon administration resigned in protest. The whole incident — known as the Saturday Night Massacre — proved to be a turning point in the Watergate scandal.
Beginning of the end for Nixon
Nixon’s abuse of executive power over that crucial weekend in October 1973 signaled the beginning of the end of his presidency. His bald-faced effort to halt the investigation stemming from the Watergate burglary backfired. Many in the press and in Congress declared the act as an attempt by the President to position himself beyond the law. As a result, the political winds shifted. Many of Nixon’s fellow Republicans decided that their own political futures might be cut short by the president’s unprecedented actions. Nine months later, facing articles of impeachment, Nixon resigned.
It’s easy to see why comparisons between the firing of Comey and the Saturday Night Massacre hold great appeal. Both moments involved controversial presidents in divisive times. Both moments offered drama. Both moments offered departures from accepted practice. Both moments increased suspicion that executive wrongdoing occurred. Both moments shook the political establishment to the core.
But emphasizing the similarities between the two events feeds many people’s wish to see this moment as a turning point, as the beginning of the end for Trump. It may not be. The vocal protest of Comey’s firing largely — though not entirely — fell along familiar partisan lines. By nearly any measure, the Republican Party is not yet ready to turn on their president. Neither are many Americans who voted for Trump. Nor is there yet a special prosecutor — legally independent from any political interference by any party — investigating the Trump administration.
Profound questions about foreign influence
To be sure, Comey’s firing might yet backfire. But the most important thing the comparison between the Comey firing and Watergate tells us is that the stakes are much higher today. The Watergate scandal emerged from an attempt by the president to cover up his administration’s connections to a botched partisan burglary. Nixon’s attempt to cover up the wrongdoing proved to be worse than the original crime.
In contrast, the emerging scandal surrounding Trump raises profound questions about foreign influence in our executive branch. Paid foreign agents not only helped elect a president, but operated in the highest levels of government. Michael Flynn’s stint as the president’s national security adviser — despite repeated warnings by the nation’s top law enforcement and intelligence officials about the ways in which he had been compromised — suggests the presence of a grave threat to the republic itself. Recent allegations that President Trump shared highly classified information with top Russian officials raise the stakes even higher.
When combined with the Trump administration’s recent moves to engage in nothing less than widespread voter suppression, one wonders if our nation’s legislative branch — either through committee-led investigations or a sweeping 2018 election realignment that brings Democrats to power in Congress — can do much about it. In a hyperpartisan moment shot through with short-term thinking, it is hard to imagine what it might take for Republicans to abandon Trump.
History’s echoes are no guide
History never repeats itself. Do not mistake history’s echoes for a guide as to what will happen.
This is not a constitutional crisis. It is a crisis of republican government. We cannot depend on Congress, or investigative journalists, to save us. Only vigilance, patriotism, and dedication to the nation’s democratic aspirations by “we the people” will ensure that the United States, as we know it, survives.
WANT TO ADD YOUR VOICE?
If you’re interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, see our Submission Guidelines.)