[Vision2020] Politico 5-9-17 "Trump pulls from Nixon's playbook"

Ted Moffett starbliss at gmail.com
Tue May 9 22:31:29 PDT 2017


Trump pulls from Nixon's playbook

The president is the first since Watergate to fire an official in the
middle of investigating potential misconduct by his own campaign.

By Todd S. Purdum <http://www.politico.com/staff/todd-s-purdum>

05/09/17 09:30 PM EDT

On the evening of Saturday October 20, 1973, Federal Judge John Sirica sat
in front of his television set watching FBI agents seal off the office of
the Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox, who had just been fired at
the command of the Nixon White House. The scene reminded him of a banana
republic coup. “What the hell is this crowd doing?” he asked.

It’s far too early to say whether President Donald Trump’s firing of FBI
Director James Comey
will have the same dire consequences for his political future as Richard
Nixon’s dismissal of Cox did for his. But not since that “Saturday Night
Massacre” more than 40 years ago has a sitting president dared to fire an
official in the middle of investigating potential misconduct by his own
campaign. The risks of doing so are enormous.

“If President Trump thought the Russian hacking investigation would just go
away, his decision today has insured that it won’t,” said presidential
historian Timothy Naftali. “It’s going to make getting rid of those
allegations so much harder. There’s now a cloud of doubt.”

This is not the first time a president has fired the FBI director. Bill
Clinton sacked William Sessions in 1993 amid allegations of alleged ethical
misconduct – Sessions had used an FBI plane to visit his daughter, and had
a home security system installed at government expense. But it is the first
time a president has fired an FBI director who was probing possible
misconduct by his own campaign aides or advisers – and on the
recommendation of an attorney general who had already recused himself from
the same investigation.

“It’s terrifying on so many levels,” said Michael Waldman, president of the
Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School and a former
chief speechwriter for Clinton. “This has every appearance of a cover-up, a
possible act of obstruction of justice, just as much as Nixon firing
Archibald Cox. That’s the only comparable historical precedent I can think

Trump’s rationale for the firing – just days before Comey was to appear
before the Senate intelligence committee -- was not entirely clear. Last
fall, on the eve of the election, Trump praised Comey’s re-opening of his
investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server as
secretary of state. But a memo from Deputy Attorney General Rod J.
Rosenstein laid out a bill of particulars faulting Comey’s handling of the
Clinton investigation – both his initial decision to clear her, and his
subsequent announcement that he was revisiting the issue.

In his own letter to Comey, Trump muddied the issue further by saying he
greatly appreciated Comey’s having informed him, “on three separate
occasions,” that the president himself was not under investigation, then
adding that he concurred with the Department of Justice “that you are not
able to effectively lead the bureau."

That seemed to echo Nixon’s self-serving insistence to his Attorney General
Elliot Richardson that Cox should be fired in “the national interest.”
Richardson and his deputy, William Ruckelshaus, both declined to dismiss
Cox before Solicitor General Robert Bork eventually carried out Nixon’s
order. “Mr. President,” Richardson told Nixon, “it would seem we have a
differing view of the national interest.”

“It’s very Nixonian, in its own way,” said Nixon’s former White House
counsel John Dean, speaking of Trump’s move. “But that’s typical of the
man. They’re obviously trying the get the bureau back under the Department
of Justice’s control. But I don’t think it’ll affect the Russia
investigation. You’ve got too many career people, and the
counter-intelligence division – the cream of the crop – that will not take
lightly to being messed with.”

Indeed, while the Democratic minority in Congress lacks subpoena power,
there are any number of built-in institutional forces – including the FBI,
the intelligence establishment and career prosecutors and lawyers scattered
across the government that will all but assure the issue will not die –
especially given how many of them will regard Trump’s motives as suspect on
their face.

“The rationale is transparently absurd,” Waldman said. “Does anyone
actually believe that Trump fired Comey because Comey was unfair to Hillary
Clinton during the campaign?”

A major question now is how Republicans on Capitol Hill will react to the
firing. Already, some Democrats have called for the appointment of a
special prosecutor
to continue the investigation into whether anyone in the Trump campaign
colluded with Russian interests to help sway the outcome of last November’s
election. At least one top Republican, Senator Charles Grassley, chairman
of the judiciary committee, supported the firing.

Forty-five years ago, Nixon’s resistance to cooperating with the legal
processes of the Watergate investigation helped turn the tide against him –
even among some Republicans – and his last shreds of support collapsed in
the face of taped evidence of his own involvement in the cover-up of the
break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters. It is far from
certain in the hyper-partisan climate of today’s Washington that Trump’s
fellow Republicans will be anywhere near so inclined to break ranks,
despite the extraordinary nature of the Comey firing.

Then, too, there is the issue of whom Trump might nominate to succeed
Comey. Who would take the job in such a moment, and who could possibly be
confirmed by the Senate? If Comey’s decision to make public statements
about the Clinton case, even at the risk of influencing the outcome of the
election, was a break with the non-partisan reputation that the FBI has
worked hard to build up in the four decades since Watergate, Trump’s firing
of the director landed as an even bigger blow to that status.

And Trump would do well to remember another lesson from the Nixon years. In
the wake of Cox’s firing, the president’s men recommended the appointment
of a new special prosecutor, a Texan who had been a “Democrat for Nixon.”
His name was Leon Jaworski, and barely six weeks after his appointment, he
secretly told the White House chief of staff Alexander Haig that Nixon had
better hire a criminal lawyer. The reason: He had by then heard the tape of
John Dean’s March 21, 1973 conversation with Nixon, in which the lawyer
told the president that there was a “cancer” on the presidency and they
discussed how to cover it up.


Vision2020 Post: Ted Moffett
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