In his now-infamous Twitter accusation that President Barack Obama had ordered wiretaps placed on his telephones, President Donald Trump evoked President Richard Nixon and the Watergate scandal.
“How low has President Obama gone to tapp (sic) my phones during the very sacred election process,” Trump tweeted Saturday, without citing any evidence. “This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!”
Political analysts said the comparison was oddly apt – not since Nixon has the United States had a leader who believes so strongly that there is an orchestrated campaign to undermine his presidency. And the revelations over months about contacts between Russian officials and Trump advisers remind some of the slow beginnings of the Watergate scandal.
“For those of us who lived through Watergate, this feels very familiar,” said Elaine Kamarck, a former aide in the Clinton White House who’s now a Brookings Institution scholar who writes about the presidency. “There is just a familiarity to it, from the constant drip, drip of revelations to the paranoid style of the president himself.”
Since being sworn into office, Trump has been besieged by a series of leaks that have come out of the White House and various agencies.
The revelations led to the firing of his first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, and forced his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, to recuse himself from an investigation involving Russia’s alleged interference in the election.
The leaks have also raised uncomfortable questions about whether rogue elements in the U.S. government are working against a democratically elected administration they don’t agree with.
On Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said citizens should be outraged by the leaks of national security and classified information.
“This is the kind of disclosure that undermines our country, our security and our well-being,” Spicer said.
For those of us who lived through Watergate, this feels very familiar.
Elaine Kamarck, Brookings Institution
Kamarck, who was in graduate school during the Watergate scandal, sees its echoes in much of what is happening around Washington. Even the language has a Watergate ring.
On Sunday, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., raised one of the central themes of Watergate, a cover-up, while he discussed his role in a Senate Intelligence Committee investigation into Russian election meddling. “I’m not going to be party to a witch hunt,” Rubio said on NBC’s “Meet the Press. “But I’m not going to be party to a cover-up.”
Presidential scholars are already are drawing comparisons between Trump and Nixon, citing both men’s adversarial nature and provocative styles.
Nixon had a deep streak of paranoia and harbored resentment of the press and intellectuals. “Never forget, the press is the enemy, the press is the enemy,” Nixon told two of his most important advisers, Henry Kissinger and Alexander Haig, in a conversation on Dec. 14, 1972, one of many that were recorded and are now archived at the Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, California. “The establishment is the enemy, the professors are the enemy, the professors are the enemy. Write that on a blackboard 100 times.”
The comments sound strikingly similar to many made by Trump and his inner circle, particularly his chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, who has described the media as the “opposition party” and pushed the alternative narrative that there are government forces seeking to undermine the administration from within.
While speaking at last month’s Conservative Political Action Conference, Bannon spoke of Trump’s focus on the “deconstruction of the administrative state.’’
“If you look at these Cabinet appointees, they were selected for a reason and that is the deconstruction,” Bannon said. “The way the progressive left runs is if they can’t get it passed, they’re just gonna put in some sort of regulation.”
Trump’s own anger over leaks has led him to boil over on Twitter. On Feb. 24, two weeks after calling leaks “disgraceful,” Trump lashed out at the FBI.
“The FBI is totally unable to stop the national security ‘leakers’ that have permeated our government for a long time,” Trump wrote in one tweet. He continued in another: “They can’t even find the leakers within the FBI itself. Classified information is being given to media that could have a devastating effect on U.S. FIND NOW.”
Nixon, too, had his battles with leaks, from the revelation of the Pentagon Papers, a massive Defense Department study of how the U.S. government secretly enlarged the scale of the Vietnam War, to the steady drip from the FBI official known as “Deep Throat” that fed Washington Post reporting that eventually led to Nixon’s impeachment and resignation.
Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker who is an informal adviser to Trump, dismissed any comparisons between the presidents. But just as Nixon believed he was battling the “establishment” at every turn, Gingrich noted that Trump opponents permeate federal departments and agencies. Like others, he’s embraced the phrase “deep state” to refer to the entrenched forces in the bureaucracy that use slow-roll tactics to block policies they don’t like.
“It is real. For Trump to succeed, he will have to take on the deep state,” Gingrich said.
Opposition is so intense that some public officials “feel they are empowered to break the law” in throwing up roadblocks to Trump policies, Gingrich said.
“Trump promised to drain the swamp, and the alligators are fighting back,” he added.
The concept of a shadowy network of high-ranking officials who secretly conspire to direct government policy is more used often to describe countries like Egypt and Turkey than the United States and officials who’ve worked in the Middle East question the comparison. They point out that Turkey and Egypt simply don’t have the strong civilian institutions and well-developed faith in the rule of law that are present in the United States.
“There just aren’t the levers there for Trump, whatever he intends, to pull to create a deep state or, conversely, for someone to pull to create a deep state against him,” said Ryan Crocker, who served as U.S. ambassador in a broad range of countries where the deep state is often discussed, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and Syria.
While he said he didn’t support leaking, Crocker noted that leaks historically have emerged as a way for bureaucrats to raise concerns and are among the U.S. system’s checks and balances.
Trump’s belief that there are forces out to get him and what some consider his obsession with those he sees as enemies align him more closely with Nixon than supporters such as Gingrich will acknowledge.
Never forget, the press is the enemy, the press is the enemy.
Former President Richard Nixon
While Nixon rarely took them on in public, he would curse reporters in private, according to historian Robert Dallek, who has written about John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson as well as Nixon.
“He couldn’t stand to be seen as, as Trump puts it, a loser,” Dallek said.
Soon after Trump’s tweet about Obama, wiretapping and Nixon, Google searches about Watergate surged, and Kamarck decided to look though some of her old files from when she was a graduate student.
She came across a book of news articles about Nixon. Several stories, she said, could have just as easily described Trump.
In one 1974 story, New York Times reporter Alden Whitman described Nixon as “a loner, certain of the loyalty of very few men. He could be vindictive against those he saw as his special enemies.”
That could almost have been taken from Trump’s relations with the news media. Amid ongoing questioning about Russia, Trump has carried on a public feud with reporters, including their exclusion last month from an informal White House news briefing, and he denounced journalists as “enemies of the American people” the day after a contentious 77-minute White House news conference.
“These could all be innocent contacts that don’t amount to anything,” Kamarck said about the Russia revelations, “but what is so weird about this is Trump is doing everything possible to make himself look guilty.”