How much do President Donald Trump and his predecessor Richard Nixon have in common? By some measure, they’re extremely different politicians, but by other measures their attitudes toward their positions are startlingly similar.
Both pledged to bring back law and order, but have tried to evade law and order by any means necessary. And both have brazenly challenged the FBI, behaviour that led to an FBI official leaking information damaging enough to bring about NIxon’s downfall. What’s different about Trump is that while Nixon was secretive and careful in his speech, Trump chooses to broadcast his views on Twitter and in interviews with the press.
On Tuesday, US President Donald Trump abruptly fired James Comey, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which was investigating links between his campaign, administration and Russian influence in the 2016 election – a simmering scandal that his political opponents believe should and could lead to his ouster from office.
“This is Nixonian,” Sen. Bob Casey, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, said on Tuesday, echoing other first takes from across the capital, according to the Associated Press.
In what has been a bizarre several days for the history of the presidency, the White House started the week backing the line that Comey’s failure was in mishandling the investigation into Clinton’s email server. Then, on Thursday night, Trump gave an interview with NBC’s Lester Holt where he admitted the Russia investigation was the real reason for Comey’s firing.
“And in fact when I decided to just do it I said to myself, I said, “You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story, it’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should’ve won,” Trump said.
Trump might not have needed to actually collude with the Russians, as he insists he hasn’t, but firing Comey with the intention of disrupting an ongoing investigation could count as “obstruction of justice,” one of those “high crimes and misdemeanors” that could start impeachment proceedings against the president.
Trump is behaving as a reality show chief executive officer would, but not as a commander-in-chief who lives in physical reality. Firing subordinates in business is simple. Firing subordinates, especially those appointed to ten-year terms like Comey, is more complex.
There’s a saying in Washington DC: “The White House is the crown jewel of the federal prison system.” Trump is finding that out the hard way. As a prisoner would, Trump’s freedom has been circumscribed by the massive responsibilities of office and the ruthless gangs of lobbyists, lawmakers and activists that call the shots in DC. The capital is not a boardroom, it’s a prison yard.
“The FBI is a tribal organization. You screw with the FBI, you screw with the institution of the FBI, and ... a lot of people are gonna be angry,” Ben Wittes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, told Vox.
Since Tuesday, a dynamic has emerged that should have Trump deeply worried. Democratic politicians had criticised Comey for his handling of Hillary Clinton’s email investigation, but whatever ill-will lawmakers and pundits had for him is irrelevant. What matters now is what FBI agents can do to undermine or sabotage a president who has launched an attack on the investigative agency itself. The FBI is one group not even a president wants to defy, history shows.
But on Friday, that’s exactly what Trump did.
“James Comey better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!” Trump tweeted cryptically on Friday morning.
James Comey better hope that there are no "tapes" of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 12, 2017
The Trump-Russia investigation, of course, is far from over. Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe on Thursday night told congress that Comey’s firing would not slow down the probe. The process that led to the impeachment and resignation of Nixon took more than two years.
In 1973, Nixon, another Republican, took similar action as Trump by firing a special prosecutor looking into a break-in at the offices of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate Hotel in Washington DC. The next year, Nixon resigned in disgrace following revelations of his connection to the 1972 crime.
Local police caught the perpetrators in the act, and a tenacious pair of reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, were able to tie the White House to the crime, which attempted to influence that year’s presidential election.
Comey’s firing comes just a day after testimony by former Acting Attorney General Sally Q. Yates, who was fired by the Trump in January after refusing to defend the constitutionality of Trump’s ban on travel from seven Muslim countries. She had also recently informed the White House that Trump’s National Security Advisor, Gen. Michael Flynn, was in a position to be blackmailed by Russian intelligence after lying about his own meeting with Moscow’s ambassador to the United States.
And it wasn’t only Yates. Preet Bharara, the former US District Attorney for the Southern District of New York, was dismissed let go by Trump reportedly as he was in the process of investigating Trump’s Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, according to a ProPublica report.
Bharara on Tuesday night tweeted his own alarm.
“EVERYONE who cares about independence & rule of law in America should be "troubled by the timing and reasoning" of Comey firing. Period,” the former prosecutor tweeted.
EVERYONE who cares about independence & rule of law in America should be "troubled by the timing and reasoning" of Comey firing. Period. https://t.co/nAFX0OnuvH
— Preet Bharara (@PreetBharara) May 10, 2017
But does all this mean Trump’s impeachment is imminent? It seems unlikely. Republicans still control both houses of congress. In order for impeachment proceedings to start, the opposition party would need to take back control of the legislative branch. Shaun King, writing for the New York Daily News, on Thursday spelled out this process clearly.
“If you want to dream of Trump's impeachment, that's fine, but don't waste a single second of your time fighting for such a thing right now,” King wrote. “This Republican Congress is not going to impeach Donald Trump. They are all in so deep with him that impeaching him would be an indictment on themselves. They helped get him here. Instead, for those of us who desperately want to defeat Trump, we should put nearly all of our eggs into one essential basket — voter turnout.”
In an interview years after his resignation, Nixon said “when the president does it, that means it is not illegal.” But would Nixon have offered this kind of honesty if he had had Twitter at his disposal? Probably not. Nixon was a reclusive man, and Trump is the opposite of reclusive, having made a name for himself on the stage, strutting like a lounge act.
But his inability to keep his fingers off his phone, and his words off the Internet, is a postmodern peril for extroverts. And just like anyone else under suspicion of committing a crime, anything they say can and will be used against them. Just like anybody with a government job, what they tweet can come back to haunt them, big league.