Geoff Shepard: Yes, Trump and Nixon are alike in many ways -- just not the ways Trump’s opponents would like

A lot of people like making comparisons these days between President Trump and Richard Nixon – most of them in connection to the Watergate scandal and Nixon leaving office before his second term was up. And indeed, there are several similarities between the two presidents. They are, however, not the ones those making such wishful-thinking claims would like to see.

As someone who served on Nixon’s White House staff for five years – mostly doing policy work with the Department of Justice, and also as deputy counsel on the president’s Watergate defense team – I know a whole lot about what went on behind the scenes as the Watergate scandal unfolded. All I know about Trump is what I read in the newspapers, much of which is difficult to take at face value.

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Nevertheless, there are several rather surprising (and somewhat eerie) similarities between the two:

Both were classic outsiders. Nixon and Trump both ran as agents of change and won very close elections in hugely divisive eras in American history.

Nixon won at the tail-end of the rebellious ‘60s, marked by massive opposition to the Vietnam War and the horrifying assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, his brother Robert, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Universities were brought to their knees by student takeovers and protests, and there were bloody riots on some nineteen cities.

The tumultuous time from 1960 to 1980 marked a 20-year period when no American president served two full terms:  JFK was assassinated, LBJ chose not to run for re-election, Nixon resigned rather than face certain impeachment, Ford was never elected at all, and Carter was defeated in his re-election bid by California Governor Ronald Reagan.

Nixon was elected with only 43 percent of the vote in 1968, due in large part to the third-party candidacy of Alabama Governor George Wallace. Nevertheless, he was elected as an agent of change, promising an end to the Vietnam War and restoring law and order. He went on to a landslide re-election in 1972.

Trump rather easily prevailed over more traditional GOP candidates in 2016, attracting die-hard fans who were most eager for him to challenge and change the status quo in Washington.

Both were thin-skinned and distrusted by the party elites. While Nixon worked hard at keeping his emotions under control, the recordings of his Oval Office outbursts are quite telling.  Trump, of course, is far more public in his reactions to opponents and critics alike.

Nixon, unlike Trump, had been in politics his whole adult life and was seen as a party stalwart.  Of all the GOP’s national figures, Nixon alone supported Barry Goldwater in 1964 and campaigned tirelessly for Republican candidates in the 1966 mid-year elections.  And yet, Nixon was never seen as “one of the boys” among the Eastern Liberal Establishment Republicans: Nixon was not wealthy, he was not handsome, and he was not Ivy League educated.  To those establishment types, who still clung to positions of political power even as members of a minority party, Nixon just didn’t fit in.

Trump could care less about fitting into the GOP establishment, especially after defeating their heroes in the primary elections of 2016.  Like the Eastern Liberal Establishment Republicans of Nixon’s day, however, there was the phenomenon of the Never-Trumpers for Trump – experienced GOP operatives from prior administrations who not only opposed him, but signed public pledges that they’d never serve in his administration.

While both Nixon and Trump were accused of criminal conduct, there really were crimes committed in Watergate: an illegal break-in to the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office building, and in the ensuing cover-up. 

Both had surprisingly successful first terms. While none of the media’s talking heads thought it remotely possible, both Nixon and Trump had very successful first terms (so far, for Trump) – each in the face of all-out opposition from Democrat opponents in Congress.

In foreign affairs, Nixon’s forte, he pulled off the opening to China, established détente with the Soviet Union, brought an end to the Vietnam War with the Paris Peace Accords, and re-asserted American influence in the Middle East.  While less appreciated, he was also quite successful in domestic affairs:  He established the Environmental Protection Agency, signed the Clean Water and Clean Air acts, peacefully integrated southern schools, restored the rights of Native Americans, reversed the leftward swing of the Supreme Court under Earl Warren through the appointment of four justices, and broke the back of the heroin epidemic in our cities.

Under President Trump, the economy has soared, unemployment has fallen to record levels, the “animal spirits” of capitalism have been unleashed through substantial tax cuts and massive de-regulation, he’s brought China to the table in pursuit of fairer trade deals, and has overseen the truly astounding rebirth of our fossil energy sector.

Neither, of course, are getting anywhere near the credit they deserve – particularly in the face of historic political opposition.  Congressional Democrats were content to go along with Lyndon Johnson’s conduct of the Vietnam War, only to savagely turn on Nixon once Republicans controlled the White House.  In all candor, Trump has not had a single day of respite since the election, some two-and-a-half years ago.

Both were bedeviled by special prosecutors. For all of their successes, both Nixon and Trump were hounded by specially-recruited, highly partisan special prosecutors, operating largely without time or budget constraints, whose investigations ranged far afield from the reasons for their origins.

Special Prosecutor Leon Jaworski, in a recently-surfaced memo, complained to his deputy that his staff’s attitude seemed to be that Nixon had to be reached “at all cost.”  A similar outlook appears to have been in play for Robert Mueller’s exhaustive two-year investigation. Trump is fortunate that no underlying crime was found, but one wonders at what point during Mueller’s inquiry this lack of criminality became clear. Both presidents seem to have been at the receiving end of investigations driven by the Stalin-era quote: “Show me and man and I’ll show you the crime.”

And it is here that we come to the most important difference between the two presidents, in light of those so desperate to make the Watergate-era comparisons.

While both were accused of criminal conduct, there really were crimes committed in Watergate: an illegal break-in to the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office building, and in the ensuing cover-up.

Trump, in contrast, has been publicly accused of criminal collusion almost from the day he was elected, by an almost endless media parade of former prosecutors and other talking heads. What’s so different, of course, is that the Mueller Report has cleared him completely of this charge.  Oh, there’s still quibbling over obstruction, but that’s a “thought crime,” where the central question is intent.  People who don’t like you can easily imagine evil intent.

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So, yes, there are without question significant similarities between Presidents Nixon and Trump. Unfortunately for those who’d like to see Trump ousted from office a la Nixon, they fail to fall under the conduct that led to Nixon’s resignation.

They could, however, include similar qualities that could lead to Trump’s re-election.

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