Last summer there was considerable speculation about what kind of president Donald Trump might be. This was mostly before we learned that it was the Russian government and its intelligence services that were behind the hacking of the Democratic National Committee, the first in a long series of Watergate-style bombshell news stories to drop during the campaign. We first heard about that on or around July 26, 2016.
A week before that, on July 19, I published an article for Salon (along with a follow-up) in which I compared Trump to Richard Nixon and suggested that the then-presumptive GOP nominee was absolutely capable of engaging in obstructions of justice similar to the "Saturday Night Massacre" — a harrowingly breathtaking event during the final days of Richard Nixon's presidency.
By now you’ve probably heard or read plenty about that legendary event, so I won’t elaborate yet again. The quickie version goes like this: Nixon fired his attorney general and then that guy's deputy because each in turn had refused to fire the special prosecutor investigating the Watergate break-in and subsequent cover-up. In the end, the solicitor general at the time, Robert Bork, fired the Watergate prosecutor, Archibald Cox. All in all, it was the beginning of the end for Nixon.
In my article, I observed, “When we review what happened on Oct. 20, 1973, it’s not difficult to envision Trump engaging in the same chicanery. The Saturday Night Massacre? Trump would easily do the same thing in his first 100 days, and it’d barely dent his approval ratings. Better yet, his voters would adore him for it. Adore. Him.” Dammit, I was off by 11 days. As of this reporting, we don’t yet know what Trump’s approval numbers will look like once the first post-Comey polls drop, but social-media reaction from Trump’s voters and fanboys has been overwhelmingly positive. Of course.
[jwplayer file="http://media.salon.com/2017/05/21d881dc83624df72a961b6538722d551.mp4" image="http://media.salon.com/2017/05/e14a3216870848e5adb38812a47dee9d-1280x7201.png"][/jwplayer]
The point is that Trump’s behavior is shocking but not surprising, chiefly because we’ve seen it all before. The major difference, however, is that Trump is far worse than Nixon. At the very least, Nixon was a well-educated, articulate lawyer who understood how the government worked. He was aware of history and his place in it. Indeed, he understood the system enough to know the dark alleys and loopholes within it, and he exploited those gaps with increasing fury as the Watergate investigation grew closer to an existential crisis for his presidency.
It’s safe to assume Trump will respond similarly as the Russian investigation and surrounding scandal advances closer and closer to his desk. Much like Nixon's, Trump’s actions from this point forward will continue to become increasingly despotic as he desperately attempts to kill the investigation.
Even before the sudden firing of FBI Director James Comey, we watched as Trump fired former acting Attorney General Sally Yates on the Monday after she informed the White House that Michael Flynn, then the national security adviser, had very likely been compromised. We watched as the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Devin Nunes, was looped into a madcap plot to reverse engineer Trump’s repeatedly debunked tweets about “wiretaps.”
We watched as U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara was fired at about the same time he was investigating Russian associates of Trump adviser Carter Page. Toss into the mix a growing collection of obnoxious, generally whiny tweets by the president about how the Russia story is nothing more than a hoax, and we have more than enough evidence of criminally Nixonian behavior, coupled with political incompetence and backstopped by a legion of internet and cable news superfans.
The latter, by the way, is the rocket fuel on which Trump is counting to get him through this. No doubt Trump has many more autocratic, impeachment-worthy deeds up his sleeve — and he’ll use every last trick as Trump/Russia closes in around him — but his last refuge will be the electric embrace of his supporters. They mostly don’t give a flying rip about Russia. Just 28 percent of Trump voters surveyed agreed that Russia had influenced the election, and only 4 percent of them said they believe he colluded with Russia to do so. All they care about is the cultural impact of having a misogynistic white nationalist president who continues to deliver their favorite catchphrases and Fox News bromides, while relentlessly trolling the news media. As long as Skynyrd plays “Freebird,” Trump voters will remain fully stoked for their guy. Suffice it to say, Nixon didn’t enjoy the latitude afforded to Trump by social media and the bottomless cup of disinformation therein.
Nixon also didn’t enjoy the unwavering support of the GOP-dominated Congress. It’s unclear why exactly the Republican caucus is so completely motivated to flack for Trump, but that loyalty comes despite the fact that the president is utterly toxic and has been since Day One. GOP lawmakers largely don’t seem to care. Early Wednesday, for example, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell didn’t hesitate before declaring that there would be no more Russian investigations, including special hearings to probe the firing of Comey. Few if any Republicans will dare to criticize the president’s actions on anything, much less his sloppy treatment of the Russia story.
Along those lines, imagine if the Russia attack had come in the form of a nuclear device that was detonated in a major U.S. city — a more destructive attack than a cyberattack, sure, but still a direct assault on American sovereignty, our people and our democracy. Now imagine the president calling that attack a hoax, while the Republican-dominated Congress silently shrugged its shoulders. We’d have no choice but to wonder: What’s in it for the members of Congress? Analogies aside, why the lack of outrage over a foreign attack on our political institutions? Why such loyalty to a chief executive whose approval numbers had dropped to 36 percent even before the Comey news? At what point does having Trump’s jagged autograph on their legislation fail to make up for the myriad political liabilities commensurate with being linked to such a loser?
The answers to these questions remain to be seen, though if you’re leaning toward kompromat, you might be headed in the right direction. In that respect, we shouldn’t forget that Russia also reportedly hacked the Republican National Committee as well — contrary to Trump’s lies about same.
Ultimately, we’re looking at Nixon 2.0, with significantly more power to potentially overcome whatever investigatory hurdles appear in his path. Consequently, Watergate-style investigations, as well as resistance by members of the opposition, must be amplified accordingly to meet the strength and persistence of the cover-up. Trump’s slow-motion Saturday Night Massacre is just the prologue. What comes next will make Comey’s firing seem quaint.