Nixon and Trump: what happens when presidents unravel

Nixon schemed and spewed dangerous vitriol behind closed doors, Trump is doing the same in full view of the public

By Lucian K. Truscott IV

Published October 14, 2017 8:00AM (EDT)

 (AP/Evan Vucci)
(AP/Evan Vucci)

Has there ever been a more terrifying synergy in the life of a nation such as ours? First, in Las Vegas, we had a madman on the 32nd floor of a hotel firing automatic rifles indiscriminately into a crowd of innocent concertgoers across the street, killing at least 59, wounding more than 500. He left no clues. Nothing was found in the hotel room or inside his several houses that lets us know why he acted in such an insane way against his fellow American citizens. Aided and abetted by lax gun laws, both national and those of the state of Nevada, he was able to carry out his crazed, deadly rampage with impunity.

Now we have a madman in the White House who was reported to have threatened the whole fucking world by calling for 10 times the number of nuclear weapons we currently have, the occasion last summer at the Pentagon that led to his secretary of state calling him “a fucking moron.” Then he’s firing off tweets killing his fellow American citizens in Puerto Rico with ineffectual federal aid to the island and threatening to remove what little assistance there is, alleging, “ Electric and all infrastructure was disaster before hurricanes. Congress to decide how much to spend . . . . We cannot keep FEMA, the Military and the First Responders, who have been amazing (under the most difficult circumstances) in P.R. forever!”

Then, hardly pausing to take a breath, the madman kills his fellow citizens who are sick and impoverished and relying on Obamacare health insurance policies that will be damaged by his executive order stripping the program of subsidies and allowing cheapo reduced coverage that will make premiums for standard coverage policies out of reach for many of those currently insured.

He left no clues. Nothing is known about why he is acting in such an insane way against his fellow American citizens. Aided and abetted by a lax Congress and the voters of the states that put him in office, he is able to carry off his crazed, deadly rampage with impunity.

It really makes you wonder where all of this is going, doesn’t it? I mean, everyone seems to have arrived at a point where we’re asking, how does this end? There is a growing consensus not only in the population but in the Congress and the White House that we’re dealing with a crazy person here.

Reporter Gabriel Sherman’s article in Vanity Fair this week exploded like a mortar round on cable news and front pages from coast to coast: “At first it sounded like hyperbole, the escalation of a Twitter war. But now it’s clear that Bob Corker’s remarkable New York Times interview — in which the Republican senator described the White House as ‘adult day care’ and warned Trump could start World War III — was an inflection point in the Trump presidency. It brought into the open what several people close to the president have recently told me in private: that Trump is ‘unstable,’ ‘losing a step,’ and ‘unraveling.’”

Think about that for a moment. “Unstable.” “Unraveling.” “Could start World War III.” We’ve heard this stuff before, about another president. Remember? The president was Richard Nixon, and that sort of language was thrown around as the Watergate investigation closed in on his White House. Nixon was regularly described as embattled and his White House was described as in chaos. Pressed up against the wall by falling poll numbers, a criminal investigation that had begun to strip his White House of important staffers and aides who were either resigning out of fatigue and frustration or facing indictment, Nixon asked for the resignation of his trusted chief of staff H.R. Haldeman, and he turned to a four-star general, Alexander M. Haig, the vice chief of staff of the Army, and made him White House chief of staff.

It was hoped that the strong hand of the four-star general would bring stability to a White House that had been in turmoil. There had been rumors that Nixon was in a “dark mood,” staying up late at night, brooding, acting oddly. It was not the first time word leaked out that the man in the White House was acting strangely. There was the famous night in 1970, when he grabbed his “trusted valet Manolo Sanchez” and “senior White House doctor Walter Tkach” and a Secret Service detail and jumped in the presidential limousine and drove over to the Lincoln Memorial at 4:00 a.m. and conducted a rambling discourse with student anti-war demonstrators. One student told a reporter the next day, "He didn't look anyone in the eyes. He was mumbling. When people asked him to speak up he would boom one word and no more. As far as sentence structure, there was none." And this was after he had placed a random phone call at 1 a.m. to Washington reporter Nancy Dickerson to complain about how the press had treated him at a press conference that night.

Anthony Summers, author of ”The Arrogance of Power: The Secret World of Richard Nixon,” reported in the book that after Dickerson got off the phone with Nixon she told her husband, "That man has not been drinking, but I would feel better if he had been." Dickerson told Summers she thought at the time that Nixon was suffering "a dislocation of personality."

I covered Watergate, and I remember when Haig took over as chief of staff. We had no way of knowing what was going on in the White House. The behavior of Nixon during his bizarre trip to the Lincoln Memorial leaked only because a few students who were there talked to reporters. Nancy Dickerson’s diagnosis of Nixon as half-crazed wouldn’t be revealed until she told Anthony Summers about it years later. In the meantime, all we heard were whispers and rumors. It wouldn’t be until John Dean elaborated on his meetings with Nixon in the Oval Office and Alexander Butterfield revealed the existence of the White House tapes that we would get a glimpse of Nixon the man. That’s why when the so-called smoking gun tape came out, revealing that Nixon had ordered his aides to get the CIA to stop the FBI investigation of the Watergate break-in, it was such a bombshell. Finally the curtain was pulled back! We saw his words! We heard him on tape!

But it wasn’t until Woodward and Bernstein’s “The Final Days” was published in 1976, two years after Nixon’s resignation, that we learned of his bizarre kneeling and praying with Henry Kissinger and his rambling monologues late at night on the phone to friends and allies. And it took “The Final Days” for us to learn what Haig had done in 1974 when he began worrying about Nixon’s “state of mind.” He sent a classified message to Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger that he was to ignore any orders coming from Nixon without Haig’s authorization. Schlesinger forwarded Haig’s message in ultra-top secret “Personal For” format to top American military commanders around the world that any orders from Nixon, including a nuclear strike on Russia or any other nation, were to be ignored.

Nixon tried to save himself with a four-star general as his chief of staff at the end of his presidency, but Trump is starting off with one. And like Nixon, his hatreds and insecurities know no bounds. You think Nixon was something? How about Trump’s Twitter war with Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Bob Corker last week. The pathetic claim by one of Trump’s closest friends, Thomas Barrack, that “he’s better than this,” and he told the Post that he is “shocked” and “stunned” by some of Trump’s behavior, including his insane tweets and incendiary rhetoric. Other reports have Trump staying up late at night and making “it’s lonely at the top” beleaguered calls to friends to complain about how badly he’s treated in the press, how the establishment is against him. Chief of Staff John Kelly is said to be alarmed by Trump’s plans to begin his regular visits to Mar-a-Lago next week. He is worried about what kind of off-the-wall information and advice he’ll get when he schmoozes his way through the club’s dining room as he is wont to do. (Kelly has apparently put a stop to the delivery of insane clown “news” from the likes of Breitbart and Alex Jones by aides to the Oval Office.) Then there’s the report in the Washington Post that Trump “threw a fit” when his secretaries of defense and state made an argument to him that the Iran nuclear deal was in the best interest of the United States and offered “stability and other benefits.” “He was furious. Really furious. It’s clear he felt jammed,” a source told the Post. Because of course we don’t want a stable, non-nuclear Iran. What we want is to overturn yet another of Obama’s legacies.

And then we have his regular off-the-cuff remarks at rallies like the one in Alabama, and at a press availability during his trip to Puerto Rico. When he’s not congratulating himself for his “fantastic” performance handling hurricane relief, or exclaiming about his “beautiful” executive orders, or lavishing self-praise on his “tremendous” speeches before gatherings all the way from the U.N. to the drooling lapdogs at the “Value Voters Summit,” he’s exhibiting his complete and total ignorance of the Constitution and his duties as president by saying that he finds it “frankly disgusting the press is able to write whatever they want to write. People should look into it.” “Look into” what, you might ask? Well, he wants to tear down  the First Amendment to the Constitution and move on from there.

As alike as these presidencies are — two presidents facing serious criminal investigations into how they got elected; two presidents with troops at war overseas; two presidents with poll numbers in negative territory and showing no signs of improvement; two presidents with congressional leaders of their own party questioning their sanity and fitness for office; two presidents with a rabid press corps breathing down their necks and revealing one bombshell after another about corruption, self-dealing and erratic behavior at the White House; two presidents to whom the term “unraveling” applies in spades — there is a signature difference between them.

With Nixon, the unraveling was happening behind closed doors. We knew — the media knew, the Congress knew, members of his own party knew — he was crazy as a loon and guilty as hell, but we didn’t learn the full extent of it until much, much later. But when we caught a glimpse of the man as he really was on the tapes, it was shocking, even terrifying. That this man was the president! That this man had access to the nuclear trigger! Something had to be done.

With Trump, the unraveling is happening right out in the open, every single day, several times a day. There are his crazed tweets, his insane tirades against his enemies in the press and elsewhere, his unhinged indulgence in self-love, his broken syntax and grade school level oratory when he goes off-teleprompter, his focus on driving culture-war wedges like the NFL take-a-knee “controversy” even at a time when American soldiers are risking and losing their lives in wars overseas. The fact that it’s happening before our eyes in real time has rendered his insanity and criminality somehow ordinary.

He’s profiting from the Trump Hotel? Yawn. He attacked Sen. McCain again? A draft dodger attacking an American hero? Oh, well. Harvey Weinstein is a serial harasser and abuser of women and Trump is just like him? So? Somehow the horror of Trump is neutered not just by its immediacy but by its constancy. He’s in our face every single fucking day. We can’t stand him, but we can’t look away. He’s the train wreck that just keeps running cars off the track one after another. It’s horrifying, but it has an unreal quality, like it’s happening in a movie. The problem is, it’s the movie Trump’s base wanted to see. They paid to get in! They want to see the bridge blown up! They want to see the cars all crooked alongside the track! They like it that the engineer is a madman! Hell, they voted him into office for just that reason.

Eventually, Nixon’s emotional and mental instability and criminal culpability in Watergate became too much and articles of impeachment brought by the Congress caused him to resign. What will happen with Trump? If past is prologue, and I think it definitely is with him, he will reach a point where his arrogance combines with his rage and he makes a big mistake. It has happened already. The beginnings of the whole Russia scandal drove Trump into a rage and he sent out his tweets that Obama “tapped his wires,” which led to James Comey's exposing the FBI investigation of the Trump campaign. Then he flew into a rage at his New Jersey golf course over one weekend in the spring, and on the following Monday fired FBI director Comey, which led to the appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller. Trump’s arrogance and anger has had consequences over the last nine months, and it can happen again.

What will happen this time? Well, the Russia investigation is squeezing Trump and his White House tighter and tighter. There were rumblings all last week on editorial pages and by talking heads on cable TV about the 25th Amendment and what it would take to use that nifty little Constitutional trick to rid ourselves of Trump. That would take a rebellion by Trump’s Cabinet, of course, but even that seemed less unlikely as reports leaked out that Rex Tillerson, James Mattis and Steven Mnuchin had formed a “suicide pact” whereby if one was fired, all of them would resign. And no less a bellwether than the “Morning Joe” show pointed out that by Kelly pushing through the appointment of Kirstjen Nielsen, his own chief of staff, as the new Homeland Security secretary, he might be lining up allies in the Cabinet for a 25th Amendment move.

There is also the possibility of a Saturday Night Massacre of one kind or another. Trump could get pissed and decide to fire Mueller, which would set off a firestorm, even on Capitol Hill. Or he could have a look at the pesky 25th  and decide he doesn’t trust these generals and other hotshots he’s appointed and decide to fire Mattis, Kelly, Tillerson, even Mueller — and that would set off another firestorm.

We’ve seen the damage one well-armed madman can do from a hotel room in Las Vegas. We really don’t need to see what an even better armed madman can do from the “adult day care center” in the White House, do we?

Lucian K. Truscott IV

Lucian K. Truscott IV, a graduate of West Point, has had a 50-year career as a journalist, novelist and screenwriter. He has covered stories such as Watergate, the Stonewall riots and wars in Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan. He is also the author of five bestselling novels and several unsuccessful motion pictures. He has three children, lives on the East End of Long Island and spends his time Worrying About the State of Our Nation and madly scribbling in a so-far fruitless attempt to Make Things Better. You can read his daily columns at and follow him on Twitter @LucianKTruscott and on Facebook at Lucian K. Truscott IV.

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Alexander Butterfield James Mattis John Dean John Kelly Rex Tillerson President Nixon President Trump