Mike Pence is copying Richard Nixon's Watergate playbook

"It's time to wrap it up": The vice president's command to Robert Mueller rips directly from Nixon during Watergate

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published May 10, 2018 2:21PM (EDT)

Mike Pence; Richard Nixon (Getty/AP/Photo Montage by Salon)
Mike Pence; Richard Nixon (Getty/AP/Photo Montage by Salon)

Vice President Mike Pence is making it clear, by borrowing heavily from disgraced former president Richard Nixon, that the only thing Special Counsel Robert Mueller should be doing is bringing his investigation to a close.

"You know, our administration has been fully cooperating with the special counsel and we’ll continue to," Pence told NBC News’ Andrea Mitchell during an interview at Andrews Air Force Base on Thursday. After Mitchell asked whether Pence agreed with Trump that the investigation was a hoax, the vice president replied that "what I think is that it's been about a year since this investigation began. Our administration has provided over a million documents. We've fully cooperated in it and in the interest of the country, I think it's time to wrap it up. And I would very respectfully encourage the special counsel and his team to bring their work to completion."

Although Pence's statement implied that the investigation is taking too long, his perspective ignores the recent history of presidential investigations.

"A year is not a long time for a special counsel investigation," Allan Lichtman, the author of "The Case for Impeachment," told Salon. "You know, Ken Starr investigated Bill Clinton for many years, and his final investigation dealt with a topic that had absolutely nothing to do with his original charge. We know with Watergate that more than two years passed between the Watergate burglary and the resignation of Richard Nixon, and much more time — maybe another year or more — would have passed if not for the fact that Nixon resigned. We know that in the Iran-Contra scandal, it took many years for the special counsel Lawrence Walsh to even issue his first report. Ronald Reagan had already left office when his last indictments came almost five years later in 1992."

Lichtman also drew attention to the eerie parallels between the situation facing the Trump team over their current scandals and that which faced Nixon's administration during Watergate.

"What Nixon and his surrogates and Nixon himself said was, 'We've been very cooperative. We have ourselves thoroughly investigated all of this. We know that there is nothing there. And there is no need for any further inquiries,'" Lichtman told Salon. "Very similar to what Pence is himself saying. Now, the difference, of course, is that with Watergate you had some very serious public investigations by the Senate special committee and the House Judiciary Committee, so it was a lot harder to lie and steal because you had to testify before Congress with threats of lying to Congress hanging over you."

This parallel was also noticed by Ken Hughes, a historian with the University of Virginia's Miller Center.

"Mike Pence in 2018 sounds too much like Richard Nixon in 1974," Hughes told Salon by email. "Nixon, like Pence, said that the administration was cooperating with the investigation, that a year was long enough, and that it was time for it to end. But one of the reasons the Watergate investigation went on so long was that the president was obstructing justice, and that is a question that the current investigation has to grapple with as well. The Trump administration has to learn, as the Nixon administration did, that an investigation ends when all the relevant wrongdoing has been uncovered, not when the people being investigated want it to go away."

As Lichtman put it, "So we knew way more about what was going on in Watergate early on than we know about the special counsel investigation, in part because today the House investigation has completely blown up and the Senate investigation, though more serious, has been investigated in secrecy."

Lichtman's view was echoed by Jordan Libowitz, communications director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. "It's clear that no one in the Trump orbit wants the Mueller investigation to reach its natural conclusion," Libowitz told Salon. "Vice President Pence was around for many of the incidents Mueller's team is reportedly investigating. We don't know what, if any, involvement he had, but [he] probably has many reasons for not wanting the investigation to continue."

Despite his full-throated denunciation of Mueller's probe into potential collusion between members of Trump's political team and the Russian government, Pence was far more circumspect when he was asked about the legal crisis facing Trump's former lawyer, Michael Cohen.

"Well, what I can say is that that private matter is something I don't have any knowledge about. I think the White House issued a statement saying the same," Pence told Mitchell.

This might seem like a principled stand for Pence to take, but the fact that the vice president has built his political career off of the notion that he stands for old-fashioned virtue has meant that the ongoing scandals have undermined some of his moral credibility.

"Mike Pence always likes to portray himself as a 'holier than thou' figure, the man who's more moral than anyone else," Lichtman told Salon. "Yet he, like Trump, has been caught lying multiple times about some really important issues, including what he knew about Michael Flynn and some of his nefarious arrangements. And at this point, we don't know whether Mike Pence is the most out to lunch political figure ever, totally disassociated from everything that went [on] in the campaign and the Trump administration, or he is the most clever, hiding his culpability."

As I discussed in a past article comparing Pence with President Gerald Ford, it makes a certain degree of sense for Pence to avoid condemning Trump's behavior or calling for harsh treatment of the president. Setting aside the likelihood that this would undermine Pence's position in the White House (although Trump doesn't have the power to fire Pence), the vice president is the immediate and greatest beneficiary in any scenario in which the president has to resign. Much as Ford had to at least put on the show of being a team player to avoid the appearance of secretly craving the presidency, so too does Pence have a responsibility to not seem like he's angling for the metaphorical throne himself.

At the same time, Pence also runs the risk of losing the one asset that Ford was able to maintain throughout his presidency — his integrity. While Ford sided with Nixon over the investigators and carried the president's political water, he was careful to avoid saying or doing anything that would throw a cloud of suspicion over himself should he rise to the presidency (at least, before he slipped up by pardoning Nixon one month into his term). Pence, on the other hand, runs the risk of being lumped in with Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Sean Spicer, Kellyanne Conway and a number of other formerly-respected political figures who have lost their credibility after being sucked into Trump's world.

Overall, this has created a situation in which Pence — a by-the-numbers conservative Republican who once prompted the observation that "numbing familiarity of his boilerplate would inspire more groans than screams" — could further compromise the integrity of the presidency should he rise to it as a result of Trump's resignation.

The case for impeachment

Historian Allan Lichtman breaks down precisely why Donald Trump should be impeached.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Donald Trump Mike Pence Robert Mueller Russia Trump-russia Probe Watergate