Is Trump a Nixon or a Clinton? Impeachment backers want that ’70s show

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Richard Nixon departs after his resignation in 1974.

President Richard M. Nixon waves goodbye from the steps of his helicopter outside the White House on Aug. 9, 1974, after his resignation. | Chick Harrity/AP Photo

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Some Republicans say impeaching President Trump would backfire the way it did against the GOP in 1998. Democrats are trying to focus on an earlier era.

Pro-impeachment Democrats want Americans to see Richard Nixon when they look at Donald Trump.

They’re hammering the comparisons in interviews and hearings, hoping to debunk the prevailing view that Trump’s situation is more akin to the late 1990s, when congressional Republicans impeached President Bill Clinton knowing they had little chance of actually evicting him from office.

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They maintain their view is about far more than which party controls the White House. Nixon tried to quash federal investigations into his campaign, and so has Trump, the pro-impeachment Democrats note. Nixon dangled pardons to keep witnesses from fully testifying, and so has Trump. Nixon refused to respond to congressional subpoenas, and so has Trump.

And perhaps most importantly, it was a series of televised hearings during Watergate that turned much of the nation against Nixon. The impeachment proponents hope that will soon be the case with Trump, even calling the star Watergate witness John Dean to testify this week in a hearing ready-made for cable television.

“Nixon is the only one that’s comparable,” said Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen of Tennessee, a Trump impeachment advocate with a seat on the powerful House Judiciary Committee. “A great deal of the Nixon team was involved in the Watergate break-in and then the cover-up and the efforts to keep it from the American people, just as it appears to be the case with Trump. Clinton was a sexual indiscretion that he wanted to keep from everybody, and it was just him and Monica.”

Historical comparisons are always fraught, and veterans from both parties caution that’s the case now more than ever considering Trump’s proven ability to smash all manner of political and policy norms. Indeed, Trump himself pointed out what might be a critical difference between him and Nixon that would negate all the other parallels.

“He left. I don’t leave. A big difference. I don’t leave,” the president told reporters Monday during a White House ceremony to celebrate the winner of this year’s Indianapolis 500.

Still, Democrats making the Nixon comparisons have tried to focus on the substance of the scandals that dogged the two Republican presidents. Their invitation to Dean to headline their hearing — the first since Robert Mueller made his one and only public statement last month — featured testimony making several explicit connections between Watergate and the special counsel’s Russia investigation.

Dean explained that Trump’s request to then-FBI Director James Comey to let go of the Russia probe reminded him of an early stage in Watergate when Nixon instructed his White House chief of staff to get the CIA to ask the FBI not to proceed with its investigation of the break-in at the Democratic headquarters because of “bogus national security reasons.” He also likened Comey’s firing and the Justice Department’s subsequent appointment of Mueller to the Saturday Night Massacre, the October 1973 mass firings atop DOJ that gave way four months later to formal House impeachment proceedings. And Dean compared Trump’s overtures of favorable treatment to former aides Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen to Nixon’s dangling of his pardon power as a way to get central figures in the Watergate scandal to plead guilty and maintain their silence during legal proceedings.

“It is quite striking and startling that history is repeating itself, and with a vengeance,” Dean told the House panel, which he said was full of members who “were either not born or very young when Watergate occurred.”

Watergate references haven’t cropped up just in hearings. As several House committees became embroiled early last month in legal fights with the Trump White House over access to critical documents and testimony, Speaker Nancy Pelosi recalled that the third article of impeachment prepared against Nixon in 1974 centered around how he “did not honor the subpoenas of Congress.”

California Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a Judiciary Committee Democrat who remains skeptical about opening an impeachment inquiry against Trump, nonetheless boasted in an interview earlier this week that her official website features the powerful panel’s February 1974 staff report spelling out the constitutional grounds for impeaching Nixon. “I think the American people have almost an innate understanding of the system of government and can see the difference between lying about sex and undermining the entire constitutional order,” she said when asked to compare the history surrounding the Nixon, Clinton and Trump scandals.

And Illinois Rep. Mike Quigley, a Democratic member of the Intelligence Committee favoring impeachment, made the case recently for sustained congressional hearings carried live on TV as in the Nixon era, saying they would matter far more in changing minds than his own media interviews.

“I remember watching the Watergate hearings when I was in high school,” Quigley told MSNBC. “And in April of that year, the American public was not in favor of the president resigning. Just four months later, he was gone. Clearly, they had some value, some purpose in educating the public in 1974,” he said.

While Democrats push to make the connection with Nixon’s resignation, Republicans are offering their own words of caution by citing the lessons from the Clinton case. After independent counsel Ken Starr issued his report in September 1998 outlining 11 possible grounds for Clinton’s removal from office, then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich authorized an impeachment inquiry and made a last-minute campaign push that fall to connect the scandal to the Democrats. But rather than win any seats in that election, Republicans lost five and the speaker resigned just days later.

“I think that is the common wisdom at this point,” said Ohio Rep. Steve Chabot, one of two remaining Judiciary Committee Republicans who served on the panel during the Clinton impeachment fight. “Nobody knows for sure. But my advice to the Democrats having been through this before is to be very careful. And I think that should they decide to move forward on this, with the facts we have here, I think they’re in very dangerous waters for their political well-being.”

“We’re already divided to some degree, but you go through a full-blown impeachment and it will really be even more divisive,” Chabot added.

Pelosi has warned of exactly that scenario as she fends off an uprising within her own party ranks to formally begin the impeach proceedings against Trump. It’s a message that over two decades has been baked into Washington conventional wisdom, and which Democrats monitoring the Trump campaign anticipate he’ll try to exploit over the next 17 months in a bid to garner public sympathy and win a second term.

“There’s a reason why Democratic candidates are having to think about the answer to that question,” said Michael Feldman, a longtime Democratic operative who worked in the Clinton White House and then served as Al Gore’s traveling chief of staff during the 2000 presidential campaign. “It’s not an easy question. It’s not apples to apples. There are differences for sure. But if impeachment becomes a central message of the Democratic party going into a presidential election year, I can see how the Trump campaign can take advantage of that.”

Some Democrats aren’t buying it. They note that the behavior Mueller documented about Trump centers around whether the president broke the law in trying to stymie an investigation into whether his presidential campaign colluded with a foreign power to win the White House. That’s a far cry from what the House impeached Clinton for: lying to a grand jury about his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky and for obstruction of justice to block the investigations into his extramarital affairs.

“I think it’s a completely inappropriate analysis to do,” said Rhode Island Democratic Rep. David Cicilline, another pro-impeachment House Judiciary Committee member. “This is about the defense of our democracy, upholding the rule of the law, demonstrating that no one in America including the president of the United States is above the law.”

On a purely political front, pro-impeachment Democrats also question whether the lessons supposedly learned in the 1998 midterms weren’t trumped by what happened two years later in the 2000 election. That’s when Texas Gov. George W. Bush narrowly beat Gore with an anti-Clinton message to “restore honor and dignity” to the Oval Office. Republicans that cycle also won control of the Senate and for a brief period in Bush’s first term held all the levers of power in Washington.

“Yeah, that was their punishment,” Tom Steyer, the liberal billionaire pushing impeachment, said earlier this month during California’s Democratic Party convention.

No doubt, both of the modern American impeachment sagas — Nixon’s and Clinton’s — have loomed over the Trump White House from its start.

Former investigators who worked on both major cases became some of the sought-after TV pundits opining as Mueller’s probe unfolded. As Trump’s nominee to be a Supreme Court associate justice, Brett Kavanaugh’s Senate confirmation hearing last summer detoured into his work under Starr on the Clinton investigations and how he’d handle any potential case spilling out of the Mueller investigation. And the Trump legal defense team closely studied how Clinton successfully fought back against Starr, and they even turned for advice to some of the Democratic president’s former aides.

Still, Republicans have mocked the notion of Democrats turning to history in the pursuit of Trump. “This committee is now hearing from the ’70s and they want their star witness back,” Georgia Rep. Doug Collins, the top Republican on the Judiciary panel, teased during Monday’s Dean hearing.

But the former Nixon lawyer who pleaded guilty during Watergate to obstruction of justice and served four months in the custody of U.S. marshals while cooperating with government investigators nonetheless got rock star treatment. Lines stretched down the hallway before the hearing started. He opened his testimony linking the initial Watergate break-in designed to sabotage Nixon’s 1972 Democratic opponents with a comparison to the Mueller report’s explanation of an “active measures” campaign by Russia to influence the 2016 race and help Trump win the White House. And he noted that both Republican presidents weren’t charged for any underlying crimes, but both still suffered for their roles to cover up the aftermath.

After the hearing ended, Dean was still standing at the witness table, posing for pictures with his fans and signing autographs, including a yellowed front page of a 45-year old copy of The Washington Post published when Nixon resigned.

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