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More Summer Reading for the White House: Woodward and Bernstein’s “The Final Days”

“The Final Days,” by
Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, tells the story of the last months of
Richard Nixon’s Presidency. Written with taut elegance and
moment-to-moment immediacy, the book chronicles Nixon’s desperate but
ultimately failed bid to stave off his departure from office, which took
place on August 9, 1974. Of course, much of Woodward and Bernstein’s
story is unique to Nixon and the Watergate scandal, but “The Final Days”
also offers lessons about any Presidency in existential distress,
including, potentially, Donald Trump’s. Here are a few of them:

The President’s party, not the opposition, determines whether he
survives in office.
Democrats controlled both houses of Congress during
the mid-seventies, but the real drama of “The Final Days” concerns the
struggle of the Nixon White House to keep fellow-Republicans from
abandoning the President. The Democratic majority on the House Judiciary
Committee, joined by a few Republican moderates, voted for articles of
impeachment, and the full House was preparing to ratify that decision in
1974. But removal from office requires the support of two-thirds of the
Senate—a bipartisan supermajority—so Nixon’s position became untenable
only when prominent Republican senators, such as Barry Goldwater and
Hugh Scott, abandoned him. This message was consistent with my own
experience covering Bill Clinton’s impeachment, in 1998. Clinton’s
defenders worried little about their Republican opponents, but they were
petrified of losing the support of Democratic leaders, such as Richard
Gephardt, the Missouri congressman. It was Democrats, not Republicans,
who could have driven Clinton from office.

At the moment, the Republican control of Congress and the
conservative orientation of the today’s G.O.P. give Trump a nearly
impregnable wall of defense against impeachment. As a special prosecutor
investigates the President for obstruction of justice, and disclosures
mount about ties between his campaign and Russia, there has been
virtually no loss of support for Trump among congressional Republicans.
As long as that wall holds, Trump’s survival in office is assured.

Impeachment is a political, not a legal, act. The Constitution,
with its customary majestic generality, decrees that a President can be
removed for “high crimes and misdemeanors”—terms that elude precise
definition. This was especially true during Watergate, which was the
first Presidential impeachment proceeding in more than a century.
Consider this passage from “The Final Days” that concerns the
so-called smoking-gun tape, of June 23, 1972, which recorded Nixon
telling his aide H. R. Haldeman to use the C.I.A. to thwart the F.B.I.’s
investigation of the Watergate break-in. “The instruction to Haldeman
was probably not, in the most technical sense, an obstruction of
justice,” Woodward and Bernstein write, “but it was certainly an abuse
of power or an abuse of agency. By almost any definition, it was an
impeachable offense.” But, in the current controversy, Trump’s
supporters have argued that the President has almost total control to determine the agenda of
the F.B.I.; since he supervises the Bureau, he can instruct it to do his
bidding for any reason of his choosing—he can even fire its director at
his sole and unreviewable discretion. In other words, the standard for
impeachment will always be contested ground, to be determined by
politicians, not judges.

A changing story can be worse than a bad story. What made the June
23rd tape so devastating to Nixon’s fortunes was not just that it
suggested that the President had misused the F.B.I. Rather, it was that
Nixon’s defenders had previously argued that his involvement with the
Watergate coverup had begun a year and a half later, in March, 1974, and
the tape disproved that. At one level, any involvement with a coverup
should have been unacceptable for a President, but it was the shifting
stories—the sense that nothing that came from the White House could be
trusted—that finally doomed Nixon. The Trump White House has a similar
problem, evidenced most recently by Donald Trump, Jr.,’s shifting
explanations
for a meeting with a Russian lawyer last June. For months, the President and his advisers have denied knowledge of any Russian attempts to help the campaign; the release of Trump, Jr.,’s e-mails about that meeting is a dramatic change in this evolving story.

Momentum matters. Presidential scandals take place in a broader
news environment, and unrelated events shape political perceptions.
Presidents can try to control the pace of events and sometimes they even
succeed, if only for a while. In the summer of 1974, Nixon conducted a
successful overseas trip that might have propelled him to victory in a
Senate trial, if not in a House impeachment vote. But then the Supreme
Court ruled that he had to turn over more of the White House tapes,
including the one from June 23rd. Nixon had arguably made equally
incriminating statements in other recorded conversations, but the
combination of the Supreme Court loss and the forced disclosure of the
smoking gun sealed his fate. It’s not only the nature of events but also
the order in which they take place that determine political outcomes.

Daughters matter. Throughout the Watergate crisis, Julie Nixon
Eisenhower, the President’s younger daughter, was a powerful voice in
the White House urging her father to fight the charges against him; she
was the last family holdout against resignation. Especially because her
mother, Pat Nixon, was depressed and withdrawn, Julie operated as a kind
of de-facto First Lady during the last years of her father’s Presidency.
Her influence on the President was profound. It’s easy to see a
reflection of Julie Nixon Eisenhower in Ivanka Trump, the Presidential
daughter who has taken on First Lady-like responsibilities. Like Julie,
Ivanka is ferociously loyal to her father, and seems likely to be a late
holdout against any admission of error, much less a departure from
office.

So “The Final Days” offers points of comparison to the
current Presidential scandal, but for now the differences between the
two outweigh the similarities. Still, by the standards of Watergate, the
Russia scandal is still in its infancy. Time, and further disclosures,
may make the analogy ever more precise.


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