On October 18, two days before the 44th anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s infamous Saturday Night Massacre, NYU Law’s Brennan Center for Justice hosted “Lessons from Watergate for the Trump Era,” a discussion with two key figures involved in the events surrounding Nixon’s downfall.
Recent public discourse has made much of the parallels between the administrations of Nixon and President Donald Trump, including the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate potential wrongdoing in the executive branch, the ousting of top Justice Department officials, and an often-adversarial commander-in-chief. “We believe that our systems of democracy, the systems by which we have stayed free for over two centuries, are badly broken, are corroded…. But this is not the only time in our country’s history when those systems have been at risk,” said Michael Waldman ’87, the Brennan Center’s president, in his introduction.
John Dean, Nixon’s White House counsel, was deeply involved in the Watergate cover-up before ultimately cooperating with investigators; his testimony before the US Senate Watergate Committee helped bring down numerous administration officials, including Nixon himself. He began his comments at the Brennan Center event with humor; noting a piano in the room, he said, “I only sing in front of Senate committees.”
Dean stressed both the parallels and contrasts between Nixon and Trump. Invoking the classification system of presidents’ worldviews created by political scientist James David Barber, Dean pointed out that both Nixon and Trump would be classified as “active-negatives,” presidents who, while aggressive in their powerful role, “don’t like and don’t have any self-satisfaction in the job they’re doing.” He added that such administrations “are typically failed presidencies.”
Elizabeth Holtzman, who served on the US House Judiciary Committee during the Nixon impeachment proceedings, said that she considered presidential character to be more determinative than personality. “I don’t know if President Trump can tell the difference between what’s true and what’s not true,” she said. “I don’t know how his mentation works. I don’t know what he can absorb.”
Holtzman made an implicit parallel between the 1970s and now in describing how, despite a series of revelations about the Nixon administration’s bad acts, impeachment was not a serious option for Congress before the Saturday Night Massacre, when Nixon’s attempts to have Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox fired resulted in the resignations of both the attorney general and the deputy attorney general. “Maybe it’s because the public wasn’t demanding any movement, and the enormous and maybe a justifiable inertia not to move quickly or improvidently or imprudently on impeachment,” she said, asserting that when the public did react, so did legislators.
Echoing Holtzman’s point, Dean added, “The lesson is it takes an awful lot of inertia, it takes an awful lot of public attention, and it probably takes a triggering event to start an impeachment proceeding in modern times.”
Watch the full video of the event (1 hr, 4 min):
Posted November 20, 2017