President Nixon with his edited transcripts of the White House Tapes subpoenaed by the Special Prosecutor, during his speech to the Nation on Watergate. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
President Nixon with his edited transcripts of the White House Tapes subpoenaed by the Special Prosecutor, during his speech to the Nation on Watergate. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

President Donald J Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey is unprecedented, as is much of what Trump has undertaken as president. Despite similarities with president Richard M Nixon’s infamous “Saturday Night Massacre” 44 years ago, during the Watergate scandal, the political situations are utterly different.

In October 1973, Nixon, waiting until a weekend, ordered the dismissal of a newly appointed special prosecutor, Archibald Cox, who had issued a subpoena demanding that Nixon hand over secretly recorded – and, as would become clear, highly damning – White House tapes.

Nixon’s defiance was direct, and the result was disastrous. Attorney general Elliot Richardson and deputy attorney General William Ruckelshaus resigned in protest rather than carry out the president’s order. A federal judge ruled the firing of Cox illegal. Public opinion polls showed, for the first time, a plurality of Americans favoring Nixon’s impeachment.

It was the beginning of the end. Congressmen introduced impeachment resolutions. Nixon was forced to appoint a new special prosecutor. The drama thickened for another 10 months, until the Supreme Court unanimously ordered Nixon to surrender the tapes. A few days after that, Nixon resigned rather than face certain impeachment and removal from office.

By contrast, unless the stars realign, Trump’s firing of Comey may mark the beginning of nothing, or at least of nothing bad for the president. Trump, like Nixon, may well be guilty of grave impeachable offenses – even graver offenses than Nixon’s.

Trump, like Nixon, may have feared that unless he fired the person in charge of investigating him, some terrible revelation would be forthcoming. But, even if all this is so, Trump, unlike Nixon, may very well get away with it.

The two events differ in many ways, including their timing. By the time Nixon fired Cox, the Watergate affair had been building for far longer than the allegations about Trump and Russia have, so nerves had been rubbed raw.

The main differences, though, are political. In Nixon’s time, there were solid adversarial Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, and there were also some Republicans, especially in the Senate, who put concerns about the Constitution ahead of concerns for their party.

A close up of the New York Times front page dated August 9, 1974, on President Richard Nixon resigning after the Watergate scandal. Photo: iStock

The Senate appointed a special select committee, headed by Democrat Sam Ervin and Republican Howard Baker, which heard testimony and gathered official evidence that led to the indictment of 40 administration officials and the conviction of several top White House aides, as well as to Nixon’s resignation.

Today’s Republican congressional majorities, however, have seemed singularly devoted to slowing and narrowing any serious inquiry into the thoroughly substantiated reports of Russian efforts to throw the 2016 election to Trump.

Although there has been talk, even from some Republicans, about appointing a select committee or a special prosecutor to look into the allegations about the Russians and the Trump campaign, the resistance has been extraordinary compared to 1973.

Based on the events of the last week, Republicans evidently would rather rail against insider leaks and, yes, Hillary Clinton’s email server than inquire into the White House’s insouciance about former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s alarming links to Russia and Turkey.

Without a significant shift, the congressional investigations will continue to remain confined to the standing House and Senate committees, where they will likely remain understaffed and under-motivated.

Then there is the press. In 1973, dogged reporting by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward of the Washington Post kept the Watergate story alive, after most news outlets had dropped it. Once their reporting gained traction, the rest of the press picked up the scandal and kept up the pressure on the Nixon White House.

Today, Trump can count on the fervent support of propaganda operations that Nixon could only have prayed for, including the unabashedly polemical Fox News and Breitbart News, as well as the countless bloggers (and, for that matter, Russian-controlled cyberbots) pumping out pro-Trump propaganda.

FBI Director James Comey and US President Donald Trump at the White House. Photo: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst, Kevin Lamarque

As I write this, one Fox commentator after another is parroting the White House’s absurd claim that Trump fired Comey because of the terrible things the FBI director did to Clinton during the campaign. One almost expects the network’s biggest star, Sean Hannity, to start leading on-air anti-Comey chants of “Lock Him Up!”

The effect on anyone who recalls Trump’s cheerleading for Comey last October – followed by the red-hatted crowds’ ritualistic baying to jail crooked Hillary – is psychedelic. But fans of Fox News usually believe what the channel reports. And while Nixon had Fox News’ future Svengali, a young Roger Ailes, behind him, Fox and the rest were still two decades away.

It is possible, of course, that Trump’s firing of Comey will push some Republicans to decide that enough is enough and follow Baker’s example. The early responses have been mixed: although Republican Senators Jeff Flake, John McCain, and Ben Sasse have expressed varying degrees of disappointment, normally independent-minded Senators Susan Collins and Lindsay Graham have backed Trump’s decision.

There is always a chance, in such a volatile climate, that deals will be broken, witnesses will flip, and facts will emerge that are every bit as incriminating as the evidence that felled Nixon.

International developments might also awaken some Republicans to the magnitude of the Russian offensive on Western democracies, an offensive which, in the wake of the French elections, feels like an undeclared war.

For the moment, though, there is no reason to see Trump’s firing of Comey as a re-run of Nixon’s “Saturday Night Massacre,” or any other event in American political history. The president may be acting as if he has something terrible to hide, just as Nixon did, but that won’t be enough under the circumstances to cause the exposure of whatever it may be.

Ironically, Trump, the self-declared outsider who lost the popular vote and squeaked into office by winning the Electoral College, finds himself, for the moment, in some ways more protected than the party man Nixon, who won the 1972 election by overwhelming popular as well as electoral margins. It may be unsettling to acknowledge, but history is not repeating itself, no matter how tragic or farcical things might appear. Trump may yet fall, but a lot will have to change.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2017

Sean Wilentz

Professor Sean Wilentz is the George Henry Davis 1886 Professor of American History at Princeton University. His books include The Politicians and Egalitarians: the Hidden History of American Politics, and Bob Dylan in America.