Friday is the 50th anniversary of the Watergate break-in that would end Richard M. Nixon’s presidency two years later. By then, his vice president and successor, Gerald R. Ford Jr., would be telling Americans, “Our long national nightmare is over.”
Little could Ford or his audience have imagined the nation’s current nightmare, one that is far from over. We are enduring the biggest presidential scandal since Watergate, or ever: Donald Trump’s continued assault on democracy, following his unprecedented refusal to accept the outcome of the 2020 election and allow the peaceful transfer of power to the winner.
When it comes to presidential disgrace, Don the Con tops even Tricky Dick. Trump, however, has had much more help in achieving his ignominy.
Jackie Calmes brings a critical look to the national political scene. He has decades of experience covering the White House and Congress.
When Nixon resigned and helicoptered away from the White House, the often-expressed consensus was that “the system worked.” All three branches of government had done their part: Congress, the courts, and even the executive branch once Nixon’s henchmen were out of the way and incarcerated. Finally, Nixon himself, a believer in constitutional government despite its many flaws, and a patriot compared to the treacherous Trump, accepted that the trap was over.
In Trump’s case, the system has not worked. Up to this point. He walks free while the Justice Department hangs around, has raised hundreds of millions of dollars from his supporters (“The ‘Big Lie’ was a big scam, too,” as San Jose Rep. Zoe Lofgren put it), and says that he plans to run for president again. It’s not at all clear whether the system will — or can — bring him to justice before that happens.
However, we have learned some hard-earned insights: It is not “the system” that must work to preserve our 246-year-old nation. It is the people to whom we entrust the operation of the machinery of government who must act.
And those people, mainly the Republicans among them, continue to fail us. Led in Congress by Senator Mitch McConnell and Representative Kevin McCarthy, they have allowed Trump’s worst abuses for years because of their acquiescence and opposition to his impeachment, first for extorting money from a foreign country for political filth and then for inciting an insurrection. to stay in power.
In February 2021, the Senate voted 57-43 to convict Trump of incitement, but the majority (all 50 Democrats and seven early Republicans) fell within 10 votes of the required two-thirds margin under the Constitution. If McConnell and just nine additional Republicans had voted to convict, they wouldn’t have to worry that Trump could be their party’s nominee for 2024. They could have barred him, after conviction, from running for federal office.
Nixon also had his Republican enablers initially, including Senator Howard H. Baker Jr. of Tennessee. That helps explain why more than two years elapsed from the election-year burglary of the Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate building to Nixon’s resignation under threat of impeachment and Senate conviction.
However, back then, the truth had a common meaning for both parties. Baker and many other Republicans in Congress were not only swayed by the evidence that was piled up against Nixon, but also helped bring that evidence to light during the House impeachment hearing and, especially, the special hearings of the Senate Watergate Committee.
“What did the president know and when did he know it?” Baker, the vice chairman of the Senate panel, famously asked.
Other Republican leaders, including conservative icon Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona, went to the White House and persuaded Nixon to resign rather than have him forced out of office by Congress.
That reflects another difference between then and now: Most Republicans at the time put country above party and rewarded politicians who acted accordingly.
After Baker’s starring role against Nixon, he would become Senate Majority Leader and then Ronald Reagan’s White House chief of staff. He compares his fate to the party’s treatment of Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, also vice chair of a committee investigating a Republican presidential scandal.
Just for condemning the damnable Trump, Cheney was kicked out of the House Republican leadership team (supported by McCarthy), excommunicated by the Wyoming GOP (its chairman belongs to the Oath Keepers militia group), censured by the National Committee Republican and likely facing defeat. for re-election to a Trump-backed rival.
Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger, the only other Republican who similarly clashed with Trump and served on the House committee investigating the coup attempt, received the same treatment. He chose not to seek re-election.
The Republican Party is Trump’s party: radicalized, tribal, sectarian. Most Republicans in Congress did not even vote to create a committee to investigate the attack on the legislative branch by the chief executive, an attack that threatened their lives. Those who did are being punished by Trumpian voters in the party’s primaries.
Yes, Republican voters are as much to blame as the party’s politicians for the failings of the “system.” In recent primaries, including in four states on Tuesday, voters have chosen dozens of state and federal candidates who blame Trump for the Big Lie that he stole the 2020 election.
Driving in rural Ohio on Sunday after a visit to family there, I passed a sign on a farm fence: “Biden did not defeat Trump. Election fraud did it.”
That sums up the Republican litmus test these days, and it’s a lie. State and federal politicians feed the lie or at least tolerate it. Until they stop, “the system” cannot function as it once proudly did. And our national nightmare not only persists, but threatens to get worse.