The presidency survived the Watergate, Iran-contra and Clinton scandals. Trump will exact a higher toll. This review of three books by Carlos Lozada in the Washington Post shows that “Histories of past presidential scandals reveal common threads and turning points – but also show how Trump stands alone.”
In my review of this review I’m skipping the details of the earlier scandals and moving to what makes Trump special when compared to Nixon, Reagan, and Clinton.
Trump appears Nixonian in his disregard for democratic norms, Clintonian in his personal recklessness and beyond Reaganesque in his distance from the details of policy. But where the parallels and parables of past scandals fall apart is with Trump’s well-documented disregard for truth. In Watergate, Iran-contra and the Clinton impeachment, views of the president’s honesty played a significant role for the public, for administration officials and for lawmakers torn over how to proceed.
Normally, revelations of presidential deceit are consequential. When Nixon speechwriter Patrick Buchanan, among the most devoted of the president’s men, explained to Nixon family members why a damning Oval Office recording meant that resignation was inevitable, he emphasized not law but dishonesty. “The problem is not Watergate or the cover-up,” he argued. “It’s that he hasn’t been telling the truth to the American people. The tape makes it evident that he hasn’t leveled with the country for probably eighteen months. And the President can’t lead a country he has deliberately misled.” When Sen. Susan Collins of Maine (one of a handful of Senate Republicans who ultimately voted against both articles of impeachment for Clinton) was agonizing over the decision, her misgivings centered on the president’s forthrightness. “She could not get over Clinton’s recklessness — it was as if he could not stop doing wrong, could not tell the truth,” Baker reports. And some of Reagan’s worst Iran-contra moments came in statements the president made in late 1986 and early 1987, when his questionable mastery of details and shifting rationales received tough scrutiny. In a March 1987 Oval Office speech, he finally (and mostly) fessed up. “A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages,” Reagan said. “My heart and my best intentions still tell me that’s true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not.”
In my mind, it is questionable whether Donald Trump possesses even this modicum of self-awareness.
The current president does not even attempt to save face. Fact-checkers have documented so many of Trump’s false or misleading statements during the 2016 campaign and into the first year of his presidency that there is no presumption of honesty left to squander. Even when Trump dismisses the fact checks as fake news — in effect, being dishonest about his dishonesty — it doesn’t seem to matter. Trump’s relentless attacks against anyone seeking to hold him accountable help neutralize the impact on his supporters.
During Watergate, top Nixon aides worried that the material on the Oval Office tapes — not just the disclosures of wrongdoing but also the “amorality” of Nixon’s words and thoughts — would hurt the president and the presidency. Ziegler was adamantly opposed to releasing transcripts, Woodward and Bernstein write, because “there was rough language on the tapes,” candid discussions that would “offend Middle America, destroy his mandate.” Once certain transcripts were made public, Nixon lawyer Leonard Garment worried that president had “allowed America into the ugliness of his mind — as if he wanted the world to participate in the despoliation of the myth of presidential behavior. . . . That was the truly impeachable offense: letting everyone see.”
With Trump, we’ve already seen it, and we already know it. His tweets are his Nixon tapes; the “Access Hollywood” recording his Starr report; his heedlessness for checks, balances and the rule of law his Iran-contra affair. Offending does not destroy his mandate, it fulfills it. The expectation of integrity has given way to a cynical acceptance of deceit. As much as anything Mueller uncovers, this is the scandal of our time.