American audiences love sequels. If you loved or hated the Mueller report, you will love or hate the congressional sequel as public impeachment hearings begin November 13. Donald Trump appeared to get away with “in your face” election interference in 2016. Can he do it again in 2020? If so, will he go for a third or fourth sequel?
But there’s more. Trump’s episodes are a repeat of Nixon’s dramas in 1968 and 1972. President Johnson and top officials around him knew that Nixon got away with interfering in foreign policy in 1968 and thus won election through international dirty tricks. Although unknown at the time, the Watergate break-in was a sequel in domestic policy to Nixon’s successful interference of 1968.
Even as the outcome of the unfolding impeachment drama remains uncertain, three historical lessons can be seen although their outcomes can’t be predicted at this time. Contrary to what you hear, history does not repeat itself. But some themes and patterns recur, taking unexpected shapes that raise new dangers and possibilities as in the case of these three lessons.
Lesson One: Parallelism. Nixon was caught during his second term for illegally meddling in an election he was sure to win. He had gotten away with illegal meddling in the 1968 election as President Johnson sealed the evidence out of concern for national security. Donald Trump meddled in the 2016 campaign in front of television cameras. The investigation into his actions were kept secret even as investigations of his opponent impacted the campaign. Trump damaged the effectiveness of the Mueller Report by attacking it for two years then having his Attorney General undermine it as it was released. Despite evidence that should have led to impeachment, it appeared that meddling during the 2016 campaign might not prevent Trump’s re-election.
The parallel with Nixon becomes clear after the Mueller Report. Needing still more Russian help to win re-election, Trump began to drum up investigations into his most feared opponent in 2020 by using military aid funded by congress to extort the president of Ukraine. This was not done before cameras but in the presence of seasoned diplomatic professionals who understood the dangers to our national security.
Seeming to have escaped meddling for a first term, as Nixon had also escaped, Trump was caught doing the same thing for a second term. The whistleblower’s complaint had the effect of the botched Watergate break-in. Both events brought into the light events meant to happen in secret. Investigations then led to conscience-stricken individuals standing before cameras exposing presidential underhandedness to the world.
Lesson Two: Predictable versus Unpredictable Outcome. Media commentators and political scientists are behaving more like football announcers when they focus on political gamesmanship to predict the outcome of this impeachment process. The outcome of the Bill Clinton impeachment became clear when Senate Democrats stood behind him, agreeing with most of the American people that he had done wrong but should not have been impeached. The outcome for Nixon, however, was not predictable. He was not impeached or put on trial because support collapsed to the point that he resigned rather than endure the process. Therefore, if impeaching Trump fails, it will happen predictably as Senate Republicans follow Mitch McConnell and hold the line. If impeachment succeeds, it will most likely take a course not being predicted at this time and will demonstrate the skill of Nancy Pelosi for negotiating impossible situations.
This impeachment process depends on the contest between Mitch McConnell and Nancy Pelosi. It is possibly the last battle of the war between them since the Affordable Care Act (ACA). McConnell held the Republican line in the Senate when the ACA passed with a 60-vote Democratic majority. Soon thereafter, Democrats lost one of those seats and it appeared certain the House would never accept the Senate version. That is when Pelosi did the impossible, proving herself to be a closer when it counts – even when it meant losing the majority in the House. McConnell then used the ACA to defeat Democrats for four consecutive congressional elections. But elimination of the ACA only became possible after the victory of 2016 with the victory of Trump. That’s when public opinion turned as it became clear there was no Republican alternative to the benefits millions of people would lose.Mitch McConnell appears to have the upper hand if impeachment moves to trial in the Senate. No one doubts he intends to stand by the party rather than the country – he already committed to that choice in the election of 2016 when he refused to support President Obama’s actions against Russian interference.
However, Nancy Pelosi gets to manage the process before it goes to the Senate. She has an impressive record of winning when she commits to fights and should not be underestimated. She has also demonstrated her commitment to country more than party. If her strategy leads to successfully bringing down Donald Trump, it will almost certainly follow a route no one can predict as public hearings begin.
Lesson Three: Russia and China. Nixon meddled in two elections while we were in a war in Vietnam. Our enemy was North Vietnam, but we knew they were a proxy for China and Russia. Nixon was also extremely skillful in reorienting national policies toward China and Russia in ways that clearly promoted world peace and did not undermine our international alliances.
Any true disciple of Nixon Republicanism must be shocked that the Nixon revenge squad of Roger Ailes, Paul Manafort, and Roger Stone used Russian help to elect Donald Trump. The meddling in Ukraine also helps Russia while demonstrating to other allies that we can’t be trusted.
Eisenhower, Nixon, and Reagan would roll over in their graves (if such a thing were possible) at the prospect of a Republican president single-handedly cow-towing to Russia, attacking our European allies, undermining the confidence of South Korea and Japan, and sending our farmers into recession through a trade war with China that has permanently undermined agricultural supply chains. These achievements of the first term will be followed by greater catastrophes if current election meddling brings a second Trump presidential term.
Conclusion. Richard Nixon undermined peace efforts in Vietnam as part of running for president in 1968. Lyndon Johnson hid that deed from the public out of concern for national security. Nixon meddled in the election of 1972, was caught, and had to resign to escape impeachment. Three Nixon followers out for revenge (Roger Ailes, Paul Manafort, and Roger Stone) helped Donald Trump win the election of 2016 with Russian support. Trump’s opponent was known to be under FBI investigation but news of a more serious investigation into Trump was kept secret. The FBI investigation resulted in the work of Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller which was successfully obstructed. Mueller’s results played by the rules in a way that seemed to reward obstruction. With the help of a compliant Attorney General, it looked as if Trump had escaped. Then came news of a whistleblower, like the surprising news of the Watergate break-in. This led to a series of professionals telling the truth to congress and prompted an impeachment inquiry.
Like Nixon, Trump was caught with smoking gun in his hand. Both got away with murder the first time. Will Trump escape the second time?
The answer depends on the American people and Nancy Pelosi. The public is about to hear the truth. Will we recognize it and demand removal of this president? If impeachment succeeds, it will happen because of the insight and integrity of Nancy Pelosi and her team. And the outcome will be something none of us can predict as the public hearings begin.
References on Nixon’s 1968 Election Interference:
Peter Baker, “Nixon Tried to Spoil Johnson’s Vietnam Peace Talks in ’68, Notes Show,” The New York Times (January 2, 2017), https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/02/us/politics/nixon-tried-to-spoil-johnsons-vietnam-peace-talks-in-68-notes-show.html.
John A. Farrell, “When a Candidate Conspired With a Foreign Power to Win An Election,” Politico Magazine (August 6, 2017), https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/08/06/nixon-vietnam-candidate-conspired-with-foreign-power-win-election-215461.
Robert Johnson, “Did Nixon Commit Treason in 1968? What The New LBJ Tapes Reveal,” History News Network, https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/60446.
Charles Wheeler, “The Lyndon Johnson tapes: Richard Nixon’s ‘treason’,” BBC News Magazine (March 22, 2013), https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-21768668.