One of the many characteristics of The First Former President to be Indicted (Twice Thrice, Four Freaking Times, for now) is that he sucks all the oxygen out of the room of our national public discourse (not to mention that he just sucks in general). Another is that he’s a fascist who’d destroy our democracy without a second thought in order to save his own skin, but we’ll leave that aside for a moment. This chaos agent’s actions reverberate throughout our politics in a way no American figure has before—not even Richard Nixon, who resigned from the presidency in disgrace in the aftermath of Watergate.
That scandal brings to mind another comparison between then and now, namely how differently leading Republicans, in particular those in Congress, have reacted to the leader of their party facing investigation and accountability for his behavior. Let me start with a little hint: The Trumpist Republicans of today don’t come out of this comparison looking very good.
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After The Man Who Lost an Election and Tried to Steal it made his first court appearance and entered a plea in response to the deadly serious national security-related charges brought by special counsel Jack Smith in the classified documents case, we saw responses from a broad array of Republican officials. Overall, it ain’t pretty. The same goes for the responses to the Jan. 6-related Trump indictments as well as to the indictments in Georgia offered by most of the Republicans running, in theory at least, against Trump for the GQP presidential nomination, along with other top members of the Trumpist party.
who is speaking out?
There are some exceptions, no doubt, including Sens. Lisa Murkowski, Bill Cassidy, and Mitt Romney, Rep. Don Bacon, and Gov. Chris Sununu. Within the Republican presidential field only several have spoken out strongly, but none of them exactly qualify as a frontrunner. Chris Christie said Trump “has been a one-man crime wave. Look, he’s earned every one of [the indictments]. If you look at it, every one of these is self-inflicted.” Will Hurd shared, “Donald Trump is running to stay out of prison.” Asa Hutchinson said, “I have said from the beginning that Donald Trump’s actions on January 6 should disqualify him from ever being president again.” The other candidates have been fairly mealy-mouthed at best (even after the fourth indictment, which caused little change in how they talked about the erstwhile frontrunner), with the Nikki Haley versus Nikki Haley debate being particularly pathetic. Meanwhile, a number of them have stated they’d even pardon the insurrectionist-in-chief.
Given his slavish loyalty along with the completely false presentations in support of his boss he made prior to the 2020 election, the assessments former U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr offered on the documents case as well as on the Jan. 6 indictments carry perhaps the most weight. However, as Daily Kos’ Laura Clawson so helpfully reminds us, he remains a “sleazeball.”
But for the most part, the sycophantic (not to mention dangerous to our democracy) behavior of congressional Republicans is both awful and yet exactly what you’d expect, in particular from the MAGA caucus over in the House. It doesn’t get much more moronic than Barely Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who was asked whether it was perhaps problematic that the disgraced former president was knowingly storing national security secrets next to the toilet. He replied that “a bathroom door locks.” (Hey, Kev, you know it only locks from the inside, right?) Looks like he’s locked the remnants of his integrity behind such a door and has thrown away the key. Additionally, his comments regarding the Jan. 6 indictments were less laughable, but if anything more cynical.
Regarding the attempt by McCarthy and the other Trump stooges to attack the indictment by drawing false parallels to investigations of President Joe Biden or Hillary Clinton, Jesse Wegman of The New York Times thoroughly dismantled that malarkey one bald-faced lie at a time. What’s so harmful is that Trump—the most prodigious liar in American history—has set a precedent that Republicans who lie will never be punished by their own party. Would there have been a George Santos or a shady grifter like Vivek Ramaswamy in our politics if there hadn’t already been a Donald Trump, who has led with lies and deceit right from the start of his public career?
Moving forward, will we see more members of what remains of the Party of Trump actually reject their pro-crime, anti-law enforcement stance and turn on their leader as more evidence comes into public view? That’s a key question for the present.
looking to the past
But how about the past? Specifically, how did Republicans measure up on that very question a half-century ago, the last time a president from their party behaved criminally and put our constitutional democracy at risk? To start with, it's not as simple as saying that Republicans back then immediately turned on Nixon once reporting made clear by spring 1973 that the White House was engaged in a cover-up. However, during the following year, two profoundly important developments took place.
First, Republicans in the House backed the impeachment inquiry's subpoena efforts. Nixon had claimed that executive privilege gave him the right to withhold recordings of Oval Office conversations along with other relevant evidence. Michigan Republican Rep. Edward Hutchinson, the ranking member of his party on the House Judiciary Committee that ultimately voted to impeach Nixon, utterly rejected such a claim, stating that “executive privilege, in the face of an impeachment inquiry, must fail.”
The House agreed overwhelmingly, and in a vote of 410-4 (!) gave the committee the authority to subpoena whatever it felt necessary. The four no votes were all Republican. Those subpoenas resulted in the production of the tapes that ultimately brought down a president. Second, when that overwhelming evidence came out, House and Senate Republicans assessed it fairly and told Nixon he had to go.
Garrett Graff, who wrote the recent book “Watergate: A New History,” offered the following summary to The New York Times: “In 1972 to 1974, the Republicans participated as good-faith members of the process. They saw their roles as legislators first and Republicans second.” Regarding the charges leveled against a president from their own party, “they definitely were skeptical” at first; however, ultimately “they followed the facts where they led.”
One separate but related point of comparison concerns the media. During Watergate, most Americans got their information from outlets that reported, well, the news. Now a good chunk of Republican voters soak up propaganda from sources like Fox, which just this June shamelessly and without any factual basis for doing so characterized the elected president of the United States as a “wannabe dictator.” (At least the producer who was responsible resigned three days later, but the damage was done.) That’s not good for our democracy.
Getting back to the politicians, Garrett further explained that when Nixon’s own second-in-command, then-Vice President Spiro Agnew, went after his boss’ enemies, he focused his ire “mainly against the press, not the F.B.I. or the special prosecutor.” Trump, on the other hand, has assailed our entire system of justice. He called Jack Smith a “deranged lunatic” and a “psycho;” referred to “the ‘Thugs’ from the Department of Injustice;” slandered Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, who filed the charges against him in Georgia, by calling her a racist; and attacked Judge Tanya Chutkan, who is overseeing the Jan. 6 case, as “highly partisan” and “VERY BIASED AND UNFAIR.” Ohio State law professor Joshua Dressler stated, “This could be interpreted as an attempt to intimidate Judge Chutkan.” Not even the Nixon White House went that far. Trump’s allies have shown themselves to be equally erratic—he sets the example and others follow it blindly—with Rep. Andy Biggs of Arizona going all the way to no sense left at all.
Beyond Biggs, we’ve already seen violent rhetoric spewing forth from Trump supporters, along with threats of violence credible enough to lead to criminal charges. Unfortunately we can expect more of this as his trials move forward. Fuck a L’Orange himself has already incited one violent insurrection, and that was just to keep his day job. Do we really think he’ll hold back when the stakes are a prison sentence? That’s one punishment he won’t be able to buy his way out of.
but what about the democrats?
Because we’ve discussed Republicans acting in a bipartisan fashion during Watergate and contrasted that against the overwhelming majority of Republicans in the Trump era, it’s important to also address how Democrats acted during the investigation and impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton. First, yes, Democrats were unified in opposing Clinton’s impeachment and removal from office, but there are fundamental differences between what happened then and what Trump has done over the past few years.
Most importantly, Clinton was investigated for private behavior. Trump (and Nixon), on the other hand, were investigated and, in the Tangerine Palpatine’s case, impeached for abuses of office that rendered them unfit to serve (though Trump obviously has some private behavior he’s on the hook for as well). Both demonstrated themselves to be threats to the rule of law.
Second, Robert Fiske, the initial, nonpartisan special counsel assigned to investigate Clinton, was unjustly removed by a panel of Republican judges and replaced by hyper-partisan Ken Starr. Fiske had at that point already concluded that there was no criminality in the Whitewater or Vince Foster cases, which happened to be the matters he was charged with investigating. Republicans in the House ultimately impeached Clinton over wrongdoing that would never have occurred without Starr coming in and forcing him to testify under oath.
Democrats were right to vote against impeachment and conviction there because not only did Clinton’s behavior, wrong though it was, not rise to the level of necessitating the overturning of the will of the people, the Starr process was partisan from the start. And the American public consistently agreed with the Democrats’ stance. In other words, just as Republicans acted on the side of our Constitution by working with Democrats during Watergate, Democrats did likewise by opposing Republicans during the Starr/Clinton business.
Getting back to the current cast of characters, Jackie Calmes wrote a year ago that Trump-era Republicans—as well as the Republican voters who keep rewarding them in primary elections—had already failed the American people by letting Trump off the hook for the unconscionable crimes he committed while in office. Will they, as a party, take this final opportunity provided by Smith and Willis to redeem themselves? Don’t hold your breath.
Here’s one thing we can say about how leading Republicans acted in Nixon’s time—a time when, as Calmes pointed out, “the truth had a common meaning to both parties.” Back then they knew when the game was up, and they made sure Nixon wouldn’t end up being able to raise $7 million for another White House run off a mugshot.
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putting democracy over partisanship
Were Watergate-era Republicans in Congress reading the political tea leaves? They couldn’t ignore them, that’s for sure (and neither will the Republicans of 2023, many of whom will only turn on Trump if and when it suits them politically). But beyond the polls, enough Nixon-era Republicans at least recognized the gravity of what their leader, the president of the United States, had done. They were prepared to join with Democrats in Congress to remove him from office. They sealed his political fate. They put democracy over partisanship. Country over party.
On the other hand, when Putin’s puppet got impeached the first time, Mitt Romney was the only Republican senator to vote for conviction. The second time around, he was joined by six others. I guess that represents progress? On the other hand, of the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump over Jan. 6, only a paltry two made it back into the next Congress. (Four retired, including Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, while four were defeated in GQP primaries.) Either way, I have not a single doubt that in the unimaginable hypothetical circumstance where a Democratic president had behaved exactly as Trump did, every single Republican member of the House would have voted to impeach, and every single Senate Republican would have voted to convict. Oh, and so would have every Democrat in their respective chambers. That’s another pretty damn important point of comparison to make here.
As it stands right now, congressional Republicans have no official responsibility for what becomes of Donald Trump, either criminally or politically. His criminal fate rests in the hands of the folks serving on various juries in Florida, New York, Georgia, D.C., and who knows where else, while his political fate, at least at first, is in the hands of Republican primary voters.
When it comes to moral responsibility, congressional Republicans as a whole showed absolutely none of it when they were charged with assessing whether Fuck a L’Orange should have been impeached and removed from the presidency. If they had acted responsibly, maybe our country wouldn’t be stuck where we are now: in a room without any oxygen.
Ian Reifowitz is the author of The Tribalization of Politics: How Rush Limbaugh's Race-Baiting Rhetoric on the Obama Presidency Paved the Way for Trump (Foreword by Markos Moulitsas)