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Opinion: Even Tricky Dick Didn’t Bow and Scrape to Brezhnev

Trump’s Helsinki performance alone is worse than Watergate

When former President Richard Nixon met with a Russian leader after Watergate, he didn’t use the occasion to diss U.S. law enforcement, U.S. intelligence agencies or democracy, Walter Shapiro writes. (Courtesy the National Archives and Records Administration)
When former President Richard Nixon met with a Russian leader after Watergate, he didn’t use the occasion to diss U.S. law enforcement, U.S. intelligence agencies or democracy, Walter Shapiro writes. (Courtesy the National Archives and Records Administration)

“Worse than Watergate” is an epithet that Donald Trump supporters hurl like a javelin at the FBI and the Robert Mueller investigation. But after looking back at the history, it is easy to conclude that Trump’s hellish Helsinki press conference was by itself worse than Watergate.

Like Trump with his shrill denials of any collusion with the Russians, Richard Nixon had publicly insisted that he had no knowledge of the 1972 Watergate break-in or the frenzied cover-up.

Even after a bipartisan majority of the House Judiciary Committee voted for impeachment in late July 1974, Nixon continued his stonewalling. But that stance quickly crumbled when a unanimous Supreme Court ordered the beleaguered president to hand over incriminating White House recordings.

What turned out to be the “smoking gun” tape featured an Oval Office conversation six days after the bumbling burglars were caught at the Watergate. Plotting with top aide H.R. Haldeman, Nixon suggested bludgeoning the CIA into ordering the FBI to drop its Watergate investigation on national security grounds.

The tape’s one-two punch of exposing Nixon’s lies about no collusion combined with tangible evidence of his willingness to suborn the nation’s top intelligence agency for personal political protection made resignation inevitable.

But for all his immorality and obsession with power, Nixon’s patriotism was never called into question. Even when Nixon met in Moscow with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev in late June 1974, the president never uttered a word critical of American law enforcement, U.S. intelligence agencies or the principles of democracy.

He was no Trump

The contrast with Trump in Helsinki is stark.

The shock of a president attacking the FBI and repudiating the intelligence community while the thuggish Russian president looked on is a stain that can never be erased.

The most charitable interpretation of Trump’s Helsinki performance is that he was deranged. No one could watch Trump’s incoherent rambles (“Why haven’t they taken the server?”) and his splenetic obsession with Hillary Clinton’s missing emails without wondering about the president’s grasp of the reality that this was a joint press conference with Vladimir Putin.

The dominant sense coming out of Helsinki was that Trump was “the server” and Putin the master. Following his human tornado attempts to level Angela Merkel and Theresa May, Trump’s obsequious deference to Putin buttressed even the most outlandish conspiracy theories about Russia’s hold on the American president.

Trump’s return to Washington amid almost total (non-Sean Hannity) derision gave rise to the obvious what-next question. The president’s Tuesday damage control claim that he was confused by a double negative in Helsinki is as risible as his boasting about his inaugural crowds and his popularity in Britain.

Watch: Trump Says He ‘Misspoke’ on Russian Election Meddling

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Sadly, there were no public resignations in protest from inside the administration during the first 36 hours after the Finnish fiasco. At this point does anyone (with the possible exception of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis) believe that his or her presence in government is saving America from Trump’s worst instincts?

When Trump’s words and actions invite nostalgia for Neville Chamberlain, any political appointee who remains in place will be tarred by association with a president whose true gospel is “Make America Weak Again.”

Yes, many congressional Republicans issued statements dissenting from Trump’s whitewash of Russian meddling in the 2016 election. But it is dispiriting that few GOP mealy-mouthed “I’m troubled” comments matched the cold fury of the ailing John McCain’s blast from Arizona, who called the press conference “one of the most disgraceful performances by a president in memory.”

But judging by the feckless record of congressional Republicans during the first 18 months of the Trump presidency, the outcry will likely peter out before the end of the week. Already, members of the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus are showing their double-jointed dexterity by praising Trump for meeting Putin at all.

Have the standards of country-over-party patriotism really eroded that dramatically in little more than four decades?

The release of Nixon’s “smoking gun” tape prompted John Rhodes, the House Republican leader, and Charles Wiggins, Nixon’s most articulate defender on the House Judiciary Committee, to announce that they would vote for impeachment. The end came for Nixon when Rhodes, Senate Minority Leader Hugh Scott and Barry Goldwater, the conservative icon, met with the president in the Oval Office.

While the word “resignation” was never uttered, the GOP leaders made clear that Nixon could muster only about 50 votes against impeachment in the House and around a dozen against conviction in the Senate. After the meeting, Nixon told his family in the White House solarium, “We’re going back to California.”

If only it were possible to try such an intervention to convince Trump to resign voluntarily.

A little courage, please

Not only do congressional Republicans lack the courage, but also nothing about Trump’s personality suggests that he would succumb to appeals to practicality or patriotism.

In theory, Trump might be reminded that it will only get worse from here with the Democrats poised to take back the House in November, the Mueller investigation getting closer and the economy unlikely to continue its gravity-defying flight with trade wars raging.

For all Mike Pence’s extreme social conservatism, for all his sycophancy to Trump, nobody has ever worried that the vice president is under the thumb of a foreign power. That alone should be enough to convince GOP leaders to make a quixotic effort to convince Trump to resign.

Of course, this is a desperate fantasy, since 2018 isn’t 1974. And today’s Republicans lack the courage and patriotism of their Nixon-era predecessors.

The “American Century” supposedly began with America’s entrance into World War II in 1941. Tragically, that era may have ended on Monday in Helsinki with the president of the United States genuflecting in front of the Russian leader. 

Walter Shapiro, a Roll Call columnist since 2015, has covered the last 10 presidential campaigns. He is also a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.

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