Thanks to a recording system set up by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940, Richard M. Nixon’s presidency is an open book – literally. His good, bad and ugly were memorialized by 3,400 hours of audio tapes. By his own words, Nixon showed precisely what a United States president must never do. And his paranoid rantings and criminal demands are totally shocking.
Nixon surrounded himself with ruthless men who were eager to do his bidding. Domestic policy advisor, John Ehrlichman, White House Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman and Attorney General John Mitchell were the main perpetrators of Nixon’s crimes. White House Counsel John Dean joined the terrible trio in July 1970. Louis Patrick Gray III took over as acting director of the FBI when J. E. Hoover died in May 1972. Of these, only Gray escaped jail time.
Much of the following was gleaned from the archives of presidential recordings maintained by the Miller Center. These recordings and recording transcripts are of conversations in the Oval Office and elsewhere. They are too detailed to quote word for word but the substance of just a few of them is quite telling.
In June 1971 Nixon believed the Brookings Institution had a secret file on President Lyndon Johnson’s plan to halt the bombing in North Vietnam. He wanted to use it to discredit former Johnson administration officials. He told Haldeman to implement “Huston’s plan,” which involved illegal break-ins, wiretaps and mail openings of domestic terrorists. National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, who was present at the meeting, mildly pushed back. Nixon continued “I want it implemented on a thievery basis. Goddamn it, get in and get those files. Blow the safe and get it.”
Attorney General John Mitchell, Nixon’s former campaign chairman, was up to his eyeballs in the Watergate break-in and the cover-up. But he was also doing Nixon’s illegal bidding at various times during his tenure. In October 1971, after the Los Angeles Times published an article “Illegal Aliens Seized in Plant of Woman Named US Treasurer,” Nixon ordered Mitchell to go after Times publisher Otis Chandler and his family (“every one of these SOBs”) using the IRS and immigration authorities. Mitchell responded, “Yes sir.”
The tape that brought Nixon down was recorded on June 23, 1972, just six days after the break-in at the Watergate complex. Haldeman tells Nixon the Democratic break-in is a problem because the FBI is “not under control.” He suggests the way to handle this “is for us to have (deputy CIA director Vernon) Walters call (FBI Director) Pat Gray and just say, ‘Stay the hell out of this.’” Nixon questioned why Gray didn’t want to do it. Haldeman responds that he doesn’t know how — but if the CIA requests it, he will. Then Nixon uttered the fatal words and obstructed justice “You call him (Walters). Good. Good deal. Play it tough.”
In the wake of Nixon’s resignation in 1974 and the Watergate debacle, President Gerald Ford’s attorney general, Edward Levi, and President Jimmy Carter’s attorney general Griffin Bell worked to create an independent Justice Department and the modern American concept of the rule of law. They understood that Nixon viewed the Justice Department as an instrument of power — not justice. Levi said “Our law is not an instrument of partisan purpose,” or “anyone’s weapon.” Both stanchly supported the Justice Department as a “neutral zone in government,” independent of political influence. Think of Lady Justice with a sword, a blindfold and a balance scale. They believed the administration of justice must be fair, effective and totally nonpartisan.
Since then, presidents through Barack Obama have kept their fingers off the scales of justice. But then came President Donald Trump. He has repeatedly called for prosecution of Hillary Clinton and former FBI director James Comey. He casually stated during an interview with the New York Times: “I have absolute right to do what I want to do with the Justice Department.” Like Nixon, he obviously believes the federal government is his to use as he pleases
Recent reports indicate that Trump met secretly with U. S. Postmaster General Megan Brennan several times and urged her to double the shipping rates for Amazon.com. After his numerous tweets attacking Amazon and its CEO Jeff Bezos, it’s clear that his target is Bezos, the owner of another of his frequent targets, The Washington Post. Through all of Trump’s abuses, Republicans in Congress have been pathetically silent or blatantly enabling him.
Yes, Trump mimics Nixon in many ways — but I believe he poses a much greater threat to this nation. Trump refused to produce his tax returns and got away with it. He didn’t divest his business interests when he took office – and he got away with it. He has tested his limits with the GOP numerous times and finds there aren’t any.
Now Trump is pushing to control the Justice Department. If he gets away with that too, what can stop him from becoming America’s version of Vladimir Putin? In time Trump’s unethical operatives, like EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, will dominate the Supreme Court and the Justice Department and both will then do his bidding. As in Putin’s Russia, the America’s rule of law will be stymied and the free press muffled.
If there’s ever been a more important midterm election than this one, I don’t remember it.