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50 years after Watergate, the president of the United States still flies above the law | Will Bunch

Manhattan District Attorney's shocking failure to prosecute Donald Trump's blatant felonies echoes Watergate's failure to hold the most powerful to account.

With the 50th anniversary of the Watergate break-in looming, America has had to determine whether presidents Richard Nixon (l., from 1973) and Donald Trump (at 2020 rally) were above the law.
With the 50th anniversary of the Watergate break-in looming, America has had to determine whether presidents Richard Nixon (l., from 1973) and Donald Trump (at 2020 rally) were above the law.Read moreAP/Chris Carlson, AP

There once was an era — not so long ago, in my lifetime — when Americans had so much trust in their government that most folks couldn’t fathom a president committing felonies in the Oval Office. That’s why when five men with direct ties to then-President Richard Nixon’s campaign and the White House were caught red-handed bugging the Democratic National Committee at D.C.’s Watergate complex on June 17, 1972 — 50 years ago this spring — voters still refused to believed that Nixon had any involvement.

Even after two campaign officials and a White House consultant, E. Howard Hunt, were indicted for their role in breaking into the opposition party headquarters, Nixon was reelected that November in one of the largest landslides in American history. Only when whistleblowers — first campaign-tied burglar James McCord, then White House counsel John Dean — came forward in the spring of 1973 did Americans start to understand the depth of the scandals.

The public was both stunned and utterly spellbound.

When Dean testified about Nixon’s role in a coverup for four days on national TV in June 1973, “the scene captivated the nation,” journalist Garrett M. Graff writes in his new and compelling reexamination of the scandal, Watergate: A New History. In the book, Graff quotes Sam Dash, chief lawyer for the Senate panel probing Watergate, who said “The worst fears of most Americans, which had been building by speculation, had now been realized.” Graff also recalls how the Washington Post ran six full pages of excerpts from Dean’s testimony, the most Barry Sussman, The Post’s city editor during the break-in, had ever seen the newspaper devote to a single subject.

This last month, I’ve been listening to Graff’s Watergate history on Audible while reading strikingly similar headlines about arguably an even lower moment in American history than the downfall of Nixon — a flood of disclosures about the involvement of former President Donald Trump and his roguish inner circle in efforts to unlawfully overturn President Biden’s 2020 election victory, culminating in the deadly Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection on Capitol Hill.

For example, it’s not hard to tie the now-iconic reporting by the Post’s Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein that linked Nixon’s chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, to an illegal slush fund with last week’s explosive report in Rolling Stone, which revealed that Trump’s chief of staff Mark Meadows was directly involved in planning for attendees at the Jan. 6 rally where Trump spoke to then march on the Capitol, where the insurrection occurred.

» READ MORE: I was a teen Watergate geek. I hear echoes of 1973 as the House Jan. 6 Committee bears down | Will Bunch

And yet it’s also not hard to see the differences in a nation that’s become increasingly jaded and weary about scandal after five decades of Vietnam, Iraq, Iran-Contra, Enron, and so on. Several months of stunning headlines that have revealed the Jan. 6 chaos as an attempted coup against the peaceful transfer of presidential power have been overwhelmed again and again by understandable distractions — such as a war in Ukraine and inflation.

‘Numerous felony violations’

But two massively important new disclosures from just this week involving Trump’s criminality have really hammered home the comparison to Watergate, and how one of the nation’s greatest mistakes from the 1970s is coming back to haunt America in the 2020s — with possibly dire consequences for the future of our democracy.

Jan. 6, after all, didn’t happen in a vacuum. Indeed, it’s fair to speculate that a key motivator for Trump to scheme to stay in power after clearly losing to Biden was the risk of criminal prosecution not only for his actions as 45th president but in his longer career as a dodgy, bankruptcy-defying developer who rarely paid taxes despite routinely over-inflating his net worth. In his original stomping grounds of New York, both the state attorney general and an outgoing Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance Jr. were bearing down on alleged fraud by the Trump Organization, whose longtime accounting firm recently admitted it can no longer vouch for years of financial statements.

Before leaving office at the end of 2021, we now know, Vance ordered prosecutors to pursue a criminal indictment of Trump and others involved. But newly elected District Attorney Alvin Bragg – who’d explicitly promised voters he’d investigate the former president’s misdeeds – stunned Vance’s former assistants in declining to prosecute Trump. Bragg has said little publicly but apparently maintained the evidence wasn’t there.

Now, a blistering resignation letter from one of those Manhattan prosecutors, Mark Pomerantz, raises serious questions about Bragg’s judgment and what really motivated his decision.

“I believe that Donald Trump is guilty of numerous felony violations ...” Pomerantz, a 70-year-old veteran attorney, wrote, adding: “His financial statements were false, and he has a long history of fabricating information relating to his personal finances and lying about his assets to banks, the national media, counterparties, and many others, including the American people. The team that has been investigating Mr. Trump harbors no doubt about whether he committed crimes — he did.”

Again, the Nixonian echoes are deafening — and not only because the 37th president was also linked to massive financial impropriety in avoiding hundreds of thousands of dollars in income taxes by claiming a bogus donation of his political papers, and yet was never charged. It’s also that, more broadly, Nixon — named an unindicted co-conspirator by the Watergate grand jury while still in office — avoided any criminal liability for the crimes that sent most of his inner circle to prison.

The full pardon that Gerald Ford granted Nixon in September 1974, barely a month after replacing him, was meant to help both the new president and the nation move forward from Watergate. It was issued with the argument that the disgrace of resigning the presidency was enough punishment. Yet the pardon not only allowed Nixon to begin a slow and partial rehabilitation, but he crawled out of his tax debt and made a small fortune for his 1977 interviews with British journalist David Frost in which he made a stunning claim. The ex-president said the unlawful, covert operations run out of the White House were justified under an autocratic theory of “national security,” because “when the president does it, that means it is not illegal.”

Calling Trump’s bluff

The vast majority of Americans find Nixon’s stance morally objectionable. We like to believe that no citizen is above the law. Isn’t it pretty to think so? But 50 years of craven decision-making by elite power brokers have ensured that White House lawbreaking is instead routinely ignored. The deer-in-the-headlights handling of presidential illegality has metastasized from Ronald Reagan’s high crimes during Iran-Contra to deciding that we had to “look forward, not back” on the illegal torture regime of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. The fear of presidential accountability has paved an ever-widening superhighway from Nixon to Trump that surely convinced POTUS 45 that he could get away with anything — because so far, he has.

Join me to talk about Watergate

Watergate has been on my mind because I’ve been preparing for the first installment of my new project: The Will Bunch Culture Club. In the latest extension of this column and my free Tuesday email newsletter (sign up!), I'm hosting a virtual (for now) event where we talk about a hot new book,  movie, or podcast related to themes of my writing. 

This Wednesday, March 30, at 4:15 p.m., Garrett M. Graff, author of Watergate: A New History, joins me to chat about Richard Nixon’s stony end, writing his book, and the parallels to today’s politics. He’ll also take your questions, so you won’t want to miss this fun conversation. Please sign up for the event. See you Wednesday!


From the all-but-one GOP lawmakers who gave Trump a free pass on Ukraine — only to see the real-world implications two years later — to conflicting reports over whether Attorney General Merrick Garland has the stomach to climb the Jan. 6 ladder all the way to the Oval Office, Americans have come to doubt anyone in the public arena has the courage to take on this bully. Even Wednesday’s shock report from the Manhattan District Attorney’s office has left a lot of folks numb, because we’ve come to fear that Nixon’s boast was right all along.

Naysayers might fairly note that Nixon was still the president in 1973 when the criminal cover-up — and the titillating revelation of White House tapes that could back it up — was exposed, while Trump has been safely exiled to a kind of retirement in Mar-a-Lago after his coup plotting fell far short. Except Trump isn’t retired. He remains the front-runner for the GOP nomination in 2024, and Biden’s current low approval ratings suggest any Republican candidate will have a real chance of winning. If Trump is the 47th president, he will surely launch an unlawful crusade to exact revenge on his perceived enemies that would make the meat hooks in Goodfellas look tame.

But it’s even worse than that. Consider Wednesday’s other Trump bombshell, which came after Trump revoked his endorsement of Jan. 6 rally speaker and flagging Alabama Senate candidate, Rep. Mo Brooks. Brooks then revealed that the ex-president had continued to lobby him to work to “rescind” the 2020 election results — a constitutional and political impossibility — that would lead to Biden’s removal and a return of a Trump presidency. That lobbying happened in the fall, just a few months ago — meaning the criminal conspiracy is still ongoing. Why wouldn’t it? What would cause Trump to think anyone can stop him?

Graff’s book on Watergate chronicles months of fraught debate within the special prosecutor’s office probing the Nixon White House about whether the man they’d come to refer to as, in a kind of a code, “Le Grand Fromage,” could be indicted, either as president or afterward. Ultimately, prosecutors, Congress, and Ford did what they clearly thought was best for the country in the short run, but there would be severe long-term consequences. Trump’s self-serving and over-the-top actions have made a mockery of the concept that anything a president does is not illegal. Is there not one high-ranking leader with the courage to call his bluff, and to stop a once and future autocrat from hiding in the long shadow of Richard Nixon?

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