A Tale of Two Investigations

Andrew McCarthy’s essay “Watergate Fifty Years Later” discusses two interesting issues. McCarthy focuses on whether Richard Nixon’s actions during Watergate were really as bad as they are ordinarily portrayed. But McCarthy also explores the light that Watergate can shed on our own era by examining how the political system responded to Donald Trump’s contestation of the 2020 election. For McCarthy, Nixon did nothing as bad as what Trump did, but Trump was able to survive, unlike Nixon, because of changes in our media environment.

Here I take issue with McCarthy’s argument as to each of these questions. While McCarthy makes some interesting points about Nixon’s behavior, his account reads like a one-sided lawyerly defense of Nixon. And while McCarthy is certainly right that Trump benefited in some ways from today’s media environment, he neglects important differences between the two presidents. Most importantly, the Watergate investigation established serious wrongdoing by Nixon, while the investigation into Russian collusion persuaded many Republicans that claims by Democrats and the elite media could not be trusted.

Nixon’s Behavior

Relying on a book by Geoff Shephard, a former Nixon staffer and member of his Watergate defense team, McCarthy argues that Nixon’s actions were not nearly as bad as normally thought. In particular, several of the “Watergate bombshells” are greatly overstated.

First, it is usually claimed that Nixon’s direction of the CIA to persuade the FBI not to interview two individuals was an attempt to prevent the discovery of the White House’s involvement in the Watergate break-ins and thus constituted obstruction of justice. But McCarthy contends that Nixon’s directions were not intended to cover up White House involvement in the robbery, which Nixon did not then know about, but to protect a promise of confidentiality made to Democratic donors who had secretively contributed money to the Nixon campaign.

If one accepts this account, then the smoking gun of obstruction turns out not to be about the Watergate break-in but about fulfilling a promise of confidentiality. Yet, McCarthy acknowledges that this action would still be obstruction of justice. Thus, one wonders how much of a defense this interpretation is. Although Nixon was not attempting to cover up the White House involvement in the break-in, he was still breaking the law for political purposes.

McCarthy similarly attempts to diminish Nixon’s responsibility regarding what McCarthy calls the second bombshell: the claim that Nixon participated in a discussion to pay off E. Howard Hunt to keep quiet about the robbery. According to McCarthy, Nixon did not decide to pay off Hunt. Rather, Nixon merely participated in a discussion about paying off Hunt and then decided to pass the matter over to former Attorney General John Mitchell to decide what to do. But once again this defense seems weak. Nixon did not put an end to talk of illegal payoffs, but merely let his subordinate make the decision—perhaps to protect himself from legal responsibility.

McCarthy also attempts to defend Nixon regarding the Saturday night massacre, when Nixon ordered the Attorney General to fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox, who had been promised a significant degree of independence.

McCarthy puts the blame here on Cox on the ground that Nixon was willing to agree to the “Stennis compromise” under which Cox would merely receive a transcript rather than the tapes, which would be authenticated by the “well respected” Mississippi Democratic Senator John Stennis. But it is not clear why Cox’s refusal to accept this compromise justifies Nixon’s attempt to dismiss Cox. The tapes were the best evidence of the conversations. That Nixon was willing to compromise says something positive, but that willingness may just have resulted from Nixon’s belief he was otherwise going to lose the case.

In each case, McCarthy’s account reads as if it was written by a lawyer defending Nixon. Every ambiguity is construed for Nixon, every excuse is emphasized, responsibility for wrongdoing is placed on others—mainly John Dean and Gordon Liddy—and Nixon is criticized only when no alternative exists. As with most defenses offered by a lawyer, some of what McCarthy says appears enlightening, but overall, one comes away with the view that Nixon is being whitewashed.

The 21st-Century Political and Media Landscape

While McCarthy spends much less time on the wider ramifications of his analysis, it is here that his essay is most interesting. McCarthy says that Nixon was removed because of the media and institutional environment in which he lived—“a ‘media-Democrat’ complex that, unlike today, had iron-fisted control over what news was covered and how.” With no Republican voices to defend Nixon, he was unable to withstand the criticisms of the Democrats.

By contrast, McCarthy regards Donald Trump’s behavior relating to January 6 as much worse than what Nixon did. Yet Trump was acquitted in the second impeachment trial. The reason, McCarthy argues, is that we now live in a different media environment, in which “even an unpopular Republican president enjoyed a political support system of which Richard Nixon could only have dreamed.”

This is an interesting claim—one I wish that McCarthy had spent more time developing. But is McCarthy correct here? Is Trump’s acquittal compared to Nixon’s forced resignation merely the result of the different media environment? While the media environment is significant, McCarthy omits three important aspects of the matter.

In discerning the implications of Watergate for our time, McCarthy is right to stress the different media environments but is wrong to ignore the differences between Nixon and Trump, especially between the Watergate and Russian collusion investigations.

First, while McCarthy is correct that the media environment was more uniform back in the early 1970s, which hurt Nixon, he neglects an aspect of the media environment that helped Nixon. In those days, televised and print journalism followed a “broad-casting” model. Since media companies made money with a large audience, they attempted to appear more objective to avoid alienating half of the country. This meant that Nixon could escape being strongly condemned so long as he did not do something unambiguously wrong. These days, by contrast, it often seems that a politician can be condemned on some cable channels and websites for the smallest of infractions.

Second, given this broad-casting environment, how did Nixon lose the support of the Republican senators, few of whom said they would vote to acquit him in an impeachment trial? While McCarthy suggests it was due to the progressive monopoly on media, that is only part of the story. Nixon lost support in this broad-casting environment because he took actions that the whole country—Democrats and Republicans—believed were problematic. The main problem was that Nixon lied to the American people about his own involvement in the Watergate cover-up.

Even if one assumes the facts as McCarthy presents them, at the very least, Nixon lied to the American people in a speech on August 15, 1973, where he claimed on March 21, 1973 to have “launched an intensive effort of my own to get the facts and to get the facts out” when he had in fact contemplated paying hush money to Howard Hunt and had referred the matter to John Mitchell. An account of the story less favorable to Nixon would place the lie much earlier, such as in August 1972.

Nixon’s support from the American people had initially been high, but it slowly declined as more information came out that suggested he was lying. The Senate Watergate hearings in the spring of 1973 were very damaging to the president’s popularity. And by the time of the Saturday Night Massacre in October 1973, more people believed that Nixon should be removed from office than approved of his performance as president. Nixon’s apparent refusal to provide the tapes to the special prosecutor obviously suggested that the White House had something to hide and Nixon had been lying to the public.

McCarthy’s interpretation of Nixon’s behavior as less bad than normally thought is largely beside the point here. The public rightly believed that Nixon had been lying to it about a serious matter, and that was enough for him to lose support in a broad-casting environment.

Third, if Nixon lost support from the Republicans for his lies, then why did Donald Trump maintain most of his Republican support during the second impeachment? While McCarthy is right that Trump was operating in a new environment where there was a right-wing media that defended him, that is once again only part of the story.

Trump’s actions contesting the election as fraudulent would not have been as successful with Republican voters without two additional features. The first is that Trump had been subjected to a deeply problematic Russian collusion investigation, of which Special Counsel Mueller found no evidence, and related attacks by the Democratic elite, including the Hillary Clinton campaign, various executive branch officials, and the nation’s leading newspapers. Republicans were told consistently for two years by the media and the Democrats that the Trump campaign was corruptly entangled with Russia.

But the charges against Trump turned out to be false. And the Russian collusion charge was not the only false attack on Trump that Republicans witnessed. These false charges had an enormous effect on most Republicans. They were no longer willing to listen to an establishment when it told them that an election was accurate and fair.

It is this feature that serves to most distinguish Trump from Nixon. While the Watergate investigation showed that Nixon had been lying to the American people, the Russian collusion investigation showed that the establishment had been lying about Trump. This cannot be emphasized enough. After the Russian collusion story was seen to be unjustified, Republicans were reluctant to accept establishment criticisms of Trump.

The second important feature of Trump’s situation was that Trump was admired by Republicans as a fighter. Republican presidential nominees, such as Mitt Romney and John McCain, were seen as unwilling to defend themselves against attacks. Trump was popular in part because he was willing to fight. And if he sometimes seemed to throw punches that missed their mark, that was seen as part of the price of being a fighter.

None of this is to say that Trump did not lie to the public in other instances or that he was justified in challenging the election. That is largely beside the point. His Republican support turned not on whether his actions were justified but on how they were perceived. The Russian collusion investigation led Republicans to see him as a victim of the establishment and to be sympathetic to his fights against that establishment. Had Trump been shown to be guilty of collusion—as Nixon was shown to be lying to the American public—he likely would have lost significant Republican support. And after his first impeachment and acquittal the year before for what McCarthy calls “the more partisan Ukraine-based” charge, it became even less likely that Republicans would abandon him during the second impeachment.

In discerning the implications of Watergate for our time, McCarthy is right to stress the different media environments but is wrong to ignore the differences between Nixon and Trump, especially between the Watergate and Russian collusion investigations.