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Trump is dangerous. But he's not Nixon — yet

Richard Nixon speaking during his presidential campaign, 1968.
Declan Haun | Chicago History Museum | Getty Images
Richard Nixon speaking during his presidential campaign, 1968.

"Not since Watergate have our legal systems been so threatened and our faith in the independence and integrity of those systems so shaken," said Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut.

"This is Nixonian," Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania said in a statement.

"This episode is disturbingly reminiscent of the Saturday Night Massacre during the Watergate scandal and the national turmoil that it caused," said Massachusetts Sen. Edward Markey.

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These senators were all reacting to President Donald Trump's recent decision to fire FBI Director James Comey, the man charged with heading the investigation into his own campaign's ties to Russia. And they all invoked the ghost of Richard Nixon, the disgraced former president who Trump has been compared to time and time again.

But what are we missing in these reflexive comparisons? Do the obvious similarities between these two men and administrations obscure important differences? And if, as it appears, Nixon is closest thing we've seen to Trump, what can we learn from Nixon's presidency?

This interview is an attempt to answer these questions.

My interviewee is Timothy Naftali, the former director of the federal Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, California. There, he authored the exhibit on Watergate and facilitated the release of over 1 million previously undisclosed documents and thousands of White House recordings. He is now a professor of history and public service at New York University.

Below, I talk with Naftali about the true darkness of Nixon's administration, and how little understood it is. I also ask him if Trump's improprieties have reached Nixonian levels yet

Sean Illing

Having studied Nixon so closely, what worries you most about the prospects of Trump administration?

Timothy Naftali

I've talked about how the US government manages an unstable president, or potentially unstable president, a president who rages, who sees enemies everywhere. I saw in Trump's tweeting and in his statements the peculiarity that I had heard on the Nixon tapes of a man who, though by all standards has succeeded in the game of life, comes to the most powerful position in the world thinking he's a victim.

And I saw that in Nixon. Nixon used to rage against his enemies. And it was debilitating for Nixon, and I was concerned that it would be debilitating for Trump. So from the beginning of the administration, before all these actions that we've been describing as Nixonian, I was concerned about how the US government would manage, would respond to an unstable chief executive.

Sean Illing

Both of these men seem to share a persecution mania, which made them both insulated and incapable of restraint. Obviously, this is not a healthy trait in a president.

Timothy Naftali

Nixon allowed his inner staff to build what they called the Berlin Wall around him. And it was in part to protect him from himself but also protect the country from some of his impulses. And President Nixon had a very strong chief of staff named H.R. "Bob" Haldeman, and he had a reasonably strong chief economics advisor named John Ehrlichman, and together they tried to build this wall. But the wall was flawed, as we know.

The Nixon presidency ended badly, because Nixon himself found ways to get around the wall. He used a Bannon-like character named Chuck Colson. And also, both Ehrlichman and Haldeman were themselves flawed and were willing to permit abuses of power that ultimately brought the whole thing down. And so I was looking at the Trump administration wondering, who was going to be Haldeman? Who was going to at least attempt to make this seem more presidential, and protect Trump from himself, and contain his impulses?

And what we're seeing in these first few weeks, or months now, is that there's no one who's very strong around him. Or appears not to be, because we're seeing so much more of the inner Trump than we saw of the inner Nixon.

Sean Illing

Tell me about the inner Nixon. You've combed through all those White House documents and recordings — what did you learn?

Timothy Naftali

There's a darkness to Nixon that most people don't know about. A lot of people just think of Nixon as the man who messed up this cover-up and lied about it, but they don't really know the dark, dark activities of the Nixon administration. And trust me, they're incredibly dark.

There's a conversation, it was very influential for me when I heard it and it's available to the public now, of Nixon and Haldeman. Haldeman is telling Nixon that the administration had hired goons to go out and hit protestors, and break their legs, and really hurt them, and Nixon is saying, "Great. Oh, that's so wonderful. That's good."

I didn't fully appreciate the depravity at the center of Nixon's administration. Now, if we discover that Trump is doing the same, well then, we're in another similarly dark period. We may be in a troubling period, but it may be for different reasons.

So this is what I mean when I say the public doesn't fully understand the darkness of the Nixon administration. People are quick to make the Trump-Nixon comparison when Trump hasn't yet reached the level of darkness of the Nixon administration. Look, it's entirely possible that we'll get there, but not yet.

Sean Illing

Despite all the caricatures, you think we've understated how Nixonian Nixon was?

Timothy Naftali

I think so. A lot of Nixon's raging was hidden from the public. There were a few occasions in which Nixon flashed his anger publicly, but not very many. For the most part, his inner angst wasn't revealed until the tapes came out. And then one heard him rage against people, and ramble in an almost unhinged manner.

Tweeting has allowed us to see that much faster, and in a much more unfiltered way from Trump than from Nixon. At this point in the Nixon administration, the public really didn't know how angry a man he was. So that's just the similarity in temperament, which I think is a fair comparison.

Sean Illing

The overlap in rhetorical approaches between Trump and Nixon are hard to miss. Do you see this as stemming from ideological or tactical affinities?

Timothy Naftali

Well, for a moment last summer, Trump's people were pretty open about the influence of Nixon's convention speech. Trump's rhetoric, his description of crime and disorder in America, the exaggerated description of the country, the almost dystopian vision — this was lifted right out of Nixon's playbook.

Nixon played up crime as a campaign issue. But crime was more of a problem in 1968, and the country was in turmoil because the Vietnam War and because of two high-profile assassinations. But Donald Trump tried to make 2016 even worse than 1968. He drew heavily on the law and order rhetoric of Nixon. And there's a reason for that, because neither man was ideological.

Nixon wasn't ideological. He was a pragmatist. He tended to be more conservative than people thought, but he was a pragmatist. I don't know the extent to which Trump thought of this himself, but Trump's people saw the advantage of some of Nixon's rhetoric.

Sean Illing

Trump, like Nixon, also saw the benefits in exploiting racial and cultural anxieties.

Timothy Naftali

That's a complicated story that has a lot to do with the times Americans were living through, the disappointment of the Democratic Party because of Vietnam, disappointment with the Democratic Party because of civil rights. So different kinds of disappointment and different people were disappointed. Nixon was able to rally enough of the disillusioned to win in '68, though it was a very close election.

But he was playing to discontent in America, and like Trump, he was trying to forge a new coalition of the discontented. In his case, it was the Southern strategy, which was designed to play upon white nationalists' anger about civil rights, plus an attempt to pull together voters that people would later call Reagan Democrats, but it was Nixon who decided to target people who felt culturally out of sync with the Democratic Party.

It was Nixon who really expanded the Republican Party in this way. Republicans had a hard time winning at the national level after Herbert Hoover, after the Great Depression. Richard Nixon wanted to end that problem for the Republicans by expanding the base, and he did it by playing upon people's discontent. And he did it cynically, because he had been a supporter of civil rights in the '50s.

Martin Luther King was predisposed to supporting Richard Nixon, and the King family was in 1960 until John F. Kennedy made the call to Coretta Scott King. But the Republican Party in the '50s was viewed as better on civil rights than the Democratic Party because of the Southern Democrats, and Nixon was viewed as very good on civil rights in the '50s.

But he abandoned his own legacy. He abandoned it for the sake of building a majority party, and he sought the votes of Southern segregationists in the late '60s and '70s. So, that's part of the story behind the Nixon coalition. And some of the dog whistles that Donald Trump used in 2016 were first used by Richard Nixon.

Sean Illing

All of the similarities between Trump and Nixon are obvious, but do you think our focus on this has obscured important differences?

Timothy Naftali

Well, it's an interesting question. I can say that there are clear differences. Temperamentally, they're remarkably alike. Intellectually, they're very different. Nixon was a reader. Nixon was a strategist. He thought broadly about international relations. He could be extraordinarily petty — that he shares with Trump — but he had an interest in the details of the international system. And actually, I think he prided himself on that, whereas President Trump doesn't seem to be that interested in the details of governing, and certainly not of foreign policy.

When Trump talks about the world, he seems to be quite chaotic in his thinking, whereas Nixon actually would sit down and write out by hand his thoughts on major issues. You can read them. The Nixon Library has them. I can't imagine Donald Trump sitting down and writing out the basis for one or other policy. So on policy they're very different, but in their peculiar interaction with the world they're quite similar. Their temperaments are similar.

Sean Illing

Most of the Trump-Nixon comparisons have to do with temperament or governing style, but I suspect not enough is made of the similarities in their campaigns and possible collusion with foreign actors.

Timothy Naftali

Yes, and I think this is a really important parallel. We know, for instance, that Nixon encouraged his supporters, his surrogates, to meddle in American foreign policy in order to prevent peace negotiations with North Vietnam, to hurt his opponent Hubert Humphrey. The evidence is now clear that he did this. And so he came into office with a secret.

Now, if Donald Trump in some way authorized or even turned a blind eye but was cognizant of collusion with the Russians in the leaking of the DNC emails, we have a direct parallel between 1968 and 2016. And I think it's fair for historians to consider the possibility of that parallel. Now, we don't have the evidence to prove it, and so we have to be careful about saying it happened, and that it's like 1968, but the patterns are very, very similar.

I don't think we should go beyond the evidence, but that's potentially a direct parallel. Right now there have been no break-ins. There's no evidence of a dirty tricks campaign, a real Nixonian dirty tricks campaign. These are the other elements that you would have to see for there to be a direct overlap or parallel. But the 2016 campaign involved a foreign power, and the suspicion of domestic allies who were politically motivated working with that foreign power.

That's why the firing of Comey raised, for a number of people — the possibility that we were in another Nixonian moment, because Comey's team was working on just that. Figuring out if there was collusion. Was Trump trying to derail the investigation of collusion with Russia in the same way that Nixon was trying to derail the work of the special prosecutor? That's a fair question. That's where we get to the utility of the Nixon case, but that's as far as we can go right now.

Sean Illing

Are there any other Nixonian echoes to the Comey firing?

Timothy Naftali

The firing of Comey had other obvious Nixonian echoes. And that's simply because the FBI is engaged in an investigation that could very well involve the president, or at least people close to him. We don't know enough about the details of the investigation. We have a sense of some of the people that have been subpoenaed by the Senate, but we really don't know the details, which is actually appropriate.

I mean, the investigation should go ahead without being interfered with. The firing of Comey, who, as director of the FBI, is responsible for the people who are undertaking the investigation, made people think about Nixon's firing of Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor.

It's not a complete parallel, but the motives might be similar, and there it's just a matter of speculation. We know for sure that Nixon wanted to obstruct justice. He did not want to the tapes to go to the special prosecutor, and Archie Cox was pushing for them, and Nixon knew that the tapes were incriminating. The tape that he didn't want to go to Cox in 1973 was the tape where he said, "Money can be found ... the hush money can be found if necessary," to sustain the cover-up.

So we know that Nixon was trying to obstruct justice. What we don't know right now is Trump's motive. I mean, you can make some informed speculation about it, but we just don't really know with the same certainty that we know about Nixon. So to say that Trump did it because of that is a bit of a stretch at the moment. What we do know is that he didn't get along with Comey, and that he was uncomfortable with Comey's independence. And we don't need inside sources for that, you just read the letter that he sent to Comey.

My take on this at this point — and like everybody, I'm collecting data every day — is that in temperament they're quite similar, and Trump now is acting in a way that raises all kinds of suspicions of Nixonian behavior. Now in the end, Nixon committed crimes. We don't have any evidence at this point that President Trump has committed crimes. And that's what would make President Trump Nixonian, totally Nixonian. But we're not there yet. We may get there, we may not.

Sean Illing

I think that's fair. Let me ask you this: Nixon has become the standard of presidential malfeasance, and so every scandal is graded on a Nixonian scale. Do you think that's a mistake, particularly in the case of someone like Trump, who I think presents a unique set of dangers?

Timothy Naftali

Well, I don't think it's helpful to use Nixon as the only standard of danger. There are all kinds of ways presidents can be dangerous, or can threaten our constitutional order. Nixon is a particular form of it. Donald Trump is perhaps another. Trump's inexperience is especially worrisome. He could engage us in some kind of disastrous foreign policy adventure, and that would be harmful to our national security.

There are many ways to be a bad president. You don't have to be Nixon. But what I'm trying to do is make clear what Nixon did and what Nixonian really means. And if Trump doesn't reach the Nixonian standard of crimes, that doesn't mean he's not extraordinarily dangerous.

Sean Illing

What does Nixonian mean? Or what should it mean?

Timothy Naftali

One of the things I learned on the job was the extent of Nixon's crimes, which I knew that he'd covered up, and I had a sense of Watergate. But it was only in working with the archivists overseeing the archive and the museum that I fully appreciated the abuses of power, and the cynicism behind the abuses of power, and the amorality. The sense that Nixon didn't care. He used power to hold onto power, and he didn't care about the effect. Moreover, he relished using power to hurt his enemies.

Now, I don't know if Trump is that way. Trump can do bad things without actually repeating those kinds of abuses. There are other bad things he could do, but in order to be fully Nixon, or fully Nixonian, he would have to use his power to really hurt his enemies. Not to beat them politically, because that's what all politicians do. I mean actually hurt them, financially and physically. That would be Nixonian, because that's what Nixon tried to do.

If we find that Trump is ordering investigations of people, is leaking stuff to engage in character assassination, is actually hiring people to break the bones of people who are against him, then he's Nixon. But I don't see that evidence yet.

I hope we never do.