From The Watergate Scandal to Trump’s replaying of American Politics


The Watergate scandal erupted during early 1972, when five burglars broke into the Democratic National Committee (DNC) offices HQ at the Watergate hotel complex in Washington DC. The burglars were given the go-ahead by the then US president Richard Nixon, who then compounded the crime by attempting to cover up his involvement. This criminal act aimed at the Democratic Party, together with other serious misdemeanours that ranged from telephone taping to bribery, was reported by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the The New York Times, who were being briefed by congressional staffers working in the Oval Office.

At first, Nixon vehemently denied any knowledge of the affair, but a US Congress investigation was able to demonstrate his collusion in these various illegal acts, showing the intention was to gain electoral advantage. A demoralised president, who had taken to hard drinking under the strain of daily revelations of wrong-doing, desperately sought to avoid impeachment. “Watergate” has since been used in the media to describe any clandestine act, such as telephone hacking, to obtain information which would discredit a political rival seeking election.

Forty-four years later, Donald Trump finds himself in a very similar position to Nixon. During the dying days of the Nixon presidency, his Defence Secretary James Schlesinger warned army generals not to follow Nixon’s orders unless they had been endorsed by himself or Henry Kissinger, the then Secretary of State. Unlike many of Trump’s inner circle, Schlesinger had the presence of mind not to gossip to Woodward or the New York Times until Nixon’s presidency was taking its final shambling steps into an ignominious conclusion.

Trump is in a far stronger position than Nixon, however, for although it is likely the Democrats will secure sufficient votes to achieve a majority in the mid-term elections in November, they do not have the power or standing with the American electorate that is needed to win sufficient seats in the Senate that would make impeachment under the terms of the 25th amendment a realistic outcome. Trump uses a well-honed mantra of it all being lies, “fake news”, and a conspiracy of disaffected, Washington swamp-dwelling politicians who are out to get him – and by implication, so too the entire American population. It’s a message endorsed by his loyal followers across the country, particularly in the Mid-Western states and the rust-belt of America’s declining industries. With this unflinching core base staunchly behind him and his seemingly bulletproof, narcissistic personality, Trump shows little sign of crumbling under pressure. Unlike Nixon, who became deeply depressed by it, Trump actively thrives on the publicity his policies and personality create.

America may not be viewed as great again by most of the world, but it is undeniably enjoying a period of prosperity, basking in a bull-market on the Stock Exchange. Impeachment would surely change that and trigger a constitutional crisis, leading to serious civil unrest across the country. Neither Democrats nor Republicans are entirely keen to go down that route, then, and especially not when the consequences of Trump’s trade wars with China and the EU have still to be played out. The New York Times and its sister paper The Washington Post have a lot more dirt to reveal, though.

The end came for Nixon on the night of August 7th, 1974. Senator Barry Goldwater, together with the leaders of the Democratic and Republican Parties in the Senate and Congress, met with him in the Oval Office and told him he had no support in either house. Impeachment was inevitable and after some blustering, Nixon finally resigned. Vice-President Ford was sworn into office. On September 8th, however, Ford authorised a full pardon for the former president. Was a Trump-esque deal struck that night? We do not know for sure, but it could certainly have been worse for the deposed president.

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Terry Jones taught History to adult students taking Foundation courses at a College of Higher Education prior to their entry into full-time degree courses at Warwick and Coventry Universities. Since taking early retirement, he has travelled widely in Eastern Europe, pursuing a life-long interest in 19th and early 20th century European history. He has been a GCSE and "A" level tutor with OOL since 1996.

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