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Trump Is Going Full Nixon on Mueller
Thu Apr 12, 2018 7:45am

Watergate Lawyer: Trump Is Going Full Nixon on Mueller
Like his predecessor, Trump appears eager to fire the man investigating the White House—and he seems one false move away from following through.

Richard Nixon needed a reason.

He’d resolved to fire Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor investigating his involvement in Watergate, more than three months before the Saturday Night Massacre, when Cox was eventually dispatched. It was only a matter of time until Nixon would find a suitable pretext to give him political cover—and soon, Cox gave him one. The investigator refused to accept a so-called compromise on Nixon’s secret White House tapes, whereby Cox would receive summaries of the recordings instead of the tapes themselves. The former president quickly moved to remove Cox from his post, and to dissolve the office of the special prosecutor itself.

This fraught period of the Watergate affair—which involved an elaborate, president-sanctioned cover-up in the aftermath of a break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters—is the closest historical parallel to the current moment. Like Nixon, President Trump appears eager to fire the man investigating campaign and White House officials’ culpability in a high-profile scandal: Robert Mueller, the special counsel examining a broad range of subjects related to Russian interference in the 2016 election. And like Nixon, Trump seems one false move away from following through.

In 1973, I worked as a lawyer on Cox’s task force investigating obstruction-of-justice allegations against Nixon. The White House tapes show that, by the summer of 1973, the president had grown increasingly frustrated over Cox’s examination of alleged misconduct, which included a conspiracy to obstruct justice by the president’s closest aides. Cox’s dogged pursuit of nine specific tape recordings was the last straw. The special prosecutor wanted the audio for a reason: Ever since White House Staff Secretary Alexander Butterfield had revealed the existence of Nixon’s voice-activated taping system, in July 1973, Cox hoped to use the recordings to resolve disputed facts about who said what in conversations with the president.

Yet Nixon refused to turn them over—even after he was subpoenaed by a grand jury and under orders from two separate courts. Instead, the president proposed that Cox accept the compromise, under which he would receive summaries of the taped conversations prepared by Nixon. Cox’s refusal to agree to any substitute for the tapes themselves provided Nixon the pretext he was seeking to remove the special prosecutor, and to return the investigation to more pliant personnel within the Justice Department.

The nation correctly perceived that Nixon’s true intention was to prevent Cox from uncovering evidence of criminal misconduct that Nixon was determined to keep hidden. While Trump’s true intentions remain unknown, his feelings about Mueller, at least, are crystal clear—he hasn’t tried to hide them. In multiple public statements, he and his associates have condemned Mueller’s investigation, and one of his lawyers went so far as to say the inquiry should be shut down.

As with Cox, Mueller and his staff have done nothing publicly known that would provide a legitimate reason to justify dismissal: They do not appear to be the source of leaks to news media, nor have they committed any known improprieties. Instead, Mueller has been methodically investigating under the mandate he was given and is building out cases in multiple directions.

Trump seems to have reached breaking points with Mueller before. In June, he reportedly instructed White House Counsel Don McGahn to orchestrate Mueller’s firing, only to back off when McGahn threatened to resign. On Tuesday, The New York Times reported that a similar episode happened in December, when the president erupted in anger over an erroneous news article wrongly attributing certain subpoenas of financial documents to Mueller’s probe. Again, Trump’s immediate impulse was to fire Mueller, according to the Times.

There’s nothing to suggest Trump has changed his mind about the Mueller inquiry in the months since. To the contrary, Trump raged this week over investigators’ latest target: Michael Cohen, a New York lawyer who’s long functioned as the president’s fixer and who allegedly paid off women who claim they had affairs with Trump. Hours after the FBI raided Cohen’s home, office, and hotel room, Trump called the Mueller probe a “disgrace” in comments to reporters, telling them that “many people have said, ‘You should fire him.’”

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s involvement in the raid—he green-lit Mueller’s referral of Cohen’s case to federal investigators in New York—has poured gasoline on an already blazing fire of indignation raging in the White House. It’s reasonable to wonder whether Trump, in an unwitting echo of Nixon, could try to replace Rosenstein with a more malleable appointee—one who could act to rein in Mueller and other investigators without the president taking the political risk of firing him himself. According to recent news reports, Trump is considering just this plan.

Cox’s dismissal 45 years ago was the beginning of the end for Nixon. The impeachment resolutions introduced in its aftermath continued to gain momentum as more and more evidence of Nixon’s guilt accumulated—until Nixon resigned in disgrace. Firing or hobbling Mueller could precipitate a similar firestorm of public protest, perhaps matching the backlash against the Saturday Night Massacre in its scope and intensity.

Despite the myriad similarities between Watergate and Russiagate, however, the major distinction remains that majority control of both houses of Congress rests with the Republican Party. Up to now, GOP congressional leaders, like Mitch McConnell and the soon-to-be-replaced House speaker, Paul Ryan, have been silent as to what consequences would befall Trump if he acts against Mueller and his investigation. But protecting the rule of law should provide Republicans sufficient motivation to declare that any Trump intervention is unacceptable.

Despite that recent silence, it’s possible the tide is beginning to turn. On Wednesday, four senators introduced bipartisan legislation to protect Mueller. And on Tuesday, Senator Charles Grassley, the powerful chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, told CNN it would be “suicide” for the president to fire him. If Trump has, indeed, decided to remove Mueller once and for all, perhaps only a credible threat of impeachment will deter him.

Like Nixon, if President Trump had only come clean and cooperated fully immediately and let the chips hall where they may it need never have come to this.

    • The idiotic Witch Hunt has to end some time soon ~ TheFrustratedPragmatist, Thu Apr 12 8:56am
      firing Mueller is inevitable.
      • for hiring and not firing Mueller a year ago. Worked for Richard Nixon. ;-) Clinton went toe to toe with Starr for five years and never whined or whimpered about him or threatened to fire Starr.
        • Do you REALLY think Trump colluded with ~ Ted, Thu Apr 12 11:57am
          or that somehow Russia helped him beat Hillary? (I KNOW you don't KNOW not asking you to KNOW asking you to GUESS)
        • Clinton was a felon ~ Mondo Fuego™, Thu Apr 12 11:24am
          allegedly a violent rapist ... bit peoples lips while violating them sexually. Really nice guy. No crime with Trump. Yes, alleged bad behavior, but no worse than JFK & some other Presidents. Trump... more
    • Merlin is going full Mueller on Trump ~ Mondo Fuego™, Thu Apr 12 8:38am
      Come clean about what? How do you disprove a non-existent crime? Poppet covered this philosophical issue long ago, and you just didn't get it. You have a serious obsession with Trump, and you are... more
      • about many things. If Trump had ordered everyone to cooperate fully with Mueller, surrender all pertinent documents, tell the truth, all the truth, and nothing but the truth. Trump and his layers,... more
        • Stormy Daniels is a big fat red herring. ~ Mondo Fuego™, Thu Apr 12 9:09am
          It's a smoke screen for Mueller's incompetence. There's no basis for cooperating with Mueller. There's no there there. Go figure out what happened to Marilyn Monroe. Johnny and Bobby killed her. At... more
          • Good point!! ~ G👠G, Thu Apr 12 1:07pm
            The DC Madame was hanged before she could testify. Apparently Miss Daniels is valuable and won't be offer.....yet.
        • He wasn't elected for "Candor". ~ Mondo Fuego™, Thu Apr 12 9:05am
          Your pathetic little snowflake people are just pissed that ugly ol' crooked hil lost. By the time Herr Mueller finishes with his unsuccessful witch hunt, Trump will have served 2 terms, re-built our... more
        • So what? ~ TheFrustratedPragmatist, Thu Apr 12 8:59am
          Mueller is supposed to investigate CRIMINAL ACTIVITY where he has ACTUAL EVIDENCE that a CRIME has take place. To date, it has all been NOTHING, and it needs to end unless there is EVIDENCE.
    • Mueller is going full Gestapo on Trump. ~ Eleanor, Thu Apr 12 8:33am
      We have and cherish this thing we call the Constitution. It is designed to protect our rights. Yes, even our insecure, authoritarian President no matter what you or I think of his politics. The... more
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