By Jonathan Bernstein / Bloomberg Opinion
How do presidents get in trouble? Monday’s Jan. 6 committee’s hearing on Donald Trump’s attempts to overturn the 2020 election didn’t focus on that general question, but it did demonstrate something familiar to students of the presidency.
The committee heard former Attorney General William Barr and other witnesses say they had told the president flat-out that the fraud he was hearing about from various dubious sources had not happened. Trump chose to reject what the Justice Department, state governments and experienced professionals in his own presidential campaign told him, and to rely instead on nonsense conjured up by cranks.
Once again, we saw a president fail to accept — or, in Trump’s case, fail even to try to understand — that presidents are only one of many sources of legitimate authority within the U.S. political system. When presidents try to get their way despite failing to persuade those other political players to go along, they risk winding up surrounded by buffoons. The president’s plans blow up in his face, sometimes to the point of legal jeopardy.
That is one way to understand what brought down Richard Nixon’s presidency. Trump didn’t quite suffer Nixon’s fate, but he did wind up as the only president to be impeached twice, and the only one to have senators in his own party vote to convict him (with several others saying they would have done so had the clock not run out on his presidency). He still may wind up in considerable legal trouble. So Nixon’s story is instructive.
Nixon had inherited the Vietnam War from Lyndon Johnson, but as it continued and in some ways expanded during his first two years in office, antiwar activism became more intense. Nixon sought to fight back, and White House staffer Tom Charles Huston drew up plans to spy on and disrupt the movement.
The FBI, however, refused to carry out Huston’s plan in 1970. A year later, when the Pentagon Papers were leaked to major newspapers, Nixon decided to go ahead without the FBI, hiring operatives on the White House staff to do what the agency in charge of such things refused to do. The crimes committed by the so-called White House plumbers, including two later transferred to his re-election campaign, were what destroyed Nixon’s presidency.
The FBI refused Nixon’s order because, like all executive-branch agencies, it had standard operating procedures that developed over time. Part of this involves (usually, albeit not always) keeping the agency on the right side of the law, and part of it has to do with professionalism.
Another way to look at it is that agencies have many bosses — the president, Congress, the courts — and they learn over time to keep all of them reasonably happy. In that way, following the law and upholding professional standards can be seen as strategies not only to avoid antagonizing presidents but also House and Senate committees and judges while (usually, albeit not always) producing reasonable policy results.
Agencies, just like those bosses they answer to, must also answer to their constituents. The entire structure of the government is organized around representing voters and their interests, even if voters don’t have any idea what most of the government is up to and don’t cast their ballots based on those things.
Nixon tried to short-circuit all of that by having the White House staff do what he wanted. Because they were answerable only to him personally, they were able to ignore the mix of interests and constituencies that the government normally represents. It ended badly because the people involved offered no professional expertise, only loyalty. And instead of having standard operating procedures that Nixon could have used as warning signs that he was getting into trouble, his loyalists offered … loyalty.
Watergate wasn’t unique in this sense. Not all trouble caused by presidents trying to govern out of the White House and evade normal executive-branch agencies ends in disaster and law-breaking. But a strong case can be made that a great number of fiascoes over the last 75 years or so since the White House staff became an important part of the presidency can be traced back to the same dynamic that produced Watergate.
This certainly was the case with the Iran-contra affair, which was largely an operation run by staff of the National Security Council, an agency in the White House. One can even argue that the Iraq War debacle was a case where the White House, or more specifically the vice-president’s office, found ways around potential objections from the State Department and military professionals.
So when Barr and others in the Justice Department, as well as various state officials, refused to go along with Trump’s increasingly far-fetched schemes to overturn the election, this should have been a clear sign to the president that he was entering dangerous waters. That Trump turned instead to Rudy Giuliani, the same person he had used to try to work around the State Department on Ukraine only to wind up getting impeached over it has to be a new benchmark in incompetent presidenting. It’s as if Ronald Reagan had tried to restart his presidency after the Iran-contra scandal by making Oliver North his chief of staff.
Presidents always endanger themselves when they make the absolute loyalty of the people they work with the main thing they care about. Not just because those people will more often than not fail to be “honest or professional,” as Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien said about Giuliani and others who were feeding Trump misinformation. But because the government is a great source of information for the president, constantly sending signals about what various constituencies and interests think is important.
When presidents actively take steps to ignore what the government is saying to them, they can easily wind up relying on a loony band of misfits like the one Trump surrounded himself with. As we found out on Jan. 6, 2021, they are not only dangerous to presidents. They can also put the nation and the Constitution in danger.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. A former professor of political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University, he wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.