Comment: Watergate played a big part in foiling Trump’s scheme

The 50-year-old scandal led to reforms and offered examples of how to respond to an abuse of power.

By Jonathan Bernstein / Bloomberg Opinion

The evidence presented in the Jan. 6 hearings — live from witnesses and in documents and recorded depositions — continues to be startling, even for those who had already heard it. In its five sessions so far, the House committee has overwhelmingly made the case that Donald Trump treated the obvious fact that voters had turned him out of office as an inconvenience to justify disregard for the law, democratic institutions and his oath of office.

What stood out on Thursday was Trump’s utter contempt for his own voters: He lied to them, manipulated them and, as we learned in other hearings, scammed them out of their money.

Will Trump or any of his associates wind up in prison? We’re no closer to an answer after Thursday’s hearing than we were before. But given the raid on the home of former Justice Department official Jeffrey Clark on Thursday, and the subpoenas sent to many of those involved in the “electors” scheme and other additional law-enforcement actions, it seems that federal investigators are looking far beyond the indictments and convictions of those directly involved in plotting and carrying out the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6.

Some other points from Thursday’s hearing:

• Many officials who were put in their positions by Trump nevertheless refused to do what he asked of them, culminating in his inability to fire his acting attorney general and install someone who would do what the president wanted. One thing we’re learned from the study of the presidency is how few things presidents can do simply by giving orders. They cannot govern in that way, and if they try they can wind up in huge trouble.

• Another theme is how previous presidencies have a powerful influence on the current one. Witnesses from the Justice Department talked about the importance of remaining independent of the president. To a large extent that comes from the reforms after Richard Nixon kept close tabs on the Watergate investigation through direct contact with prosecutors, at first through White House counsel John Dean and then directly by himself. The revelations about that interference in 1973 badly damaged Nixon, and eventually produced strong institutional norms at the Justice Department to prevent it from happening again.

• There’s also the lesson from the Saturday Night Massacre. In October 1973, Nixon ordered his attorney general to fire a special prosecutor, fired the attorney general when he refused, and then had the second-in-command at Justice resign as well. The strong reaction against what Nixon had done brought the possibility of impeachment into the mainstream. That example was surely helpful to the Justice Department officials who resisted Trump’s scheme to install Jeffrey Clark as acting attorney general. Trump took their threats to resign seriously in part because of this famous precedent; he was convinced it would go badly for him because it had gone badly for Nixon.

We also found out more about a handful of House members who appeared to be colluding with Trump and his associates and requested pardons from him before he left office. So far, their defense is that they were scared that thuggish Democrats might indict them for simply voting to reject the legitimate electors. But the dozens of Republicans who did nothing beyond voting against the electors on Jan. 6 did not ask for pardons.

The committee now pauses its public hearings until after the July Fourth recess. They need to finish up with hearings and file their report by the end of the year, and they want to get it done before the election. And anything they do in September and October is going to be interpreted as part of the midterm campaign, thereby having a lot less clout.

The panel says new information poured in once the hearings started. Yup. That’s another good reason they should have started the public side of the investigation months ago.

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.

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