Many Americans were not around during Nixon’s Watergate scandal of 1973-1974. And a lot of those were too young to know what was really happening in Washington during that time. But some of us were. And some of us were working in D.C. at the time, living through one of the most traumatic periods in U.S. politics.
The following suggestions are offered to avoid just such a second scandal by someone who was there.
Pro Tip #1: Don’t Piss Off High-Level Intelligence Officials
Washington Post reports Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein received information and direction on their reporting from a source who was known for years only as “Deep Throat.” At the time Washington was rife with rumors on the identity of this source who was obviously privy to high-level intel. His identify was one of the most closely guarded secrets for years.
It was not until 2005 that his identify was revealed. Deep Throat was Mark Felt, the number 2 man at the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Whether he acted from resentment at being passed over for the top spot when J. Edgar Hoover resigned as many have speculated, political differences with the White House and Richard Nixon, or patriotic fervor will probably never be known. Whatever his motivation, his actions by first confirming information, then later providing it to the Post were pivotal in the Watergate scandal.
Pro Tip #2 – Don’t Lie About Your Tax Returns
Under intense pressure in 1973, coupled with leaks about his tax returns, Richard Nixon agreed to release his tax returns dating back to the time he had become president in 1969. In November of 1973, he took to the airwaves to explain his actions. “People have got to know whether or not their president is a crook. Well, I am not a crook.”
He released his tax returns to the Joint Committee on Internal Revenue Taxation, a body of Congress that has to this day the authority to request the tax returns of any individual, up to and including the President. Scrutiny of his tax returns revealed that Nixon had taken a $500,000 deduction for the donation of his vice-presidential papers in 1969. Ironically, until 1969 such a deduction was perfectly legal; however, Congress closed that loophole. Not only was this deduction illegal, it turned out that Nixon’s aide had backdated the deed of gift. Nixon’s tax returns proved to be the final nail in his coffin, leading to his resignation four months later.
Following Nixon’s resignation, every presidential candidate, with the exception of Gerald Ford, has voluntarily released their detailed tax information during their campaigns. Until Donald Trump.
Pro Tip #3 – Don’t Defy The Federal Courts
Following the revelation in July, 1973 by White House aide Alexander Butterfield in testimony before Congress that all conversations in the Oval Office were secretly taped, a long legal battle ensued between Congress and the White House to obtain copies of these tapes. Claiming “executive privilege” the White House refused to turn over the tapes.
In 1973 Special Counsel Archibald Cox asked District Court Judge John Sirica to subpoena nine tapes relevant to testimony provided by White House Counsel John Dean. Sirica was the Chief Judge of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia and he ordered President Nixon to turn over the tapes to Cox. Nixon refused and ordered that Cox be fired. This led to the now infamous “Saturday Night Massacre.”
United States v. Nixon went all the way to the Supreme Court which ruled unanimously 8-0 that Nixon had to comply with Judge Sirica’s order. This was a stunning setback for the White House and their joint arguments of “executive privilege” and “separation of powers.” [Note: Justice William Rehnquist recused himself as he had served in the Nixon administration as Attorney General]
There was nothing illegal about Nixon taping his conversations and had he burned all the tapes on the White House lawn before a subpoena was issued, there would have been nothing anyone could have done about it. But Nixon’s hubris led him to believe he could defy both Congress and the Courts.
There are certainly many other lessons learned from the Watergate scandal. First, it was the cover-up, not the crime, that ended up being the real scandal. Second, only Nixon’s aides went to prison for the crimes. Nixon received a pardon from his successor Gerald Ford, and went back to California a free man. Third, waging open warfare with the press usually does not end well. As Mark Twain said “Never pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel.”
Whether the current administration has learned anything from the Nixon administration remains to be seen. However, as President Trump and his senior advisors have little to no political experience, it is doubtful that they can apply the lessons learned from Watergate to their own actions.
This is certainly a different time and age in politics. But some basic rules still apply. Time will tell if the Trump Administration goes down in flames in a scandal of their own making.