You might think Donald Trump was studying the Watergate tapes to see how best to recreate Richard Nixon’s crimes.
On the June 23, 1972, tape—the one that, when its transcript was released, caused every Republican on the House Judiciary Committee to announce they’d vote to impeach Nixon, and which led, two weeks later, to his resignation—Nixon discussed with his chief of staff, Bob Haldeman, how to get the CIA to call off the FBI, which was investigating who was behind the Watergate break-in. “The way to handle this now,” Haldeman told Nixon, “is for us to have [Deputy CIA Director Vernon] Walters call [FBI Director] Pat Gray and just say, ‘Stay the hell out of this, ah, business here, we don’t want you to go any further on it.”
“All right, fine,” Nixon replied. The CIA leaders “should call the FBI in and say that we wish for the country, ‘Don’t go any further into this case, period!’”
Haldeman relayed those instructions to Walters. Walters refused to comply.
Fast forward to this Tuesday, when The Washington Post, back in Woodward-Bernstein mode, reported that Trump had asked Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats and National Security Agency Director Admiral Michael Rogers in March to issue statements saying there was no evidence of collusion between Trump’s presidential campaign and the Russian government. Trump’s intent, the Post reported, “was to help him push back against [the] FBI investigation” of possible collusion.
And, like Walters before them, Coats and Rogers didn’t comply.
All things considered, Trump comes off both a little better and a lot worse than Nixon in his semi-recreation of Tricky Dick’s obstruction of justice. First, the Post report is based on interviews with intelligence officials and an internal memo of the meeting written by “a senior NSA official.” Nixon’s meeting was recorded on tape. Second, Nixon clearly authorized obstruction of justice; Trump was in effect telling intelligence officials to tamp down the FBI, but not ordering it to stop.
On the other hand, Nixon was trying to stop an investigation of what was behind a universally acknowledged crime: the break-in to Democratic National Committee headquarters by agents of Nixon’s re-election campaign, who’d been caught in the act. Trump is going to Nixonian lengths to stop an investigation of alleged collusion, though no evidence of collusion has been publicly produced. Which raises an obvious question: If Trump believes there was no collusion, why is he acting as if there are crimes he needs to cover up? If no collusion, why fire James Comey? Why lean on intelligence officials to deter the FBI?
The clearest parallel between Nixon's and Trump’s attempts to use intelligence agencies to call off the G-men is the refusal of those officials to do their president’s bidding. In each case, it’s not so much the “deep state” that stands up to the president. It’s the modern state—a bureaucracy of officials who refuse to subvert the workings of law. That’s not to say that political considerations didn’t inform the decisions of Walters, Coats, and Rogers: Weighing in on behalf of their respective presidents in these instances must have looked to them like a surefire way to do long-term damage to the agencies they headed.
At some level, Nixon had to understand that—not that it deterred him from authorizing law-breaking and orchestrating a cover-up. It’s not at all clear that Trump does understand that, however. Trump’s vision of government, to whatever extent we can say he has one, is closer to a monarchial court (an aggregation of relatives and flunkies) than a modern state (with officials and agencies bound more by law than by the president’s whim). Trump’s problem, the source of some of his rage, is not that the state is “deep.” It’s that it’s a state—not a court. His reliance on children, in-laws, and yes-men to counsel him and carry out his impulses may be that of a mad king—a study of Trump and Ludwig of Bavaria would be instructive—but he doesn’t have enough relatives and flunkies, a critical mass of deferential doofuses, to staff the entire government and thereby rule without challenge.
Good thing Trump doesn't have as many children as a Saudi monarch. Then there really wouldn’t be anyone in power who could say no.