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Trump’s Loyalists Are Following in Reagan’s Footsteps

What Republicans really learned from Nixon's Watergate scandal

Henry Burroughs/AP

There’s a striking—and growing—contrast between President Donald Trump’s boldness in undermining political norms and the Republican Party’s weakness in defending those norms. Last week, Trump fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson via Twitter, then sacked former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe right before his pension kicked in and crowed about it in a tweet. Trump has also been trying to undermine the legitimacy of special counsel Robert Mueller, perhaps foreshadowing another firing:

Trump is now truly unleashed, a president “who ultimately trusts only his own instincts, and now believes he has settled into the job enough to rely on them rather than the people who advise him,” The New York Times’ Maggie Haberman reported on Sunday, adding that he’s “newly emboldened to say what he really feels and to ignore the cautions of those around him.” Not that many prominent Republicans are urging caution. As Haberman tweeted:

“Most Republicans failed to seize this occasion to send a clear signal that any effort to remove Mueller will be met with serious consequences, Greg Sargent observed in The Washington Post.

This capitulation to Trump, though a dereliction of constitutional duty, isn’t unprecedented—nor will Republicans necessarily be punished for it. In fact, history suggests otherwise. During the biggest constitutional crisis of the last century, a future Republican president proved that the smartest response to a White House scandal involving your own party is to become the embattled president’s biggest loyalist.

It’s true that a handful of Republican senators, all regular Trump critics, have warned him not to fire Mueller. “As I said before, if he tried to do that, that would be the beginning of the end of his presidency,” Lindsey Graham said on Sunday. But his words aren’t backed up by meaningful action. He’s co-authored a bill with Democratic Senator Cory Booker to make it harder for Trump to fire Mueller, but he’s let the bill languish, saying the timing isn’t right. “Not right now,” he said. “I’ve got zero concern that the President or his team is going to fire Mueller.” Another Senate bill with the same goal, written by Democrat Chris Coons and Republican Thom Tillis, with the same goal, has also stalled. “I don’t think there’s any imminent need to do it today or this week,” Tillis said.

As Trump inches America toward a constitutional crisis, most Republicans are staying silent. “I think one of the really sad realizations over the last year is not what kind of a president Donald Trump turns out to be—I think it was all too predictable—but rather, how many members of Congress would be unwilling to stand up to him, and more than that, would be completely willing to carry water for him. That is a very sad realization,” Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff recently told Politico. “I did not expect that. I thought there would be more Jeff Flakes, more John McCains, more Bob Corkers—people who would defend our system of checks and balances, would speak out for decency, who would defend the First Amendment.”

Republicans today are defending a different amendment. During his 1966 campaign for California governor, Ronald Reagan invoked an “Eleventh Commandment”: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” That credo was tested in the early 1970s, as many Republicans felt compelled to resist or disavow President Richard Nixon amid the Watergate scandal.

In his forthcoming book, They Said No to Nixon: Republicans Who Stood Up to the President’s Abuses of Power, historian Michael Koncewicz argues that GOP resistance predated the scandal. “Well before the American public became aware of the White House’s dirty tricks, there were Republicans who quietly blocked Nixon’s orders and provided an important, yet fragile, check on the imperial presidency,” he writes. “Although many others within the White House followed through on Nixon’s dirty tricks to varying degrees, some had enough courage to resist the White House’s plots to further expand the power of the presidency.”

Many of these bureaucratic resisters were moderate Republicans from the Eisenhower era. They had their counterpart in politicians like Howard Baker, the long-serving Republican Tennessee senator, who led the charge against Nixon in the Watergate hearings by raising the question that got to the heart of scandal: “What did the president know, and when did he know it?”

As Baker and other Republican lawmakers took the path of constitutional duty, Reagan, already a stalwart of the conservative wing of the GOP, became a partisan bodyguard for the president. Prior to Watergate, Reagan had occasionally been critical of Nixon as being too liberal. But once the scandal broke, Reagan became Nixon’s most prominent supporter. This helped Reagan win the loyalty of many Republicans, who shared his dismay that Nixon was being maligned by the press and by politicians from both parties.

The centrality of Watergate in Reagan’s ascension is well documented in Rick Perlstein’s 2014 book The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan. At a press conference on May 15, 1973, Reagan declared that the Watergate scandal was being “blown out of proportion.” Later that month, Reagan made the contradictory statement that Watergate was “not criminal, just illegal.” These were seemingly heartfelt opinions. In a letter to a minister he had known as a child, Reagan wrote, “[W]e are witness to a lynching ... to watch the ‘night riders’ ignore the harm they are doing to our nation in these troubled times makes me a little sick.” In June, after Nixon hosted a successful summit with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, Reagan said during a press conference, “I just think it’s too bad that [Watergate] is taking people’s attention from what I think is the most brilliant accomplishment of any president of this century, and that is the steady progress towards peace and the easing of tensions.” In August, Reagan denounced the Watergate hearings as a “lynching” and “witch hunt.”

Reagan continued to defend Nixon even after the release of White House tapes in which Nixon described Reagan as “pretty shallow” and of “limited mental capacity.” Political analysts were baffled by Reagan’s unwavering celebration of Nixon. As columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak wrote in June 1974, “To the dismay of his political handlers, Gov. Ronald Reagan is no closer to a polite but clear break with President Nixon than he was a year ago and continues to resist that politically necessary rupture even as he prepares to run for President.”

But Perlstein argues that Reagan’s support of Nixon was politically wise, since it aligned him with Americans who felt under siege in a tumultuous era. As he wrote in a 2012 Baffler essay:

This was the logic behind everything Reagan said about Watergate: Nixon was one of the good guys, and good guys are innocent; but even if they weren’t, Watergate did not involve real crimes; but even if it did, it revealed nothing essential about the American character, which was a transcendent character, simply by virtue of being American. This performance of blitheness in the face of crisis was part of Ronald Reagan’s nature, and a large part of his political appeal.

Baker was a temporary hero in 1973 for standing up to Nixon; there was even talk that Baker could become president. But Reagan correctly guessed that partisans would love his pro-Nixon stance, while less partisan voters would quickly forget it. He nearly upset President Gerald Ford to win the 1976 nomination, and four years later won the nomination. Baker, who also ran in 1980, dropped out early in the race as it became clear that his moderation didn’t appeal to Republican primary voters. He had to settle for being Reagan’s chief of staff at the tail end of his presidency.

Reagan became the biggest Republican icon since Lincoln, while Baker’s brand of moderate Republicanism has been diminishing since the late 1970s. Today, for ambitious Republicans who want remain relevant in their own party, the lessons Reagan taught are clear: If a Republican presidency is threatened by scandal, hold your nose until the smell goes away. The voters will reward you for your loyalty.

It’s possible, of course, that history won’t repeat itself. Perhaps Trump’s scandals will taint those who defend him, and the Republicans will suffer severe losses not only in this year’s elections, but in 2020 and beyond. Perhaps Trump’s biggest enablers, like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan, will be voted out of Congress. Perhaps the Howard Bakers of today—Graham, Flake, or Corker—will the rule rather than the exception. But that would require a seismic shift in Republicans politics, in the opposite direction of which the party is lurching today.