by Donne Levy
Donne Levy is a retired college instructor in U.S. Asian History, and Western Civilization.
This is the first presidential scandal involving a foreign government interfering with our election process and possible collusion by the man who won the election.
Since George Washington Americans have taken pride in electing honest presidents. Whether the chief executive is rated by historians as great, average, or failure, there has been general agreement that honest men have occupied the White House. But in the early morning hours of June 17, 1972, five burglars were arrested in Democratic National Committee Headquarters in the Watergate Complex. Since then, three scandals have battered the presidency resulting in an almost impeachment that would have occurred had the president not resigned, a possible impeachment that probably would have occurred had that path been chosen by the opposition party, and one actual impeachment. Since Watergate, it has become evident that presidential integrity should not be taken for granted.
Today, yet another presidential scandal is in the making, although we do not know the details or depth of a President Trump scandal and the outcome is anyone’s guess. As a way to discern guidance for witnessing a new presidential scandal and to assess future prospects, it would be beneficial to review the three recent scandals, namely Watergate, Iran-Contra, and Monica Lewinsky.
The Watergate scandal involved a president who took extra-legal means to quiet dissent and stop the leaking of sensitive information to the press. For those purposes, the Nixon White House created a “Special Investigative Unit” nicknamed the Plumbers. The main operation of the Plumbers was the break-in of Dr. Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office. The reason for the burglary was to find information discrediting Ellsberg, the man who leaked the Pentagon Papers.
This illegal type of activity continued with President Nixon’s re-election committee. The campaign committee wiretapped telephones at the Democratic National Committee offices resulting in the arrest of burglars in the Watergate Complex. Some of the burglars had been Plumbers. Nixon chose to cover-up the crime by ordering his staff to claim it was all a CIA operation involving national security. He further directed the deliverance of money to those arrested hoping that would keep them from telling the truth. When Nixon’s crimes were exposed by subordinates led by White House Counsel John Dean and corroborated by tapes, support for the President faded away causing his resignation before House impeachment and a Senate trial would have terminated his presidency.
In November 1986, a Lebanese newspaper reported that the U.S. government had sold weapons to Iran although our official policy was to not deal with the Iranians. That was the beginning of the Iran-Contra scandal that came perilously close to destroying the Reagan presidency.
The story originated with the terrorist group Hezbollah having ties to Iran and holding seven Americans hostage in Lebanon. In an effort to free the hostages, the Reagan Administration through its National Security Council made contact with the Iranians negotiating a sale of missiles in return for the Iranians using their influence to free the hostages. Security Council staffer Oliver North engineered a scheme for the proceeds of the sale to go to the Contras fighting to overthrow the government of Nicaragua.
Reagan at first denied that it was an arms-for-hostages deal, but several months later under public pressure and multiple investigations including one by Congress and a presidential commission, Reagan admitted that it was in fact arms-for-hostages.
Laws had clearly been broken. In the period 1982-1984, Congress passed the Boland Amendments, one of which barred the U.S. Government from giving military aid to the Contras. Furthermore, the investigations indicated that Reagan had allowed his National Security Council to go out of control.
The scandal caused Reagan’s popularity to take a severe but temporary beating. However, the Democratic majority in Congress chose not to impeach a 76 year old president who could not remember whether he had committed illegal action or was even aware of illegal activities in his administration. Eleven of his subordinates were convicted of crimes, but Reagan would serve out his term of office as a tarnished president yet honored by many Americans.
The third of the major presidential scandals of this era resulted in the first presidential impeachment in 130 years, but ironically, it had nothing to do with political or public life. It was about an extra-marital affair.
Monica Lewinsky served for two years as a White House intern while engaging in an affair with President Clinton. She was then transferred to the Pentagon where she became friends with Linda Tripp, a co-worker. Tripp secretly taped conversations she had with Lewinsky about the Clinton affair and then turned the tapes and a stained dress over to Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr who was originally hired to investigate an Arkansas real estate matter called Whitewater. Starr however was now investigating sexual harassment charges against Clinton by Paula Jones, an Arkansas state employee. Both Clinton and Lewinsky were subpoenaed to testify before Starr’s grand jury. They both denied the affair which led to charges of perjury and obstruction of justice against Clinton. The Republican controlled House of Representatives impeached Clinton on those charges, but the Senate fell way short of the necessary two-thirds to convict and remove him from office. Clinton served out his term damaged in the eyes of many Americans, although as the years passed, his presidency has been remembered more as a time of peace and prosperity with a budget surplus than as a time of scandal.
These recent scandals can serve as guidelines for assessing the events now unfolding in regard to President Trump. In Watergate and Iran-Contra, subordinates broke the law and each president defended himself by claiming ignorance. Both Nixon and Reagan descended into deep trouble by deploying that defense. In each case, especially Watergate, evidence mounted that each president must have been aware of the work done by his closest staff or he had been grossly incompetent. Nixon’s White House Counsel John Dean testified that he had received presidential orders and approval to carry out a cover-up and that was eventually borne out by audio tapes. Reagan’s Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger held notes from meetings indicating Reagan approved the arms sales to Iran.
Trump is following the same path as his scandal-ridden predecessors Nixon and Reagan. In his first press conference on February 6, 2017, Trump said, “Nobody that I know of talked with Russians …” That was just one of many denials made by Trump or his spokespeople. That position is hard for Trump to hold since emails prove that his son, son-in-law, and then campaign manager met with Russians of government influence while Trump sat in his office in the same building and that meeting was initiated by Russians promising “dirt” on Hillary Clinton.
Furthermore, scandals become more damaging to the president if the American people believe that they are being lied to by their president. Nixon’s popularity at first during Watergate remained high as he won 49 states in his re-election. But six months later as evidence poured out indicating that Nixon had been lying about his involvement, the president’s standing with the American people plummeted.
Reagan initially gave a televised speech denying an arms for hostages deal. But, six months later with his popularity dropping as evidence revealed the contrary. Reagan relented, admitting to the nation that there had indeed been an arms for hostages deal.
Clinton initially and famously said, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman Miss Lewinsky.” As evidence came out to the contrary, seven months later Clinton admitted to an “inappropriate relationship.” An immediate telling of the truth might have forestalled impeachment.
Here again Trump is following the same path declaring total innocence through ignorance and he is in a more tenuous position than his predecessors. Nixon, Reagan, and Clinton were all hit by scandal after handily winning re-election. They began with the good-will of a large portion of the American people. In Trump’s election he did not even win a plurality of the popular vote and his reputation with a majority of Americans is that of man who is “less than truthful” to state it mildly. He begins a scandal with an already low approval level.
Nixon, Reagan, and Clinton all claimed that the crimes involved in their scandals were unimportant, inconsequential or even well-intended. Nixon and his supporters could claim that a wiretap changed no votes in his landslide victory. Reagan could claim that he and his subordinates performed a humanitarian duty attempting to free American hostages. Clinton supporters could claim that a president’s private life should remain just that – private. Nor, they claimed, did it meet the criteria of high crimes intended by the Founding Fathers who wrote the impeachment clause.
Again Trump is in a more tenuous position. This is the first presidential scandal involving a foreign government interfering with our election process and possible collusion by the man who won the election and is now president. So far, Trump supporters have remained loyal to their man. But that comprises a minority of the American people and convincing others that this does not meet impeachment standards would be an exceedingly steep climb.
In conclusion, facing a scandal, President Trump is doing some of the same things his scandal-plagued predecessors did such as claiming to be unaware of what happened, claiming total innocence, and claiming any crimes if committed are unimportant. But Trump begins his scandal in a position weaker than his predecessors were in given to his family ties, his reputation with the American people, and the nature of the crimes involved. Trump’s prospects are not good so long as he continues making the same mistakes that Nixon, Reagan, and Clinton made.