New York Mag Counsels Trump Haters in Cover Story: ‘Just Wait’ for Trump’s Watergate

July 7th, 2017 10:14 AM

New York magazine's June 26/July 9 cover story dreaming of a Trump impeachment, “How A Presidency Ends,” is by veteran liberal essayist Frank Rich, who worked at the New York Times for decades. The cover shows a “photo illustration” of Donald Trump in Richard Nixon’s outstretched-arms “V for Victory” pose. The inside headline counseled patience on the part of the magazine’s liberal readership: “Just Wait -- Watergate didn’t become Watergate overnight, either.”

“Let others wallow in Watergate, we are going to do our job,” said Richard Nixon with typical unearned self-righteousness in July 1973. By then, more than a year had passed since a slapstick posse of five had been caught in a bungled burglary at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate complex. It had been nine months since Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein reported in the Washington Post that the break-in was part of a “massive campaign of political spying and sabotage” conducted by all the president’s men against most of their political opponents. Now the nation was emerging from two solid months of Senate Watergate hearings, a riveting cavalcade of White House misfits and misdeeds viewed live by 71 percent of the public.

Even so, Nixon had some reason to hope that Americans would heed his admonition to change the channel. That summer, the Times reported that both Democratic and Republican congressmen back home for recess were finding “a certain numbness” about Watergate and no “public mandate for any action as bold as impeachment.”


In the decades since, Watergate has become perhaps the most abused term in the American political lexicon. Washington has played host to legions of “-gates,” most unworthy of the name, and the original has blurred in memory, including for those of us who lived through it. Now, of course, invocations of Watergate are our daily bread, as America contemplates the future of a president who not only openly admires Nixon -- he vowed to put a framed Nixon note on display in the Oval Office -- but seems intent on emulating his most impeachable behavior. And among those of us who want Donald Trump gone from Washington yesterday, there’s a fair amount of fear that he, too, could hang on until the end of a four-year term that stank of corruption from the start. Even if his White House scandals turn out to exceed his predecessor’s -- as the former director of national intelligence James Clapper posited in early June -- impeachment is a political, not a legal, matter, and his political lock on the presidency would seem secure. Unlike Nixon, who had to contend with Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, Trump has the shield of a Republican Congress led by craven enablers terrified of crossing their Dear Leader’s fiercely loyal base. That distinction alone is enough to make anti-Trumpers abandon all hope.

I’m here to say don’t do so just yet. There’s a handy antidote to despair: a thorough wallow in Watergate, the actual story as it unfolded, not the expedited highlight reel that most Americans know from a textbook précis or cultural artifacts like the film version of All the President’s Men. If you look through a sharp Nixonian lens at Trump’s trajectory in office to date, short as it has been, you will discover more of an overlap than you might expect. You will learn that Democratic control of Congress in 1973 was not a crucial factor in Nixon’s downfall and that Republican control of Congress in 2017 may not be a life preserver for Trump. You will find reason to hope that the 45th president’s path through scandal may wind up at the same destination as the 37th’s -- a premature exit from the White House in disgrace -- on a comparable timeline.


But as was also true with Nixon, some time and much patience will be required while waiting for the endgame. The span between Nixon’s Second Inaugural and his resignation was almost 19 months. Trump’s presidency already seems as if it’s lasted a lifetime, but it’s only five months old. Never forget that the Watergate auto-da-fé wasn’t built in a day.

Conveniently, Rich pointed to Trump’s war on the mainstream media as one of the traits that will doom his presidency to impeachment.

Another counterproductive Watergate defense strategy that Trump emulates is Nixon’s obsessive effort to counteract the daily leaks by trying to discredit the press that reported on them. “Never forget, the press is the enemy,” Nixon told his aides, instructing them to “write that on the blackboard a hundred times.” His notorious communications strategy -- led by Ron Ziegler, a former tour guide on Disneyland’s “Jungle Cruise” ride -- is the template for the Trump White House’s denials: an ad hominem attack on the offending news organization coupled with false claims of exoneration and false charges that the press was ignoring the opposition’s wrongdoing....

Rich named the names of conservative stars as peddlers of “alternative facts”.

Nixon’s flunkies, like Trump’s, wielded intimidation along with bluster against the press. The White House tried to challenge the licenses of Florida television stations owned by the Washington Post and was successful in browbeating William Paley, the head of CBS, to truncate a Walter Cronkite special report on Watergate. At the same time that the Nixon administration was trying to hobble what was then derided by conservatives as “the eastern media conspiracy,” it basked in the alternative facts spread by the Limbaughs, Drudges, and Breitbarts of its day -- right-wing radio stars like Clarence Manion and Paul Harvey and their print adjuncts...

Rich, tongue-in-cheek, pondered the possibility Trump would get away.

It’s always possible that there’s only smoke, no fire, and Trump will yet save himself, his party, and his country. Perhaps he won’t fire Robert Mueller. Perhaps Mueller will determine that Trump is not guilty of collusion with the Russians (with Trump’s voluntarily released tax returns as confirming evidence) or of obstruction of justice....Perhaps Jared Kushner will bring peace to the Middle East and reinvent American government rather than follow his father to prison.


Between now and then, there will be lulls in the downward trajectory -- after Nixon hit a new low of a 27 percent approval rating in November 1973, he spiked to 37 in a Harris poll a month later -- and many shocks and surprises.

After a mini-history lesson of how Watergate unfolded, Rich assured his Trump-hating audience that Trump wasn’t (too) long for the presidency.

Looking back on it all, Elizabeth Drew would write, “In retrospect, the denouement appeared inevitable -- but it certainly didn’t feel like that at the time.” That’s how I remember it. Certainly such a denouement for Trump doesn’t feel inevitable now. But whatever the end proves to be, we cannot expect to have a real inkling until an impending election starts concentrating Republican politicians’ minds next summer. The best thing to do in the meantime is to keep calm, carry on with the resistance, and rest assured that the day is coming when we won’t have Trump to kick around anymore.

The story also carried a sidebar by Alex Carp, “13 Predictions on How Long Trump’s Presidency Will Last.”