If the Trump/Nixon Comparison Holds, What Does That Mean for America's Future?

Investigating nonexistent voter fraud. Lashing out and firing the attorney general. What will be the vestiges of Trump's presidency?

Protesters demonstrate against President Donald Trump outside the Federal Building in Chicago, Illinois, January 31, 2017.
SCOTT OLSON/AFP

The other day I stood across from America’s most famous filing cabinet. Yes, that one. 

It shows evidence of a crowbar having had its way with the locked drawers. President Richard Nixon had sent “plumbers” to break into that locked, four-drawer filing cabinet in search of information to be used against Daniel Ellsberg, who was on his way to becoming the nation’s most important whistleblower on the failing war in Vietnam.

Today, it sits on display at the Smithsonian Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., an icon because it represents, according to the curator, the beginning of the end of the Nixon Presidency.

It would be wildly premature and irresponsibly optimistic to speak about the beginning of the end Trump presidency. But he was hardly in office for a full week before he began making moves that had legal experts suggesting we keep a close eye on the 25th Amendment, which makes provisions for replacing a president who is incapacitated, whether physically or mentally. If it becomes apparent that President Trump truly is unstable and arguably incapable of governing, as Rosa Brooks, a Georgetown Law professor, argues in an new opinion a piece in Foreign Policy, America wouldn’t necessarily need to go through a long and tedious impeachment process to replace him.    

From insisting for days that his inaugural crowd was the biggest in history to ordering an investigation into voter fraud, insisting that up to 5 million illegal immigrants had voted for his opponent, to banging up relations with Mexico by repeating his absurd insistence that America’s southern neighbor pay for the wall, Trump quickly cannibalized his own his own honeymoon. And all of that was before, as the sun was setting on his first week in office on Friday, he signed an Executive Order banning all immigrants and refugees from seven Muslim-majority nations. 

What unfolded next were actions that reminded many of Nixon’s final desperate moves. On Monday, the acting Attorney General, Sally Q. Yates, ordered the Department of Justice not to comply with Trump’s order because, she said, she wasn’t sure it was legal. Although Trump now claims this is about terrorists coming from danger zones, his previous and current statements indicate, Yates had told aides, that he clearly intends it as a ban on Muslims. As the U.S. Constitution bars the use of “religious tests,” it’s hard to see how that wouldn’t be struck down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional.

Trump lashed out. He fired Yates four hours later, dismissing her in a tweet as an Obama appointee “who is weak on borders and very weak on illegal immigration.” The White House statement announcing her dismissal said that Ms. Yates “has betrayed the Department of Justice by refusing to enforce a legal order designed to protect the citizens of the United States.”

The move immediately brought on parallels to the Nixon administration. While he was under investigation for his role in the Watergate break-in, Nixon ordered the firing of Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor handling the case. The Attorney General and Deputy Attorney resigned in protest, after refusing to carry out the president’s orders. 

It’s not exactly an equivalent situation. Trump was only on his tenth day in office when he moved to fire Yates, and he isn't being investigated for any crimes just yet. But it touches on the delicate checks and balances between the branches of government Americans – the good ones, anyway – really do cherish. Is an attorney general supposed to do a president’s bidding and clear up any legal mess caused by his policies, or serve the law? The internet almost melted on Tuesday as Trump’s critics shared a video of Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, Trump’s pick for attorney general, grilling Yates in 2015.

“Do you think the attorney general has the responsibility to say no to the president if he asks for something that's improper?” Sessions posed in her confirmation hearing. “But if the views the president wants to execute are unlawful, should the attorney general or the deputy attorney general say no?”

“Senator,” Yates replied. “I believe that the attorney general or the deputy attorney general has an obligation to follow the law and the Constitution, and to give their independent legal advice to the president.”

Television channels played the video continuously.

If this is the standard that Republicans would like to hold appointees to, how will Sessions be able to answer that question when his confirmation hearing continues this week? Sen. Diane Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, suggested this week that Sessions loyalists were involved in crafting Trump’s travel ban, a charge he denies.

Trump seemed to repair his standing with conservative Republicans on Tuesday night by nominating Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. It was his first act as president that did not appear ill-thought, disorganized and chaotic. Democrats find much to dislike about Gorsuch, describing him as anti-women’s healthcare and supportive of businesses. His Christian religious leanings make it likely he’d support an overturn of Roe v. Wade, and he considered himself close to Antonin Scalia, who died last year. Many progressives are still angry that Congress refused to hold hearings to discuss Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland.

Trump has an opportunity to shape the future of the Supreme Court in Gorsuch, and in Sessions, the legal thumbprint of his presidency. Soon, Yates will be out of the picture and Sessions – or someone else if Republicans cross the aisle to oppose him – will be confirmed. But we are left wondering, if a moment of legal pause over a controversial (and probably unconstitutional) policy is deemed “betrayal,” how can we expect Sessions to operate independently?
 
We don’t really need filing cabinets anymore. Storage is digital and intelligence-gathering happens without crowbars physically prying open drawers. But I can’t help but wonder what will be the icon of the Trump administration’s downfall. A #NoWallNoBan sign? A pink pussyhat? A tally of the money spent investigating a voter fraud epidemic that does not seem to have occurred? Or a hit list of enemies and news organizations he’s like to destroy?