Julian Zelizer & Morton Keller Debate: Is the Watergate-Comey Comparison Simply a Way to Score Partisan Points?

Historians in the News
tags: Watergate, Nixon, James Comey, Trump



To place contemporary events in perspective, we turned to a pair of historians of the United States. Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author, most recently, of The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society. Morton Keller is a professor emeritus of history at Brandeis University. He has written or edited more than 15 books, including Obama’s Time: A History. They’ll be exchanging views periodically on how to understand Trump, his presidency, and this moment in political time. —Yoni Appelbaum

Julian Zelizer: Ever since President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, many historians have been asking whether it’s now safe to say that this scandal is starting to look a lot like Watergate. There are obviously many important differences, including the fact that President Nixon fired a special prosecutor appointed specifically to investigate Watergate while Trump used his legal authority to remove the head of the FBI. We don’t yet know how extensive and how wide-ranging the connections are between Trump’s presidential campaign and the Russian interference in the election. And whereas Nixon’s scandal broke after a massive reelection victory, Trump’s troubles are happening shortly after the first 100 days.

But it is getting much more difficult not to see the obvious comparison. Without question, we now have a Nixonian commander in chief who believes that the presidency should be as imperial as possible. What Trump’s actions have reminded us of is that he sees few reasons to be cautious about how he exercises his power. Like Nixon, he is a president who has very little regard for the other branches of government. When attacked by opponents, his instinct is to strike back as hard as possible without regard to the ethics or politics of doing so. Like Nixon, he seems to be a president who has become totally immersed in the bubble of the Oval Office. He is unable and uninterested to hear any of the voices outside his small circle of, yes, men and women. He has veered into the territory of being a president where the abuse of power is not outside the realm of acceptable behavior.

Too often comparisons of presidents to Richard Nixon have been overblown. We use the suffix “gate” to almost every scandal that emerges, small or large, and often wonder how our presidents compare to one of the most notorious leaders in our history. This time, the comparisons are right on target and it’s not too early to start wondering if we are headed down a path that will result in an equally traumatic outcome for the republic.

Morton Keller: Julian, yours is a strongly argued, but highly partisan, criticism of Trump's action in dismissing James Comey from the directorship of the FBI. My view of the episode is more complicated—as I think the episode itself is.

Watergate was a steadily expanding scandal: the break-in, the coverup, the dirty tricks campaign against the opposition using the FBI, the CIA, and the IRS.

This was hardly a one-party event. The Senate established a Select Committee in a 77-0  vote. Nixon resigned to avoid impeachment—of necessity a two-party threat.

And what is the current status of the supposed Russia-Trump connection, the current counterpart to Watergate? To paraphrase Chicago’s former Mayor Daley: lots of allegations, but damn few alligators. ...





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