June 5, 2022 at 12:00 a.m. EDT
“President George Washington, in his celebrated 1796 Farewell Address, cautioned that American democracy was fragile. “Cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government,” he warned.
Two of his successors — Richard Nixon and Donald Trump — demonstrate the shocking genius of our first president’s foresight.
As reporters, we had studied Nixon and written about him for nearly half a century, during which we believed with great conviction that never again would America have a president who would trample the national interest and undermine democracy through the audacious pursuit of personal and political self-interest.
And then along came Trump.
The heart of Nixon’s criminality was his successful subversion of the electoral process — the most fundamental element of American democracy. He accomplished it through a massive campaign of political espionage, sabotage and disinformation that enabled him to literally determine who his opponent would be in the presidential election of 1972.
With a covert budget of just $250,000, a team of undercover Nixon operatives derailed the presidential campaign of Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine, the Democrats’ most electable candidate.
Nixon then ran against Sen. George McGovern, a South Dakota Democrat widely viewed as the much weaker candidate, and won in a historic landslide with 61 percent of the vote and carrying 49 states.
Over the next two years, Nixon’s illegal conduct was gradually exposed by the news media, the Senate Watergate Committee, special prosecutors, a House impeachment investigation and finally by the Supreme Court. In a unanimous decision, the court ordered Nixon to turn over his secret tape recordings, which doomed his presidency.
These instruments of American democracy finally stopped Nixon dead in his tracks, forcing the only resignation of a president in American history.
Donald Trump not only sought to destroy the electoral system through false claims of voter fraud and unprecedented public intimidation of state election officials, but he also then attempted to prevent the peaceful transfer of power to his duly elected successor, for the first time in American history.
Trump’s diabolical instincts exploited a weakness in the law. In a highly unusual and specific manner, the Electoral Count Act of 1887 says that at 1 p.m. on Jan. 6 following a presidential election, the House and Senate will meet in a joint session. The president of the Senate, in this case Vice President Mike Pence, will preside. The electoral votes from the 50 states and the District of Columbia will then be opened and counted.
This singular moment in American democracy is the only official declaration and certification of who won the presidential election.
In a deception that exceeded even Nixon’s imagination, Trump and a group of lawyers, loyalists and White House aides devised a strategy to bombard the country with false assertions that the 2020 election was rigged and that Trump had really won. They zeroed in on the Jan. 6 session as the opportunity to overturn the election’s result. Leading up to that crucial date, Trump’s lawyers circulated memos with manufactured claims of voter fraud that had counted the dead, underage citizens, prisoners and out-of-state residents.
We watched in utter dismay as Trump persistently claimed that he was really the winner. “We won,” he said in a speech on Jan. 6 at the Ellipse. “We won in a landslide. This was a landslide.” He publicly and relentlessly pressured Pence to make him the victor on Jan. 6.
On that day, driven by Trump’s rhetoric and his obvious approval, a mob descended on the Capitol and, in a stunning act of collective violence, broke through doors and windows and ransacked the House chamber, where the electoral votes were to be counted. The mob then went in search of Pence — all to prevent the certification of Joe Biden’s victory. Trump did nothing to restrain them.
By legal definition this is clearly sedition — conduct, speech or organizing that incites people to rebel against the governing authority of the state. Thus, Trump became the first seditious president in our history.
Fifty years earlier, Nixon was intent on undermining and subverting the American system of free elections, the keystone that holds our democracy together.
In 1971, Howard Hunt, a former CIA operative, and G. Gordon Liddy, a former FBI agent, were hired to work for the White House in a “Special Investigations Unit” — known there as the “Plumbers.” Their initial mission: to plug leaks from Nixon administration officials to the news media.
One of the most notorious undertakings of the Nixon Plumbers was the burglary of the psychiatrist for Daniel Ellsberg, who had leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times and Washington Post. Hunt and Liddy ran the burglary.The hope, unfulfilled, was to find dirt on Ellsberg or show that he had communist ties.
With the onset of the campaign, Hunt and Liddy were moved to the Nixon reelection committee to quarterback spying and sabotage operations.
Memos discovered during the Watergate investigations identified Muskie as “Target A,” with the goal “to visit upon him some political wounds that will not only reduce his chances for nomination — but damage him as a candidate, should he be nominated.”
In one of the strongest and most effective espionage efforts, Elmer Wyatt, a Nixon campaign operative, was planted in Muskie’s campaign, where he became the senator’s chauffeur. Wyatt was paid $1,000 a month to deliver copies of sensitive documents he transported between Muskie’s Senate office and his presidential campaign headquarters. It was a spectacular yield. The volume was so great that Wyatt, code-named “Ruby I,” rented an apartment midway between the two offices, equipped with a photocopying machine.
Copies of Muskie’s documents were ferried to the Nixon reelection headquarters, where campaign manager John Mitchell, the former attorney general, took advantage of the almost total visibility the documents provided into the Muskie campaign: “itineraries, internal memoranda, drafts of speeches and position papers,” according to the Senate Watergate Committee’s final report in 1974. The Nixon campaign also received papers on campaign strategy debates, fundraising, personnel, media operations and internal disputes.
Meanwhile Gordon Strachan, the top political aide to White House chief of staff H.R. “Bob” Haldeman, and Dwight Chapin, Nixon’s appointments secretary, who was like a son to the president, hired Donald Segretti, an old college friend and former Army lawyer, to implement sabotage efforts.
Segretti in turn hired 22 individuals to inflict these “political wounds” and was paid $77,000 in checks and cash. Herbert Kalmbach, Nixon’s personal lawyer, secretly made the payments from leftover campaign funds.
In March 1972 one Segretti operative circulated a counterfeit letter on Muskie stationery with allegations of sexual improprieties involving rival Democratic candidates Henry “Scoop” Jackson and Hubert Humphrey. The letterhead cost only $20 to reproduce, but Chapin told Segretti that the $20 was a sensational investment and had obtained “$10,000 to $20,000 worth of benefit for the President’s reelection campaign,” according to the Senate Watergate Committee report.
Over the months of the Democratic primary race, heckling, pickets and “M-U-S-K-I-E spells Loser” signs trailed Muskie. Segretti and his operatives stole shoes left by the candidate and his staff outside hotel room doors for polishing before campaign events. Keys were surreptitiously snatched from campaign motorcades while the drivers stepped away for a smoke. Shoes and keys were then deposited in dumpsters outside town, making it impossible for the campaign to stay on schedule and function smoothly. Segretti’s operatives reported, “We did grandly piss off his staff and rattled him considerably.”
Muskie and his staffers were spooked. At a rally in New Hampshire, standing on the back of a truck, the candidate expressed how upset he was by published slurs on his wife, Jane. A gossipy editorial published by conservative William Loebin the Manchester Union Leader, headlined “Big Daddy’s Jane,” had suggested that the senator’s wife drank, smoked and liked to tell dirty jokes. The story was also published in Newsweek. Around the same time, Muskie had appeared to condone the use of the word “Canuck,” a derogatory term for Canadians, in a forged letter drafted by a Nixon White House aide.
Under assault, Muskie openly cried at the New Hampshire campaign stop. David Broder, The Washington Post’s senior political reporter, wrote in a front-page story that Muskie broke down three times, “with tears streaming down his face.”
Drip by drip, all this added to the implosion of the Muskie candidacy. Later, Muskie said, “Our campaign was constantly plagued by leaks and disruptions and fabrications, but we could never pinpoint who was doing it.”
“There were many players in the Watergate drama,” Nixon’s chief of staff, Haldeman, wrote in his 1978 book, “The Ends of Power,” “and behind them all lurks the ever-present shadow of the President of the United States.”
Haldeman added, “This tendency to strike too hard … reflected a belief in, and too great a willingness to accept, the concept that the end justifies the means.” In other words, Nixon believed that his political survival was a “greater good,” worth subverting the will of the people.
“A man is not finished when he is defeated. He is finished when he quits,” Nixon wrote in a note to himself in 1969. It was a classically Nixonian adage — embraced by Trump, who had been defeated in the 2020 election but, armed with falsehoods and a scheme to hold on to power, refused to quit.
Even before the election, Trump relentlessly tried to maneuver and claim that the electoral process was rigged against him, laying the groundwork for an assault on the legitimacy of its outcome, which he continues to this day.
On June 22, 2020, for example, nearly five months before Election Day, he tweeted: “MILLIONS OF MAIL-IN BALLOTS WILL BE PRINTED BY FOREIGN COUNTRIES, AND OTHERS. IT WILL BE THE SCANDAL OF OUR TIMES!”
At 2:30 a.m. on Nov. 4, as the presidential vote count solidified Biden’s path to victory in the electoral college, Trump told the nation and the world: “This is a fraud on the American public. This is an embarrassment to our country. We were getting ready to win this election. Frankly, we did win this election.”
Three days later the Associated Press and the rest of the media declared Biden the victor. Trump, however, said: “We all know why Joe Biden is rushing to falsely pose as the winner, and why his media allies are trying so hard to help him: they don’t want the truth to be exposed. The simple fact is this election is far from over. …
“Our campaign will start prosecuting our case in court. …
“I will not rest until the American People have the honest vote count they deserve and that Democracy demands.”
Unlike Nixon, Trump accomplished his subversion largely in public. He pursued attacks on the legitimacy of the 2020 election process from campaign rally podiums, the White House and his popular Twitter feed. Nonetheless, he lost 61 of his court challenges, even from judges he had appointed.
After Election Day, Trump began another, more deadly assault on the electoral process.
“JANUARY SIXTH, SEE YOU IN DC!” he tweeted on Dec. 30, 2020, from Mar-a-Lago, where he was spending the holidays.
Longtime chief strategist Steve Bannon, who had been in and out of Trump’s favor, picked up the thread in a phone conversation with Trump that same day.
“You’ve got to return to Washington and make a dramatic return today,” Bannon told him, according to reporting in Woodward and Robert Costa’s book, “Peril.”
“You’ve got to call Pence off the f---ing ski slopes and get him back here today. This is a crisis,” Bannon said, referring to the vice president, who was vacationing in Vail, Colo.
“We’re going to bury Biden on January 6th,” Bannon said.
If Republicans could cast enough of a shadow on Biden’s victory on Jan. 6, Bannon said, it would be hard for him to govern. Millions of Americans would consider him illegitimate.
“We are going to kill it in the crib. Kill the Biden presidency in the crib,” Bannon said.
Trump’s attack on Biden’s legitimacy included a stream of public statements, legal deceptions and a constant focus on disruption of the Jan. 6 certification in Congress.
In a two-page “privileged and confidential” memo, dated Jan. 2, ultraconservative lawyer John Eastman set out in six points how Trump would be declared the winner. It was a blueprint for a coup. The memo said, “7 states have transmitted dual slates of electors.”
If even a single state had dual slates of electors, that could cause havoc in the congressional certification.
Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, one of Trump’s strongest supporters, was shocked when he read the memo that the White House had sent to him. Alternative electors would be major national news if it were true. He had heard of none. Lee had launched his own investigation, and spent two months talking to Trump and White House officials and calling representatives in Republican-controlled legislatures. There were zero alternate slates. Lee was surprised that the deceptive memo had come from Eastman, a law school professor and former clerk to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
Lee eventually went to the Senate floor and, holding up a copy of the Constitution, said he had spent an enormous amount of time looking into the matter and found “not even one” example of an alternate elector.
Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor, Trump lawyer and confidant, made similar allegations of a rigged election and massive voter fraud. Giuliani wrote his claims in long memos that he sent to Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Trump insider. When Graham investigated the claims, he found nothing. “Count me out,” Graham said dramatically on the Senate floor.
The evening of Jan. 5, the day before the formal certification process, Trump met with Pence. He urged Pence as the presiding officer at the certification session to throw Biden’s electors out.
Pence said he didn’t have the power.
“What if these people say you do?” Trump asked. He gestured outside, where a massive crowd of his supporters had gathered. Their cheering and bullhorns could be heard through the Oval Office windows.
“I wouldn’t want any one person to have that authority,” Pence said.
“But wouldn’t it almost be cool to have that power?” asked the president of the United States.
“No,” Pence said. “I’m just there to open the envelopes.”
“You don’t understand, Mike, you can do this. I don’t want to be your friend anymore if you don’t do this.” Trump’s voice became louder, and he grew threatening. “You’ve betrayed us. I made you. You were nothing,” he said. “Your career is over if you do this.”
After Pence departed that evening, Trump invited a group of his press aides into the Oval Office. He had opened a door near the Resolute Desk. It was about 31 degrees outside, and cold air streamed in. Trump was oblivious to his shivering aides and instead seemed to bask in the cheers of his supporters outside.
“Isn’t that great?” he said. “Tomorrow is going to be a big day. It’s so cold, and they’re out there by the thousands. There is a lot of anger out there right now.”
Trump threatened to encourage primary challenges against those in Congress who supported Biden’s certification as president.
At 1 a.m. on Jan. 6, 2021, Trump tweeted: “If Vice President @Mike_Pence comes through for us, we will win the Presidency … Mike can send it back!”
Twitter and social media posts lit up with threats of violence. I’m going to kill this person. Shoot this person. Hang this guy.
In a 10 a.m. call to Pence, Trump gave it one more try. “Mike, you can do this. I’m counting on you to do it. If you don’t do it, I picked the wrong man four years ago.”
At Trump’s “Stop the Steal” rally that morning, several thousand people gathered on the Ellipse in the cold. “Let’s have trial by combat,” Giuliani said as the crowd cheered their approval.
Trump followed. “We will never give up. We will never concede. … You’ll never take back our country with weakness,” he yelled to the crowd from the stage.
“I know that everyone here will soon be marching over to the Capitol building to peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard,” Trump said.
A determined crowd of more than 1,000 descended on the Capitol. Soon after 2 p.m. the mob became violent. Glass began to shatter, doors were forced open. An unprecedented assault and insurrection were in full progress. “Hang Mike Pence,” they chanted, while roaming the halls of Congress. Some were dressed in garish costumes. Outside, a makeshift gallows was erected to hang Pence.
In the White House, Trump watched the riot on television.
A year later, the House Select Committee on the January 6 Attack was far along in its investigation: It had issued 86 subpoenas, interviewed more than 500 witnesses and obtained 60,000 pages of records. As of this writing, the committee had an abundance of evidence that the insurrection was a Trump operation — and committee members have vowed to push further.
Both Nixon and Trump created a conspiratorial world in which the U.S. Constitution, laws and fragile democratic traditions were to be manipulated or ignored, political opponents and the media were “enemies,” and there were few or no restraints on the powers entrusted to presidents.
Both Nixon and Trump had been outsiders, given to paranoia, relentless in their ambition, carrying chips on their shoulders. Trump from the outer boroughs of New York City, not Manhattan. Nixon from Yorba Linda, Calif., not San Francisco or Los Angeles. Even after achieving the most powerful office in the world, these two men harbored deep insecurities.
Our conclusions come from covering Nixon and Watergate for half a century. And from reporting on Trump for more than six years — Woodward in three books (“Fear” in 2018, “Rage” in 2020 and “Peril” with Robert Costa in 2021); Bernstein as a CNN reporter and commentator, analyzing Trump, his behavior and its meaning from 2016 through this year. Bernstein reported in November 2020 that 21 Republican senators were contemptuous and disdainful of Trump in private, despite regularly voicing their support for the president in public. After the story ran on CNN — which named the 21 senators — another senior Republican senator said that the number was closer to 40.
Watergate began for us when we were called to work with a team of Washington Post reporters the day after five burglars were arrested during a break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate office building on June 17, 1972.
Though it took us months to establish, Nixon, his White House staff and his reelection campaign immediately began an unprecedented attack on the justice system, launching a comprehensive coverup involving lies, hush-money payments and offers of presidential pardons to conceal their crimes.
In a June 23, 1972, tape recording, six days after the burglars’ arrest at the Watergate, chief of staff Haldeman told Nixon, “The FBI is not under control … their investigation is now leading into some productive areas, because they’ve been able to trace the money.”
Haldeman said he and Mitchell had a plan for the CIA to claim that national security secrets would be jeopardized if the FBI did not halt its Watergate investigation.
Nixon approved the plan and ordered Haldeman to call in the CIA director and his deputy. “Play it tough,” the president directed. “That’s the way they play it, and that’s the way we are going to play it.”
This was the tape that was released on Aug. 5, 1974, and was unfortunately called the “smoking gun.” It was really no worse than some of the other tapes that had been previously disclosed. By then Congress and the public had grown weary and disgusted with Nixon.
John Dean, the Nixon White House counsel, was initially in charge of the containment and coverup of Watergate activities. He found a willing participant in Assistant Attorney General Henry Petersen, the head of the Justice Department criminal division, a powerful post. Petersen agreed to ensure that Earl Silbert, the U.S. attorney in charge of investigating Watergate, did not investigate Segretti and others.
According to the Senate Watergate report, “Petersen directed Silbert not to probe the relationships between Segretti and Kalmbach, Chapin, and Strachan because he ‘didn’t want him getting into the relationships between the President and his lawyer or the fact that the President’s lawyer might be involved in somewhat, I thought, illegitimate campaign activities on behalf of the President.’”
The coverup could proceed with what — in practical terms — amounted to an official blessing.
In his memoir, Haldeman, five years after his resignation from the White House, said Nixon was behind all the subterfuge.
“I realized that many problems in our administration arose not solely from the outside, but from inside the Oval Office — and even deeper, from inside the character of Richard Nixon,” wrote Haldeman.
“I soon realized that this President had to be protected from himself. Time and again I would receive petty vindictive orders,” Haldeman wrote about Nixon. One was, “All the press is barred from Air Force One … Or, after a Senator made an anti-Vietnam War speech: ‘Put a 24-hour surveillance on the bastard.’ And on and on and on.”
In one of the interviews Woodward conducted with Trump for his book “Rage,” he asked, “What have you learned about yourself?”
Trump sighed audibly. “I can handle more than other people can handle.”
“People don’t want me to succeed … Even the RINOs, even the RINOs don’t want me to succeed.” (RINOs are “Republicans in name only.”)
“I have opposition like nobody has. And that’s okay. I’ve had that all my life. I’ve always had it. And this has been — my whole life has been like this.”
Nixon, too, felt beset by enemies.
“Remember we’re gonna be around and outlive our enemies,” Nixon said in the Oval Office on Dec. 14, 1972, the month after his reelection. “And also, never forget: The press is the enemy. The press is the enemy. The press is the enemy. The establishment is the enemy. The professors are the enemy. The professors are the enemy. Write that on a blackboard 100 times and never forget it.”
As is so well known, Trump publicly said the press was the enemy and an enemy of the state. He even once told Woodward during an interview, “In my opinion you’re the enemy of the people.” After Bernstein disclosed one of Trump’s secret meetings, Trump called him “sloppy” and a “degenerate fool.”
The question hovers: Why would two men who held the highest office in the land engage in these assaults on democracy?
Fear of losing and being considered a loser was a common thread for Nixon and Trump.
In an interview with The Washington Post in 2015, Trump explained that he thought he had always been successful with his real estate, his books, his TV show and his golf.
Asked if he was afraid of losing someday, Trump said, “I’m not afraid of it, but I hate the concept of it.”
“What do you hate about it?”
“I hate the fact that it’s a total unknown,” he said, giving a classic Trumpian response of total confidence, and adding, “If there is a fear at all, it is a fear of the unknown because I’ve never been there before.”
In a March 31, 2016, interview as Trump was about to secure the Republican nomination for president, the question of how he would define power arose.
Trump said, “Real power is — I don’t even want to use the word — fear.”
After Nixon resigned and we embarked on our second book, “The Final Days,” on Nixon’s last year as president, we went to interview Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona, the 1964 Republican nominee for president. Goldwater was often thought of as the conscience of the Republican Party.
In his apartment, he offered us whiskey and pulled out his daily diary that he had dictated for years to his secretary. He began reading his entry for Aug. 7, 1974. The so-called smoking gun tape had been released two days before that date, showing that Nixon had asked the CIA to have the FBI curtail its Watergate investigation on bogus national security grounds. It was clear that Nixon was going to be impeached and formally charged by the House of Representatives. The question was the Senate.
Senate Republican Leader Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania, House Republican Leader John Rhodes of Arizona and Goldwater were invited to meet at the White House with Nixon. They would be alone with the president in the Oval Office. No Nixon aides or lawyers were present that evening.
Goldwater was seated directly across from Nixon, who sat at his desk. He later dictated that Nixon seemed at ease, almost serene. He thought the president looked as though he had just shot a hole in one. Disappointment was audible, however, in Nixon’s voice.
“We’ve asked Barry to be our spokesman,” Scott said.
“Mr. President, this isn’t pleasant, but you want to know the situation and it isn’t good,” Goldwater said.
“How many would you say would be with me — a half-dozen?” Nixon asked.
Goldwater had dictated that he wondered if there was sarcasm in the president’s voice, because Nixon would need 34 votes in a Senate trial to stay in office. A two-thirds majority, or 67, was needed to remove him, according to the Constitution.
“Sixteen to 18,” Goldwater said, still well short of the needed 34.
“I’d say maybe 15,” Scott said. “But it’s grim, and they’re not very firm.”
“Damn grim,” the president shot back.
In a Senate trial, Goldwater said, “There aren’t many who would support you if it comes to that.”
Goldwater told us that he had decided at that moment to be absolutely blunt in his message. “I took kind of a nose count today, and I couldn’t find more than four very firm votes, and those would be from older Southerners. Some are very worried about what’s been going on, and are undecided, and I’m one of them.”
The next night Nixon appeared on national television and announced that he would resign the following day at noon, Friday, Aug. 9, 1974.
More than a year earlier, the Senate launched an extraordinary bipartisan investigation of Watergate, voting 77 to 0 to set up an investigative committee.
Forty-eight years later, the political climate had changed radically. Only two House Republicans — Reps. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) and Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) — joined all Democrats in voting 222 to 190 to establish a select committee to investigate the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. The Republican National Committee officially declared the events that led to the attack “legitimate political discourse” and voted to censure Cheney and Kinzinger.
Another dominating personal trait binds Nixon and Trump together: Each viewed the world through the prism of hate.
Woodward visited Trump on Dec. 30, 2019, at Mar-a-Lago to interview the president. The Democratic-controlled House had voted to impeach him for withholding military aid to Ukraine at the same time he was asking Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate the Bidens.
After an hour of Trump defending his request to Zelensky, Trump’s media director, Dan Scavino, joined the interview. Trump asked that Scavino open his laptop and show a clip of the president’s 2019 State of the Union speech. Instead of Trump’s words, hyped-up elevator music played as the camera panned for extended shots of members of Congress watching and listening to the president.
The first shot was of Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who looked bored.
Trump was watching over Woodward’s shoulder and was agitated.
“They hate me,” the president said. “You’re seeing hate!”
The camera stopped on Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts liberal. She was listening and had a bland, unemotional look on her face.
A shot of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was next. She had no expression on her face.
“Hate! See the hate!” Trump said.
The camera lingered a long time on Sen. Kamala Harris. She would be chosen as Biden’s running mate the next year. She had a bland, polite look on her face.
“Hate!” Trump said loudly within inches of Woodward’s neck. “See the hate! See the hate!”
It was a remarkable moment. A psychiatrist might say it was a projection of his own hatred of Democrats. But it was so intense that it did not resemble the subdued reaction of the Democrats. His insistence that it was “Hate!” was unsupported by the images on Scavino’s computer. Many Democrats, of course, did hate him. They were vocal and angry opponents of his presidency. But this Trump spectacle was unforgettable and bizarre.
The day Nixon resigned the presidency, Aug. 9, 1974, he gave his farewell address in the East Room of the White House. He had no script. His wife, Pat, his two daughters and their husbands stood behind him. Nixon spoke of how his mother and father were misunderstood and proceeded to unleash more grievances.
Then suddenly, as if he had found a larger message, he smiled gently and offered his final counsel to all. “Always remember, others may hate you — but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.”
It seemed a blinding moment of self-understanding. Hate had been the trademark of his presidency. But in the end he had come to realize that hate was the poison, the engine that had destroyed him.
Nixon accepted the full Watergate pardon from President Gerald Ford 30 days after his resignation. Whenever anyone asked Ford why he had not insisted on an explicit admission from Nixon that he had committed crimes, Ford confidently said he had the answer.
“I’ve got it in my wallet here,” he would reply, pulling out a folded, dog-eared piece of paper summarizing the Supreme Court decision Burdick v. United States in 1915. The justices had ruled that a pardon “carries an imputation of guilt; acceptance a confession of it.”
Nixon confessed by accepting the pardon, Ford said. “That was always very reassuring to me.”
In 1977, just three years out of office, Nixon gave a series of televised interviews to the British journalist David Frost. Nixon was paid $600,000. The first broadcast interview on Watergate drew 45 million television viewers — a record for a political interview that stands to this day.
Nixon said he had “let the American people down” but had not obstructed justice. “I didn’t think of it as a coverup. I didn’t intend it to cover up. Let me say, if I intended to cover up, believe me, I’d have done it.”
A year later, in his memoir “RN,” he continued his war on history. “My actions and omissions, while regrettable and possibly indefensible, were not impeachable.”
A president, he added in the Frost interview, has broad authority and cannot break the law. “When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal,” Nixon said.
In a later book in 1990, “In the Arena,” Nixon intensified his denials, claiming it was a myth that he had ordered hush-money payments.
A tape of his March 21, 1973, meeting, however, shows that he ordered John Dean to get the money 12 times.
Sen. Sam Ervin, the chairman of the Senate Watergate Committee, offered a final diagnosis. Nixon and his aides were driven by “a lust for political power.”
Though Ervin died 32 years before Trump became president, the label “lust for political power” applies.
Never a coherent strategist, Trump can be a powerful propagandist. He has woven together a series of assertions that he won in 2020, though there is no evidence to support it.
More than a year after Joe Biden’s inauguration, polling shows that only 21 percent of Republicans say they believe Biden is the legitimate president of the United States.
Their reasoning shows how the Trump rhetoric and playbook have convinced them. Between 74 and 83 percent of the Republicans who denied Biden’s victory were swayed by Trump’s false claims of massive voter fraud.
Trump’s claims have always been presented with unwavering, emotional consistency, revealing little or no self-doubt. As the 2024 election approaches, Trump seems on the verge of once again seeking the presidency.
Both Nixon and Trump have been willing prisoners of their compulsions to dominate, and to gain and hold political power through virtually any means. In leaning so heavily on these dark impulses, they defined two of the most dangerous and troubling eras in American history.
As Washington warned in his Farewell Address more than 225 years ago, unprincipled leaders could create “permanent despotism,” “the ruins of public liberty,” and “riot and insurrection.”
Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward are co-authors of “All the President’s Men” and “The Final Days.”