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How Watergate Helped Derail Trump’s Plan

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The evidence presented in the January 6 hearings – live from witnesses and in documents and recorded depositions – continues to be startling, even to those who have heard it before. In its five sessions so far, the House committee has overwhelmingly argued that Donald Trump treated the obvious fact that voters ousted him from power as an inconvenience to justify disregard for the law, democratic institutions and his oath of office.

What stood out on Thursday was Trump’s utter disregard for his own constituents: he lied to them, manipulated them and, as we learned in other hearings, ripped them off to get their money.

Will Trump or one of his associates end up in prison? We are no closer to an answer after Thursday’s hearing than before. But given the raid on the home of former Justice Department official Jeffrey Clark on Thursday, and the subpoenas issued to many of those implicated in the ‘voters’ scheme and other additional actions by law enforcement, it appears that federal investigators are looking far beyond the indictments and convictions of those directly involved in the plotting and execution of the attack on the Capitol on January 6.

A few other points from Thursday’s hearing:

• Many officials who were appointed to their positions by Trump nevertheless refused to do what he asked of them, culminating in his inability to fire his acting attorney general and install someone who would do what the president wanted. One thing we learned from studying the presidency is how little presidents can do just by giving orders. They can’t rule that way, and if they try, they can get into huge trouble.

• Another theme is how previous presidencies have a powerful influence on the current presidency. Witnesses from the Department of Justice spoke about the importance of remaining independent of the president. To a large extent, this comes from the reforms after Richard Nixon closely monitored the Watergate investigation through direct contact with prosecutors, first through White House attorney John Dean, then directly by itself. Revelations of this interference in 1973 severely damaged Nixon and ultimately produced strong institutional standards at the Justice Department to prevent it from happening again.

• There is also the lesson of the Saturday night massacre. In October 1973, Nixon ordered his attorney general to fire a special prosecutor, fired the attorney general when he refused, and then had the second in command of Justice resign as well. The strong backlash against what Nixon had done brought the possibility of impeachment into the mainstream. This example was surely helpful to Justice Department officials who resisted Trump’s plan to install Jeffrey Clark as acting attorney general. Trump took their resignation threats seriously in part because of this notorious precedent; he was convinced it would go wrong for him because it had gone wrong for Nixon.

We also learned more about a handful of House members who appeared to colluded with Trump and his associates and begged him for forgiveness before leaving office. Their defense so far is that they were afraid Democratic thugs might indict them for simply voting to reject legitimate voters. But the dozens of Republicans who did nothing but vote against voters on January 6 did not apologize.

The committee is now adjourning its public hearings until after the July 4 recess. They must complete the hearings and file their report by the end of the year, and they want to do it before the election. And everything they do in September and October will be interpreted as part of the midterm campaign, thus having much less influence.

The panel says new information was poured in once the hearings began. Yeah. This is another good reason why they should have started the public part of the investigation months ago.

For weekend reading, here are some of the top articles from political scientists this week:

Robert Farley on Volodymyr Zelenskij as a warlord.

Chelsea N. Jones at the Money Cage on the closing of the polls.

Matthew Shugart on the French elections.

Alex Middlewood on democracy in Kansas.

And sad to see Dan Drezner leaving his longtime blogging/column-writing house; Hope he comes back somewhere soon.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and politics. A former political science professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University, he wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

More stories like this are available at

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Post expires at 9:12pm on Monday July 4th, 2022

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