Washington — There is a half century between the Watergate disasters and the insurrection of January 6, 2021, but parallels, and contrasts, abound between two incidents that have a common denominator: The thirst for power of two rulers.
Two US presidents have shaken democracy in their quest to retain power.
Questions remain about both episodes as the 50th anniversary of a plot that cost Richard Nixon the presidency coincides with hearings by a House committee that is exposing behind the scenes of the early-20th century uprising. last year, which included the takeover of Congress.RELATED
Is there irrefutable evidence of Donald Trump’s deceptions? Can it be said that his call for a protest in Washington, his harangue to “fight like hell” and his suggestion that perhaps Vice President Mike Pence should be hanged, as some insurgents said, constitute that evidence?
Trump had lost an election and wanted to stay in power. But that was not the case for Nixon. A key question is what led him to break the law when he was comfortably headed for re-election.
Friday marks 50 years to the day members of his campaign broke into the Democratic Party headquarters in Washington’s Watergate building and were caught.
His efforts to cover up and obstruct justice cost him the presidency nearly two years later, when he resigned rather than face an impeachment trial in which he surely would have been found guilty. On that occasion, three Republican legislators went to the White House and convinced him that he had no way out.
Trump, on the other hand, was desperate after losing the 2020 election by a large margin. But no one intervened, and he mobilized lawyers, aides and friends, and summoned an agitated mob to Washington in an effort to disown the results and stay in power. Few co-religionists publicly exhorted him to admit his defeat.
Watergate was the worst presidential scandal in American history, the yardstick by which all others were measured. That brought down a president. But there was no bloodshed, as there was on January 6, and dozens of Nixon-supporting legislators lost their seats in the 1974 election. This time, it is assumed that Republicans will win seats in the election. of year.
Michael Dobbs, author of “King Richard: Nixon and Watergate — An American Tragedy,” published in 2021, said the system worked in the Watergate case because Congress, the courts and the press did their job and exposed a chain of criminal activities that forced Nixon to resign.
“The system was put to the test on that occasion,” he said. “But today it faces much tougher challenges.”
When the Senate committee that investigated Watergate held its hearings in mid-1973, inflation was approaching 9%, the same level as today. The stock market crashed. Just like now, there were a lot of distractions.
But Americans closely watched the spectacle of a slowly sinking president. More than 70% said they had watched the hearings — which lasted nearly three months — on television. The hearings on January 6 do not necessarily bring new revelations, but rather detail what was uncovered over months of methodical investigation.
For Dobbs, the evidence of Trump’s direct participation in planning or promoting riots with the intention of disregarding the results of the election constitutes irrefutable evidence.
The challenge ahead for the investigative commission and any judicial proceedings that may be initiated is “the ambiguous nature of Trump’s statements from a legal standpoint,” Dobbs said. “The expression ‘fight like hell’ can have different interpretations.”
The commission released statements from close Trump associates revealing that the president’s people knew full well that the allegation that the election had been stolen from him was false. Not even his daughter Ivanka believed her.
Trump’s attorney general, William Barr, declared that the president was “out of touch with reality” if he really believed such things.
But what impact do these tests have?
The extreme right of the Republican Party insists on denying the victory of Joe Biden ahead of the mid-term elections in November and several of its representatives have emerged victorious in the primaries. The hearings will by no means represent the last word in the saga surrounding Trump’s lies.
“Trump can’t let criticism go,” said Southern Methodist University scholar Cal Jillson. “Get ready for a wave of recriminations, a long list of enemies and a program of retaliation.”
“Other Republican leaders will wonder how much damage all this can do to the party,” he said. “But for now there is no Howard Baker on the horizon.”
Baker went on to epitomize the politics of that era in Congress, partisan but not venomous. He was the equivalent of Rep. Liz Cheney, but he wasn’t sidelined like her, who makes no secret of her contempt for Trump, and no Republican wants to turn against the former president.
At first, Baker reacted instinctively and supported Nixon. “I’m your friend,” he told her face to face at the beginning of the hearings. But he was the top Republican on the investigative committee and he paid attention to what was going on, he asked questions, he soaked it all in and he realized there was corruption.
He asked a question that went down in history — “what did the president know and when did he know it?” — but not with the intention of harming him. He did not expect the answers that question received.
“I thought it was all a Democrat plot and nothing was going to happen,” Baker told the Associated Press in 1992. “But a few weeks into the hearings, I began to realize there was a lot more to it than I thought. than I could accept.”
The composition of the commission — four Democrats and three Republicans — was decided by a unanimous vote in the Senate, something unthinkable today. He was tasked with investigating the Watergate issue and whether there had been “illegal, inappropriate or unethical conduct” in the 1972 campaign.
The January 6 committee of the House of Representatives, on the other hand, was formed with 222 votes in favor and 190 against. Only two Republicans — Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, who is not seeking re-election — voted, and they were added to the commission.
While Trump openly ranted about the process, Nixon did so in private. Or at least he thought so. The system to record conversations for posterity, which he himself had installed, was what sank him. The Supreme Court forced him to hand over those recordings, in which his chief of staff, HR Haldeman, is heard recommending that the FBI be asked to call off the investigation of the incident at Democratic Party headquarters before it detects a connection to the White House or with Nixon himself.
Nixon thought about it for a moment and said, “Okay, let’s do it. That’s how we have to handle this and that’s how we’re going to do it.”
That was the “smoking gun”, the irrefutable proof, an admission of guilt and a way to obstruct justice.
Carl Bernstein, who with Bob Woodward uncovered the entire Watergate scandal in the Washington Post, says that the true heroes of this story are “the Republicans who had the courage to say that it was not an ideological issue,” but an investigation to determine whether “an illegal act” had been committed.
Half a century later, it is still not known who ordered the raid on the Democratic headquarters. There is no indication that Nixon did it directly, although there is no doubt that he covered it up and committed other wrongdoing.
Nixon created a “paranoid culture” that spread through Watergate, according to Dobbs. “The conspiracy took on a life of its own, fueled by crazy people like Gordon Liddy, who anticipated the president’s wishes.”
What will Americans say about January 6 in 50 years?
Historian Michael Beschloss said on Twitter that the answer depends on whether the United States is then a democracy or an autocracy.
If it is an autocracy, “the authoritarian leaders of the country will probably celebrate January 6 as one of the great days in the history of the country,” as Trump claims.