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The Comey testimony reveals a Nixonian White House

Like Trump, Nixon valued loyalty and minimized criminality.

FBI Director Comey Discusses Counterterrorism And Cybersecurity At DC Dinner Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

It’s hard to pull out the single most striking moment in the bombshell testimony that fired FBI Director James Comey has provided to the Senate Intelligence Committee, but this segment, describing a phone call between Comey and President Trump on March 30, is particularly eerie:

The President went on to say that if there were some “satellite” associates of his who did something wrong, it would be good to find that out, but that he hadn’t done anything wrong and hoped I would find a way to get it out that we weren’t investigating him.

The disingenuous insistence that Trump, too, really wanted to get to the bottom of all this calls to mind O.J. Simpson’s quest to find the “real killer,” but it also brings to mind an earlier president. In an August 22, 1973 press conference, as the Watergate scandal mounted, President Richard Nixon recalled meeting with domestic policy adviser John Ehlichman, chief of staff H.R. Haldeman, White House Counsel John Dean, and his former Attorney General/reelection campaign manager John Mitchell in March of that year, about a month before the former three were forced to leave office due to the scandal.

“I kept pressing for the view that I had had throughout, that we must get this story out, get the truth out, whatever and whoever it is going to hurt,” Nixon said. Like Trump, he sought to draw a distinction between “satellite” associates who committed wrongdoing (like the actual Watergate building burglars whom Mitchell’s campaign team had hired) and his inner circle. He told the press, “Mr. Mitchell … expressed great chagrin that he had not run a tight enough shop and that some of the boys, as he called them, got involved in this kind of activity, which he knew to be very, very embarrassing, apart from its illegality, to the campaign.”

The comparisons between Nixon’s misconduct and Trump’s are clear enough. In each case, as the cliché goes, it’s the coverup, not the crime, that is most shocking. We don't know if Nixon actually ordered the Watergate burglary, but we know that he ordered his chief of staff to get the CIA to force the FBI to abandon its investigation into the break-in. That was revealed in a tape released on August 5, 1974, and on August 8 Nixon announced his resignation.

Similarly, we know due to Comey’s testimony that Trump tried to get the FBI to abandon its investigation into former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, and to remove the “cloud” that the Russia scandal is creating for Trump more broadly. This has been known for considerably longer than the three days that it took a similar revelation to end Nixon’s presidency.

But beyond that specific similarity, there’s a similar cavalierness toward the law and an insistence on loyalty beyond all other virtues. In his memoirs, Nixon denies having ordering the Watergate break-in, but he is sure to add, "I could not muster much moral outrage over a political bugging." He told reporters that his campaign chair, John Mitchell, was sorry for hiring people who broke the law, yes, but mostly for doing something that embarrassed Nixon personally.

Nixon cared a lot about loyalty. Elsewhere in his memoirs, he describes the process by which he picked Gerald Ford as vice president in 1973, saying that the "four criteria for the man I would select" were "qualification to be President; ideological affinity; loyalty; and confirmability." He praises his cabinet for sticking by him toward the end of the presidency: "Some of them, such as Commerce Secretary Fred Dent and Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz, went out into the country to speak on my behalf. Others stayed in Washington and showed their loyalty simply by doing their jobs despite all the pressures they had to endure."

Loyalty is likewise Trump’s cardinal virtue. As Matt Yglesias notes, this is a principle that Trump has carried with him at least since The Art of the Deal, where he condemns “all the hundreds of ‘respectable’ guys who make careers out of boasting about their uncompromising integrity but have absolutely no loyalty.” And it shows up repeatedly in Comey’s testimony. Seven days into his administration, Trump invited Comey to a one-on-one dinner in the White House, and told him, "I need loyalty, I expect loyalty," while insinuating that Comey's job could be in jeopardy. Before the dinner ended, he repeated himself: "I need loyalty."

We have seen what a presidency driven by these kinds of values looks like before. It tends to sacrifice important institutional norms ensuring the independence and integrity of law enforcement and intelligence institutions as part of an effort to reorient the whole executive branch in service of the president. And the last time it happened, Congress made it clear that its continuance would be unacceptable and lead to impeachment.

The main difference between the cases is that for Trump, the moment where Congress steps up has yet to come.

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