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As a campaign manager faces charges, the Trump-Nixon parallel gets stronger

John Mitchell ended up in jail. Will Paul Manafort?

Former Nixon campaign manager John Mitchell leaves a US district court after being ordered to serve a prison term.
Former Nixon campaign manager John Mitchell (center) leaves a US district court after being ordered to serve a prison term.
Bettmann/Getty Images

The president whom he served as campaign manager railed against the press and portrayed himself as a defender of old-fashioned American values — and as the enemy of dangerous criminals who threatened Americans. And then one day that campaign manager found himself indicted on multiple federal crimes.

This describes Paul Manafort, Donald Trump’s campaign manager during a crucial stretch in 2016 — but also John Mitchell, Richard Nixon’s campaign manager for his 1968 run and his 1972 reelection campaign. Reporting on Mitchell’s indictment by the Watergate grand jury on March 2, 1974, the New York Times noted, perhaps with a touch of irony, that while serving as Nixon’s attorney general he was “the champion of law and order in the Nixon Administration.”

After being tried, Mitchell was found guilty on three federal charges directly involving the Watergate scandal — perjury, conspiracy, and obstruction of justice — for which he served 19 months in prison.

How similar are these men’s situations? Given that Manafort was charged only Monday — and for tax evasion and failure to register as a foreign agent, not activities related to the campaign — it’s too early to tell. But the politics of the two presidential scandals have some intriguing parallels that may suggest how they play out in the political realm.

Mitchell was among the 69 people involved with Watergate who were indicted, and among the 48 found guilty. Mueller’s prosecutorial work, meanwhile, is just beginning: three indictments (and counting).

Allegations of collusion swirled around both the Nixon and Trump campaigns

Both the Nixon and Trump campaigns were dogged with allegations of collusion. It had been long rumored that Nixon’s 1968 campaign, which Mitchell ran, had undermined President Lyndon Johnson’s Paris peace talks by promising South Vietnam a better deal should Nixon win. The interference was long denied by Nixon and those close to him, but notes from an October 22, 1968, phone conversation between Nixon and his close aide H.R. Haldeman definitively show that Nixon told him to “monkey wrench” the negotiations.

The man who found those notes, Nixon biographer John A. Farrell, has called the scheme “a step beyond the normal political jockeying, to interfere in an active peace negotiation given the stakes with all the lives.” If Mitchell knew about this effort, we don’t have a record of it.

Trump has also been accused of working with Russia in a decidedly non-normal way. And Manafort attended the infamous meeting in Trump Tower with Jared Kushner, Donald Trump Jr., Natalia Veselnitskaya, and Rinat Akhmetshin. Veselnitskaya has close ties to the Kremlin. We don’t yet know if these charges against Manafort — or the indictment of campaign aide Rick Gates, or the guilty plea of aide George Papadopoulos — will lead to more revelations about those contacts.

But Mitchell’s first brush with the law came in the form of charges about money too, although, unlike Manafort, the funds did not enrich him personally. In 1973, he was indicted for obstructing the investigation of a donor, Robert L. Vesco, who had made a $200,000 contribution to the Nixon campaign. Mitchell and Nixon’s finance committee chair, Maurice H. Stans, were both acquitted.

Mitchell was a true believer, unlike the more transactional Manafort

One difference is clear — the relationships between these men and the presidential candidates they served.

Manafort has had a lengthy career as a campaign operative. But while he had known Trump peripherally, through a case handled by his law firm regarding an Indian casino (he also had an apartment in Trump Tower), the two men didn’t have a long personal or political association before Manafort joined the campaign in March 2016.

President Trump with Paul Manafort
Paul Manafort, with Donald Trump.
Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

In contrast, Mitchell and Nixon were friends and law partners in the New York firm Nixon joined after a humiliating loss in the California governor’s race in 1962. Mitchell went on to run Nixon’s 1968 campaign and then to serve in his Cabinet. He was far more than a hired gun.

Oddly enough, Nixon didn’t blame John Mitchell for Watergate, but rather Mitchell’s wife, Martha Mitchell — for demanding so much of Mitchell’s time and for making outlandish (but sometimes substantiated) claims about Watergate. She made midnight calls to reporters offering “tips” about the Watergate scandal — including claiming, without evidence, that she had been kidnapped and drugged to make her keep quiet. The couple separated in 1973.

Despite her excesses, she was right in claiming wrongdoing in the White House. Nixon told interviewer David Frost, “If it hadn’t been for Martha, there would have been no Watergate because John wasn’t minding the store.” Because Mitchell worried about his wife, Nixon said, “He was letting [Jeb] Magruder and all these boys, these kids, run this thing.” Magruder was the deputy director of the Committee to Re-elect the President (CREEP) who later pleaded guilty to conspiracy to obstruct justice and defraud the United States.

But Nixon was whitewashing Mitchell’s involvement. When still attorney general, Mitchell participated in meetings that presented plans drawn up by G. Gordon Liddy for a secret operation involving monitoring anti-Vietnam War protesters and luring them into embarrassing and illegal situations. Mitchell rejected these schemes as too expensive and extreme, but Liddy and others in this crowd went on to engage in a wide variety of dirty tricks during the 1972 campaign, including the Watergate break-in.

Mitchell was deeply involved in the Watergate cover-up

One minor protagonist in these events was Roger Stone — later a law partner of Manafort, when their law firm worked for Trump. (As a dirty trickster, Stone went to New Hampshire and made contributions to Pete McCloskey, who was challenging Nixon in the 1972 primary, in the name of the Young Socialist Alliance — to taint Nixon’s opponent.)

Mitchell was also directly involved in the Watergate cover-up. The week after the break-in, Mitchell devised a cover story with White House counsel John Dean to try to stop the FBI investigation. They would claim that what happened that night at the Watergate was part of a CIA operation — which would, they hoped, cause the FBI to back off.

As historian Rick Perlstein describes it in Nixonland:

The president loved the idea. He even helped embroider the script. … Nixon riffed it out, thinking aloud: “Just say this is a comedy of errors, without getting into it: ‘The president believes it’s going to open the whole Bay of Pigs things again.’”

Not only was this claim of covert involvement by the CIA or anti-Castro Cubans false, but it served as further evidence of possible obstruction of justice.

Mitchell, like Nixon and Trump, was a culture warrior. As attorney general, he pushed for increased police powers to fight crime and protesters. By every account, he was a true believer in Nixon and wanted to transform the country — to defeat the counterculture — telling a reporter after Nixon’s first win, “This country is going so far to the right you won't recognize it.” In contrast, Manafort’s career arc is closer to that of an establishment conservative: He was mentored by Reagan Secretary of State and fixer James Baker before moving on to become an operative for oligarchs.

Unlike Mitchell and Nixon, Manafort and the Trump team don’t face the investigative efforts of a Congress controlled by the opposition party. But even without Watergate-like public hearings, President Trump’s polarizing style and lack of accomplishments have made him the least popular president at this stage of his presidency.

On the day Nixon left office, his approval rating in the Gallup poll was 24 percent. It was just above that when Mitchell was indicted, a full 288 days after the Senate hearings had started.

We only learned Monday about Manafort’s indictment and that of two other Trump campaign officials. But Trump’s approval rating immediately hit its lowest point yet: 33 percent, according to Gallup. Will more indictments send it yet lower?

Given our polarized time, the impeachment of the president seems an impossibility, as long as Republicans control Congress. But whether Manafort follows Mitchell down the path from indictment to conviction is now in the hands of the legal system.

Amy Fried is a professor of political science at the University of Maine and the author of Muffled Echoes: Oliver North and the Politics of Public Opinion and Pathways to Polling: Crisis, Cooperation and the Making of Public Opinion Professions. Find her on Twitter @asfried.

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