BEDFORD, N.H. — Richard Nixon used tens of thousands of his campaign dollars to finance a burglary of the Democratic National Committee headquarters in order to cheat in his 1972 presidential reelection.
Forty-seven years later, Donald Trump, according to witness testimony in congressional hearings, used hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to coerce a foreign government in order to cheat in his 2020 reelection.
Yet while Nixon wound up resigning after his fellow Republicans in the Senate told him they would vote to remove him from office, Trump today appears likely to survive a Senate trial, even as the House prepares to debate two articles of impeachment later this week.
“Americans are guided in many ways by their leadership,” said Al Cardenas, a former chairman of the Republican Party of Florida. “There was significant bipartisan agreement that President Nixon had breached the threshold regarding abuse of power and thus was impeachable. Either today’s values have evolved, partisanship has hit a new high or the caliber of our GOP representation has diminished. Take your pick.”
Reflecting — or perhaps driving — that difference across the decades: 31% of Republicans wound up abandoning Nixon and saying he should be removed from office, while only 7% of Republicans today believe that about Trump.
At Trump’s rally in Minneapolis in October, construction contractor Jason Munson said he had no interest in any facts that did not come from Trump personally, and that Trump’s election was divine intervention. “It was the hand of God,” he said.
At the Iowa Republican Party’s annual fundraising dinner in Des Moines last month, oral historian Kristine Bartley said Democrats should defeat Trump in the election next year rather than impeaching him, regardless of what he did with Ukraine. “Unless the president is running around with a gun shooting people, just let it go,” she said.
And at a “Countdown to Victory Reception and Christmas Party” for New Hampshire Republicans at a restaurant in Bedford last week, Plymouth town selectman John Randlett said all politicians try to cheat and that it was pretty much impossible to know what really happened, even with Nixon. “Are you ever going to find out the true facts? No,” he said, adding that he was sticking with Trump. “As he says, it’s a witch hunt.”
Republican pollster Neil Newhouse said there is not much in common between American politics today versus five decades ago. “It has little to do with the perceived seriousness of the crime, though I would argue that the break-in and cover-up was far more egregious than the current charges,” Newhouse said, adding: “1974 was a different, less partisan time. Today’s polarization is unprecedented.”
Both Democrats and Republicans agree that a dramatically changed media landscape is a major cause of the difference. In 1974, all three broadcast television networks carried the impeachment hearings live — meaning that there was literally nothing else on TV during those hours. Today, not only do hardcore Republicans have news outlets that cater to their preferences, but there are hundreds of other cable channels and an internet that provide politics-free content for those who prefer that.
Anthony Scaramucci, Trump’s short-lived White House communications director in 2017 who has now become a Trump critic, has a two-word answer for what’s different: “Fox News.”
According to witness testimony as well as the rough transcript of Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukraine’s president, Trump demanded that Ukraine investigate former Vice President Joe Biden as well as support a conspiracy theory which falsely claims that Russian intelligence agencies did not help Trump win the 2016 election, but rather it was Ukrainian officials who framed Russia by using fake evidence. He made $391 million in military aid contingent on Ukraine publicly announcing the probes but then backed down after the White House learned that the whistleblower’s complaint on the matter was about to reach Congress.
But pro-Trump media have largely been echoing Trump’s claims that he did nothing wrong in demanding investigations, or that if it was wrong, it was nevertheless not impeachable.
Joe Walsh, the former Republican congressman running against Trump for the 2020 nomination, said he has had trouble getting coverage from pro-Trump news outlets because of his unsparing criticisms of the president. “It is a far worse abuse of power,” he said of Trump’s attempt to coerce Ukraine. “But Trump has something Nixon didn’t have: Fox News. Conservative media. That’s the difference.”
GOP base voters are, indeed, getting a “diet of commentary” that supports Trump’s contention that he did nothing wrong, said Rory Cooper, a Republican consultant and onetime top aide to former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. But he added that equally important is the extinction of moderate Republicans. “Centrist or New England Republicans that turned on Nixon don’t exist in today’s Congress. The longer this remains viewed as a partisan exercise, the longer the numbers will remain stagnant, which is to say it’s unlikely for them to move much more absent a significant development.”
Another key difference between 1974 and now is how the scandals played out. Nixon spent well over a year denying that he had any knowledge of the break-in or cover-up as his approval numbers slowly deteriorated. Then, after the Supreme Court ordered the release of audio tapes that proved Nixon had been lying, his support collapsed to the point that senior Republican senators told him that he would be removed from office following an impeachment trial.
In Trump’s case, within weeks of House Democrats revealing that a whistleblower had filed a complaint about his dealings with Ukraine, Trump himself ordered the release of the July 25 call memo, which showed him asking for “a favor” of investigations in response to the Ukrainian president’s mention of military aid. Days later, Trump told reporters that Volodymyr Zelensky should “start a major investigation into the Bidens,” and moments later added that China should investigate them, too.
The effect of getting such damning evidence out in the open right at the outset may have been to make every subsequent piece of corroborating proof that came out seem small in comparison, and the hearings themselves anti-climactic.
“My gut tells me that the smoking gun tape in this has already come out,” said Steve Duprey, a Republican National Committee member from New Hampshire who was also attending the Bedford Christmas Party. “The average American who’s shoveling snow in New Hampshire is not paying attention to this.”
One former senior RNC member said Trump’s impeachment is not getting as much support as Nixon’s because voters understood they would get someone liable to say and do irresponsible things when they voted for him — similar to the way Americans did not support Republicans’ impeachment of Bill Clinton in 1998.
“People knew that Clinton was a sex fiend, and voted for him anyway,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “From the point of view of Trump voters, they knew when they voted for him that he was pretty outrageous and disruptive. Rude, crude and unattractive.”
Not everyone, of course, downplays Trump’s actions.
“What the president did was so much worse than even what Richard Nixon did,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told CBS last month.
Indeed, Pelosi’s Sept. 24 announcement that the House would move forward with an impeachment inquiry — after months of warning her newly won majority against impeachment — saw dozens of skeptical House Democrats switch to supporting impeachment as well as a shift in public opinion generally. While Americans had previously opposed impeaching Trump by an 11-point margin, that has swung to a 4-point margin in support.
That movement, though, has since stalled, and may have even moved slightly in the opposite direction as Republicans argue that with the election coming up in 11 months, impeachment is not appropriate.
Rep. Adam Schiff, a California Democrat and chairman of the House Intelligence Committee that conducted the initial impeachment hearings, nevertheless said that Democrats have no choice but to impeach Trump, because failing to impeach him would encourage him to continue trying to improperly use his position to help his re-election campaign.
“The argument, ‘Why don’t you just wait,’ amounts to this,” Schiff said. “’Why don’t you just let him cheat in one more election? Why not let him cheat just one more time? Why not let him have foreign help just one more time?’”
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