GOP’s Loyalty Now Is No Proof of Loyalty Later

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- With President Donald Trump seemingly incapable of going a week without adding fuel to the potential impeachment fire, it was nice to see the reminder from Michael Conway and Jon Marshall that people’s memories of bipartisan cooperation during the Watergate scandal are mostly wrong.

In fact, as they write, Republicans tried hard to defend their president, even if it required them to constantly revise their public positions as one by one the most outlandish accusations against Richard Nixon and his White House and campaign operatives turned out to be absolutely true. Most moderate and liberal Republicans and most conservative Democrats in Congress — those creatures still existed in the 1970s — opposed impeachment well into 1974. Conservative Republicans in Congress opposed impeachment all the way through the House Judiciary Committee votes in July.

That brings up another myth, however, that Conway and Marshall don’t talk about: the myth of the “smoking gun” tape. The tape itself was quite real, and it proved that Nixon had in fact had his top White House staff try to get the CIA to stop the FBI’s investigation into the Watergate affair. And it’s certainly true that when the tape finally became public, on Aug. 5, 1974, the remainder of Nixon’s support in Congress disappeared. Impeachment in the House was already certain after the Judiciary Committee had easily approved three articles, but after the tape came out, conviction and removal by the Senate was also certain, leading to Nixon’s resignation.

The myth is what is implied by calling this particular conversation the “smoking gun” tape, because there were already more smoking guns than you could shake a stick at. There was more than enough solid proof, in other words, that Nixon was guilty of both abuse of power and obstruction of justice. Indeed, former White House counsel John Dean had testified to Congress way back in June 1973 that Nixon was knee-deep in the Watergate coverup, and the tape released to prosecutors in November 1973 and later to Congress and the public proved that Dean was telling the truth. As one of the prosecutors later described it, “The crimes came spilling out, one on top of another.” And it wasn’t just the tapes. Some of what Nixon was charged with were clear public actions, including firing the special prosecutor. Conservative Republicans were aware of all of that — hush money, witness coaching and more — regardless of whether Nixon had also attempted to use the CIA to stop the investigation.

So why was the smoking gun tape the final straw? It was that Nixon would so blatantly lie to them about it — he had said there were no more bombshells in tapes he was fighting not to turn over — which in turn suggested that there were more lies, and eventually more evidence, to come. Impeachment is always political. What doomed Nixon, even more than clear evidence of specific crimes, was that he had repeatedly betrayed and undermined his relationships with congressional Republicans. That they stuck with him anyway, and for so long, was a tribute to the strength of partisanship. But eventually, the weakness of the president, with both his professional reputation and his popularity shattered, outweighed even partisanship. 

None of this proves that Trump will suffer the same fate as Nixon. But it does strongly caution us that Republican loyalty to the president today is no proof of Republican loyalty in the future. The politics of the situation, including both the president’s popularity and his reputation, will matter just as much as, if not more than, any particular facts or evidence about the case. As I’ve said many times, Trump is in the middle range in which there’s clearly enough to justify impeachment and removal but not enough to absolutely demand it. Unless that changes, the eventual outcome will be driven — and should be driven — by normal political considerations.

1. Dave Hopkins on the changing demographics of the parties and how it matters.

2. Tatsiana Kulakevich at the Monkey Cage on what’s been happening in Belarus

4. Fred Kaplan on Trump and the new defense authorization law

5. David Wasserman at the Cook Political Report on more shifts toward the Democrats in House elections.

6. My Bloomberg Opinion colleague Conor Sen on Barry Bonds and San Francisco.

7. And a sensible Dan Drezner item about a puzzler the Trump administration gives to some universities. 

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

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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