Trump Is Far More Dangerous Than Nixon
By Paul Rosenberg, Senior Editor
On May 8, former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates testified to Congress that she had warned the Donald Trump administration on Jan. 26 and 27 that National Security Advisor Michael Flynn had had compromising relations with Russian agents. Flynn had lied about, and was — at the very least — subject to blackmail, making him a security risk.
“To state the obvious, you don’t want your national security advisor compromised with the Russians,” Yates testified.
Within three days, there was a prima facie case for impeaching Trump for obstruction of justice.
- On May 9, Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, who was investigating Russia’s election meddling and possible Trump connections.
- On May 10, Trump hosted an extremely damaging meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergy Kislyak. It was later revealed that Trump shared classified information of the highest.
- And on May 11, he openly admitted to firing Comey because of the Trump/Russia investigation, which, on its face, is an intentional obstruction of justice, the first impeachment charge against Richard Nixon in Watergate.
We are now clearly in the realm where impeachment is warranted — and politicians have begun openly discussing it. But our political system is so deeply dysfunctional and so many other problems beset us, that it is profoundly uncertain what will — or even should — happen next.
The preconditions for a functioning democracy require that we understand the challenges facing us — including those that would destroy our democracy. Thus, it’s necessary to understand both how Trump has implicated himself in obstruction of justice and the full menu of other related threats, which his obstruction entangles.
In an interview with NBC’s Lester Holt, Trump contradicted the previous, implausible (if not ridiculous) White House cover story that Comey was fired because he treated Hillary Clinton unfairly regarding the email investigation, accusing her of carelessness, even as he announced that no criminal charges would be brought. That cover story had been supported by a memo from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein — a memo widely criticized for its own careless manner, citing op-eds rather than legal arguments.
But Trump told Holt that he’d already made up his mind to fire Comey, who he called a “showboat,” before getting Rosenstein’s memo.
“I was going to fire Comey — my decision,” Trump said. “I was gonna fire him regardless of recommendation…. In fact, when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, ‘You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story, it’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should’ve won.’”
On May 19, it leaked out, through the New York Times, that Trump had told the Russians a similar story.
“I just fired the head of the FBI,” Mr. Trump said, according to a document summarizing the meeting, which was read to Times. “He was crazy, a real nut job…. I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”
“I’m not under investigation.”
He could not have been more mistaken. One week later, former FBI Director Robert Mueller was appointed as special counsel to oversee the investigation Trump foolishly thought he had ended. He was appointed by Rosenstein, who may well have wanted to shore up his own reputation, after Trump had dragged it into the gutter.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean Trump will be impeached or charged with a crime. Presidents are immune to criminal prosecution and can be pardoned by their successors if they’re impeached or resigned, which is what happened with Nixon in 1975. Congressional Republicans are also unlikely to stop running interference for him. He’s very unpopular for a newly-elected president, but his support is heavily concentrated in their electoral base. If push comes to shove, he’s likely to focus intensely on bullying them into falling in line.
In short, the situation is far more complicated than the Watergate scandal, the media’s go-to point of comparison. It’s more similar to Iran-Contra, in which the cover up largely succeeded, as described by the special counsel Lawrence Walsh in his book Firewall: The Iran-Contra Conspiracy and Cover-up.
Reagan was never even seriously questioned, while Vice President George Bush almost certainly perjured himself while he falsely claimed he was “out of the loop.” Given how much power Republicans have today, this record of justice subverted is far more likely to be repeated than anything remotely like Watergate.
There are six main branches of concern about threats to America tied up in the current crisis. Each needs to be understood on its own terms.
First, obstruction of justice.
During the Watergate investigation, Richard Nixon tried unsuccessfully to get the CIA to derail the FBI’s investigation, and obstruction of justice — covering a whole “course of conduct or plan” — was the first impeachment charge brought against him before he resigned.
Trump’s firing of Comey is just the most prominent example of a similar pattern of conduct seen so far. In addition to Comey, we already have circumstantial indications regarding two other prominent firings and a broad pattern of actions by the Trump administration since taking office.
Yates was fired on Jan. 30, just days after raising red flags about Flynn. At the time, her firing was attributed to her refusal to defend the Muslim ban. But now that we know much more about the Flynn story, it’s at least worth investigating to discover if she was actually fired to protect him. Flynn did not resign until February 13, after word of conversations with Kislyak leaked through the Washington Post. Even today, Trump expresses regret that he got rid of Flynn. After firing Yates, Trump and his henchmen went to great lengths to try to silence her, preventing her from testifying for months, which might also be construed as part of a campaign to obstruct justice.
Another suspicious firing was that of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara of the Southern District of New York, who had jurisdiction to investigate financial crimes in Trump’s base of operations. During the transition, Trump went out of his way to call Bharara to Trump Towers and tell him that he would be kept on. Then, on March 11, Bharara was asked to resign without warning along with 45 other U.S. attorneys, a course of action that the Trump transition team had previously considered and rejected. When he refused, he was fired the next day. There is no public proof of obstruction of justice here, but the possibility is real and worthy of investigation.
Beyond that, Trump pressured a wide range of officials to prematurely deny there was any evidence of collusion with the Russians during the 2016 election. Comey publicly announced an FBI investigation into Russian interference on March 20. After that, according to a May 22 Washington Post story, Trump pressed Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats and Admiral Michael Rogers, Director of the National Security Agency, urging them to publicly deny the existence of any evidence of collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russia. Both reportedly regarded the request as inappropriate and rejected it. This followed earlier revelations that Trump had pressured the heads of the House and Senate intelligence committees to make similar statements — in short, it was a systematic effort to derail the investigation and publicly discredit it.
Second, Russian election interference.
There is overwhelming evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 election, as well as in other elections across the West and elsewhere, regardless of any questions about collusion from the Trump campaign. This should be the primary focus of a congressional investigation or independent commission, but so far the Republican Party has been far too political compromised to let this happen. The situation is historically unique. The threat of Russian hybrid warfare — “a melange of hostile cyber, political and psychological operations in support of their national objectives” as laid out explicitly by intelligence analyst Malcolm Nance in The Plot to Hack America: How Putin’s Cyberspies and WikiLeaks Tried to Steal the 2016 Election — represents a break with past security threats similar to the break represented by 9/11.
“Putin, the former director of Russia’s intelligence agency, sees the election of Donald Trump as the fastest way to destabilize the United States and damage its economy, as well as fracture both the European Union and NATO,” Nance wrote. “These events, which start with the election of Trump, would allow Russia to become the strongest of the world’s three superpowers and reorder the globe with a dominant Russia at the helm.”
Such an outcome could never be achieved by Russia alone, without American collaborators, given the fact that Russia’s economy is about the size of Italy’s.
Third, Trump’s authoritarianism.
The threat of Trump’s own authoritarian tendencies echoes and reinforces an international rise in authoritarian, ethnocentric governments and political movements even apart from Russian influence. Trump’s actions can best be understood by including regular comparison to how fledgling authoritarians have established themselves in other formally democratic systems, such as Turkey.
“Trump is an authoritarian, as I’ve been arguing for some time,” historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat, an expert in modern authoritarianism told Democracy Now! on May 11. “When he says that Comey wasn’t doing his job, he means Comey was obstructing him from using the office of the presidency to further his personal goals, because authoritarians believe that the institutions should serve them and not the other way around. So, I see this as completely consistent with his temperament and his agenda of colonizing the country to make it serve his personal interest.”
Fourth, Trump’s collusion with Russia.
The question of Trump campaign collusion with Russia is an incredibly messy one, not simply limited to actions taken during the campaign itself. Trump not only gave overt signals to Russia, he also has a long history of shady business deals with secretive sources of financing, some of which are clearly known to be tied to Russia.
“Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’ll be able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” Trump said openly last July.
He’s had real estate dealings with Russian émigrés for decades and is suspected of having received massive financing from Russian sources after declaring bankruptcy in the 1990s, when American banks were not willing to lend to him. His refusal to release his taxes may be motivated in part by his desire to keep these dealings hidden.
Of course, this cannot be separated from Trump’s authoritarianism, as Ben-Ghiat pointed out.
“The comparison with Watergate leaves out the very, very important foreign dimension,” she said. “This is a Russia — Trump-Russia probe…. Firing Comey in the way he did was a very important message that Trump sent to the world, number one, to all of his fellow authoritarians. And we’ve seen how he calls the president of Turkey. He invites Duterte of the Philippines to the White House. And he has gone out of his way to forge ties and show allegiance to this kind of leadership and, above all, to his Russian client. And, I felt it was such a tragedy for our democracy to see Trump in the Oval Office with the Russian foreign minister the day after this happened. This is a very strong signal to his Russian client and to authoritarians all over the world that he means business and the business is their business.”
Fifth, GOP partisan dysfunction.
The GOP today is far less willing to put country ahead of party than it was during Watergate, when Republicans, in the minority, were ultimately powerless to obstruct. This is not just a matter of whether individual politicians lack civic virtue or patriotism. It’s a question of systemic dysfunction in our political system, which is arguably at least partially responsible both for Donald Trump’s emergence as the GOP candidate and for Russia’s ability to hack our election.
While it’s an act of faith in American journalism to treat both parties as mirror images, the historical record tells a very different story, based on the measurement of roll call voting, known as DW-Nominate.
In 1980, the number of non-centrists in House of Representatives was about 10 percent in both parties, the highest level seen since before the Great Depression, but since then the percentage of non-moderate Democrats has declined slightly, while the percentage of non-moderate Republicans has climbed astronomically to more than 80 percent. The divergence began even earlier in the Senate, in the early 1970s, but is less extreme: there are roughly three times as many GOP non-centrists as Democrats, 45 percent to 15 percent.
The result can be seen in Republican politicians’ willingness to look the other way and ignore Trump’s violations of the Emoluments Clause, for example, which in turn has opened the door for Trump to openly engage in corrupt influence peddling previously associated with third world dictators.
Sixth, Trump’s abnormal psychology.
Trump exhibits clear symptoms of abnormal psychology, particularly malignant narcissism. Such pathologies frequently occur with authoritarian leaders but need to be understood independently as well. The point is not to attack Trump personally but to properly understand him, as New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen explained to this author in a recent Salon interview.
“It’s mistaken speak of Trump’s one-page set of bullet points as a ‘tax plan,’” Rosen argued. “A plan requires planning, deliberation, thought, a certain amount of commitment. There’s nothing in Trump’s behavior in office so far, or in any of the reporting around how that document was produced, that supports that term.”
Likewise, it was giving Trump too much credit to accuse him of flip-flopping, because flip-flopping is actually crediting Trump with having positions in the first place.
Only abnormal terms can accurately describe an abnormal president.
To clarify, Rosen referenced a story “about the supposed shocking irony” that Trump, who attacks the media so relentless, also craves their approval. “It’s not really surprising if you understand narcissistic personality disorder,” Rosen said. “If you crave the approval of journalists — which Trump clearly does — it’s not such a great idea to call them disgusting people, dishonest people, the enemy of the American people. But if you understand narcissistic personality disorder, it makes perfect sense. A person that the medical health profession also calls a malignant narcissist — probably a better term — believes they are worthy of adulation by everyone, and when they don’t get it, their reaction is rage.”
This also helps explain Trump’s bizarre behavior toward Comey, whom he first tried to flatter and seduce and then sought to humiliate, firing him in a way that some compared to the Godfather. When Trump accused Comey of being “a showboat” to Lester Holt or told the Russians he was “a nut-job,” anyone familiar with Comey’s actual record would have laughed. Whatever his faults, these are not among them. But they do describe Trump to a T. Such projection of his own faults onto others is a typical symptom of Trump’s malignant narcissism.
“Otto Kernberg, a psychoanalyst specializing in borderline personalities, defined malignant narcissism as having four components: narcissism, paranoia, antisocial personality and sadism. Trump exhibits all four,” psychologist John Gartner wrote in USA Today in early May. “Under a malignantly narcissistic leader, alternate facts, conspiracy theories, racism, science denial and delegitimization of the press become not only acceptable but also the new normal. If we do not confront this evil, it will consume us.”
How America can survive this toxic mixture of diverse but inter-related threats is anyone’s guess at this point. The one thing we do know for sure is that fearless, free and open public discourse is absolutely necessary for a shared defense of freedom and democracy against all enemies, foreign and domestic. There is no one magic way to understand all the threats we face embodied in Trump. It is by sharing a multitude of insights from a wide range of perspectives that we will find our way. E pluribus Unum.