The headlines say it all. Donald J. Trump, the first American President to be impeached twice while in office, is about to be the first ex-President indicted for a criminal offense after leaving office.
The impending event has seen the chattering heads of cable television and social media wagging with speculation ever since the news, quoting “sources,” broke last Thursday. Trump and his lawyers confirmed the news Friday, announcing that the Donald would travel to New York on Monday and would report to court on Tuesday for his formal charging and arraignment.
As is tradition in New York, the grand jury’s formal accusation is under seal until the arraignment and the district attorney has said nothing, meaning all comment is made in the absence of any factual knowledge of the sum and substance of the charges. That hasn’t stopped the speculation. Nor has it stopped the clear calls for protest demonstrations, bordering on violence, coming from Trump and his acolytes. The New York Police Department is on full alert.
Much of what Trump’s fellow Republicans have argued in recent days amounts to total nonsense. The one factual observation is that this will be the first time a former president is charged with a crime. Trump’s apologists see that fact as evidence the indictment is ill advised. My first reaction was to observe that the fact this is a historic first simply means never in American history have we had a president who is so despotic, so blatantly criminal in his activities that it would be a grave dereliction of duty for the grand jury not to indict him.
But on further reflection I have come to realize we have been here before. Or, rather, one out of three of us has been here before. I was surprised to discover that only one-third of the U.S. population is old enough to have been around during the Watergate scandal which ended with the resignation of President Richard Nixon in 1974. Nixon is the only American president to have resigned his office.
Nixon had won reelection to a second term as president by an overwhelming margin. During the campaign, in June 1972, there was a break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquaters in the Watergate apartment and office complex in Washington. It is from that event that the scandal takes its name. While the break-in had little effect on the election, details revealed over the next two years traced the planning for the break-in and a subsequent cover-up to the highest levels of the Nixon administration and to the president himself.
With the Justice Department and the FBI implicated, a special prosecutor, Archibald Cox, Jr. was appointed. Cox soon uncovered widespread evidence of political espionage, illegal wiretaps, and influence peddling. In July 1973 it was revealed that Nixon had secretly recorded conversations in the White House since 1971. Cox sued to obtain the tapes.
On October 20, 1973, Nixon ordered Attorney General Elliot L. Richardson to fire the special prosecutor. Richardson refused and resigned; his assistant, William Ruckelshaus, refused and was fired. Finally, Solicitor General Robert Bork fired Cox. This became known as the “Saturday Night Massacre.” It led to calls for Nixon’s impeachment, and the House of Representatives began an impeachment investigation.
I was a graduate student studying journalism on the night of the massacre. It is difficult to explain to those who were not alive at that time the emotions felt throughout the nation. I wondered if the country could survive the crisis. The impact of Watergate was so great for decades scandals were named by tacking the suffix “-gate” to a defining word.
Which explains my headline above, “Stormygate” for the current crisis, where Trump stands on the brink of being charged for his role in the payment of money to buy the silence of Stormy Daniels, an adult movie performer with whom he apparently had a sexual relationship, in the middle of his 2016 campaign for president.
Nixon resigned before the House of Representatives voted on his impeachment. Many leaders of the Republican party spoke out against him and encouraged his resignation.
There remained the question of whether Nixon should face criminal charges. The special Watergate grand jury, it was later reported, had named Nixon an “unindicted co-conspirator” because the Justice Department said they could not indict a sitting president. That remains a DoJ “policy”, not a court tested rule or law. Explaining that he believed the nation should be saved the turmoil and uncertainty of a trial for the former president, President Gerald Ford issued Nixon a full and unconditional pardon.
For decades I have thought this was a wise move, helping the nation move on, giving it time to heal. Now, faced with the questions of Donald Trump’s guilt or innocence at a time when great turmoil and divisiveness surrounds us, I’m no longer sure. If Richard Nixon had faced a jury, we would have had some clarity on the uncharted waters we now face.