Republican Electoral Interference: History Lessons Series 2
American audiences love sequels. If you loved or hated the Mueller report, you will love or hate the aftermath of Congress when public impeachment hearings begin on November 13. Donald Trump seemed to get away with electoral interference “in his face” in 2016. Can he do it again in 2020? If so, will you be looking for a third or fourth sequel?
But there is more. The Trump episodes are a rerun of the Nixon dramas of 1968 and 1972. President Johnson and the top officials around him knew that Nixon had his way by interfering in foreign policy in 1968 and thus won. elections by international dirty tricks. Although unknown at the time, the Watergate robbery was a sequel in national politics to Nixon’s successful interference in 1968.
Although the outcome of the unfolding impeachment drama remains uncertain, three historical lessons can be seen, although its outcomes cannot be predicted at this time. Contrary to what you hear, history does not repeat itself. But some themes and patterns repeat themselves, taking unexpected forms that pose new dangers and possibilities as in the case of these three lessons.
Lesson one: parallelism. Nixon was caught during his second term for illegally meddling in an election he was sure to win. He had gotten away with illegal meddling in the 1968 election when President Johnson sealed the evidence out of concern for national security. Donald Trump meddled in the 2016 campaign in front of television cameras. The investigation of his actions was kept secret even when his opponent’s investigations affected the campaign. Trump damaged the effectiveness of the Mueller Report by attacking it for two years and then having his Attorney General undermine it when it was published. Despite the evidence that should have led to impeachment, it appeared that meddling during the 2016 campaign might not prevent Trump’s reelection.
The parallel with Nixon is clear after the Mueller Report. Needing even more Russian help to win re-election, Trump began pushing investigations into his most feared opponent in 2020 using congressional-funded military aid to extort money from Ukraine’s president. This was not done on camera, but in the presence of seasoned diplomatic professionals who understood the dangers to our national security.
Seeming to have escaped meddling for a first term, as Nixon had also escaped, Trump was caught doing the same for a second term. The whistleblower complaint had the effect of a botched theft at Watergate. Both events brought to light events destined to happen in secret. The investigations then brought people with heavy consciences in front of cameras exposing presidential dishonesty to the world.
Lesson two: predictable versus unpredictable outcome. Media commentators and political scientists are behaving more like football announcers when they focus on the political game to predict the outcome of this impeachment process. The outcome of Bill Clinton’s impeachment was clear when Senate Democrats backed him, and agreed with most Americans that he had done wrong but should not have been charged. However, Nixon’s outcome was not predictable. He was not charged or prosecuted because support collapsed to the point that he resigned instead of enduring the process. So if Trump’s impeachment fails, it will happen predictably when Senate Republicans follow Mitch McConnell and hold the line. If the impeachment is successful, it will most likely take a course that is not foreseen at this time and will demonstrate Nancy Pelosi’s ability to negotiate impossible situations.
This impeachment process hinges on the contest between Mitch McConnell and Nancy Pelosi. It is possibly the last battle in the war between them since the Affordable Care Act (ACA). McConnell kept the Republican line in the Senate when the ACA passed with a 60-vote Democratic majority. Soon after, the Democrats lost one of those seats and it seemed certain that the House would never accept the Senate version. That’s when Pelosi did the impossible, proving to be a closer when it counts, even when it meant losing a majority in the House. McConnell then used the ACA to defeat the Democrats by four consecutive legislative elections. But the removal of the ACA was only possible after the 2016 victory with Trump’s victory. It was then that public opinion changed that it became clear that there was no Republican alternative to the benefits that millions of people would lose. Mitchell McConnell appears to have the upper hand if impeachment goes to trial in the Senate. No one doubts that he intends to support the party rather than the country; He already committed to that choice in the 2016 election when he refused to support President Obama’s actions against Russian interference.
However, Nancy Pelosi is in charge of managing the process before it reaches the Senate. He has an impressive winning record when committing to fights and should not be underestimated. He has also shown his commitment to the country more than to the party. If his strategy leads to a successful topple of Donald Trump, he will almost certainly follow a route that no one can predict when the public hearings begin.
Lesson three: Russia and China. Nixon meddled in two elections while we were in a war in Vietnam. Our enemy was North Vietnam, but we knew that they were representatives of China and Russia. Nixon was also extremely adept at reorienting national policies toward China and Russia in ways that clearly promoted world peace and did not undermine our international alliances.
Any true disciple of Nixon Republicanism should be surprised that Nixon’s revenge squad made up of Roger Ailes, Paul Manafort, and Roger Stone used Russian help to elect Donald Trump. Meddling in Ukraine also helps Russia while proving to other allies that we cannot be trusted.
Eisenhower, Nixon, and Reagan would roll in their graves (if such a thing were possible) at the prospect of a Republican president targeting Russia alone, attacking our European allies, undermining the confidence of South Korea and Japan, and sending our farmers into recession through a trade war with China that has permanently undermined agricultural supply chains. These first-term accomplishments will be followed by greater catastrophes if the current electoral meddling brings a second Trump presidential term.
Conclution. Richard Nixon undermined peace efforts in Vietnam as part of his 1968 presidential bid. Lyndon Johnson withheld that fact from the public out of concern for national security. Nixon meddled in the 1972 election, was captured, and had to resign to escape impeachment. Three revenge-seeking Nixon supporters – Roger Ailes, Paul Manafort and Roger Stone – helped Donald Trump win the 2016 election with the support of Russia. Trump’s opponent was known to be under investigation by the FBI, but news of a more serious investigation into Trump was kept under wraps. The FBI investigation resulted in the work of Special Counsel Robert Mueller being successfully obstructed. Mueller’s results followed the rules in a way that seemed to reward obstruction. With the help of a compliant attorney general, it appeared that Trump had escaped. Then came news from a whistleblower, like the shocking news of the Watergate robbery. This prompted a number of professionals to speak the truth to Congress and sparked an impeachment investigation.
Like Nixon, Trump was caught with a smoking gun in his hand. They both got away with murder the first time. Will Trump escape the second time?
The answer depends on the American people and Nancy Pelosi. The public is about to hear the truth. Will we recognize it and demand the removal of this president? If impeachment is successful, it will happen thanks to the insight and integrity of Nancy Pelosi and her team. And the outcome will be something none of us can predict when the public hearings begin.
References on Nixon’s 1968 electoral interference:
Peter Baker, “Nixon Tried to Spoil the Vietnam Peace Talks in ’68, Notes Show,” The New York Times (January 2, 2017), https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/02/us / politics /nixon-tried-to-spoil-johnsons-vietnam-peace-talks-in-68-notes-show.html.
John A. Farrell, “When a Candidate Conspired with a Foreign Power to Win an Election”, Revista Politico (August 6, 2017), https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/08/06/ nixon-vietnam-candidate-conspired-with-foreign-power-won-the-elections-215461.
Robert Johnson, “Did Nixon Commit Treason in 1968? What New LBJ Tapes Reveal”, History News Network, https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/60446.
Charles Wheeler, “The Lyndon Johnson Tapes: Richard Nixon’s ‘Betrayal’,” BBC News Magazine (March 22, 2013), https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-21768668.