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Why Did Nixon Resign and Could Trump Do the Same?

American politician Richard Nixon at the White House after his resignation as President.

"You might say that Trump is in a position now that Nixon was in late 1973 and early 1974."

On 9 August 1974, following the long and drawn-out Watergate Scandal, Richard Nixon was forced to resign as President of the United States. The consequences of the attempt to bug the Democratic Committee headquarters came back to bite him and Nixon became the first President in history to resign. The dirty political tactics used to get an edge before the 1972 election came at a cost and showed that not even the President is above the law.

Today, as President Donald Trump faces calls to resign following claims he worked alongside Russian government officials to win the 2016 American election, is history repeating itself?

To find out we spoke to Professor Iwan Morgan, a historian and lecturer in United States History at University College London, who specialises in American political history. We asked what happened in the Nixon case and whether there are similarities between then and now. Could Trump, like Nixon, be forced to walk or was Watergate a one-off event in American political history? 

President Donald Trump shakes Russian President Vladimir Putin's hand at the G20 Summit, July 7, 2017
US President Donald Trump and Russia's President Vladimir Putin shake hands at the G20 July 7, 2017. (SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

Nixon walked because of the misdeeds of his aides and himself in what became known as the Watergate Scandal.  Operatives from the Committee to Re-elect the President were caught breaking into the Watergate complex. Quite what they wanted to find at the Democratic headquarters is unknown, but clearly it was an act of illegal political espionage. A security guard caught them and phoned the police.

Nixon was told what had happened while he was on holiday in Florida. He immediately came back because he knew that these operatives – although he hadn’t ordered the break-in – had connections to the Committee to Re-elect the President. Nixon conspired with one of his top aides [H.R. 'Bob' Haldeman] to obstruct justice and to get the FBI to drop the investigation on grounds of national security.

Nixon thought that public opinion would be with him. He had just been elected and he thought the American people would see this as another liberal conspiracy against the President who was trying to represent the great heartland of America. He totally misjudged the situation.

A Grand Jury was set up against him. You can see the similarities with Trump at this point. Trump hasn’t sacked the Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller but he’s making noises and publicly speaking of his dissatisfaction

Watergate created an illusion that the press had got Nixon. The two journalists, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, were instrumental in the early days. They were the first journalists to suspect that the Watergate burglars were connected to the White House and they kept the story in the headlines of the Washington Post during the latter part of 1972 and the early part of 1973. They wrote their best-selling book All The President’s Men, which was later turned into the film, portraying them as the white knights of the press, but in fact, Woodward and Bernstein were minor players in it all.

The real people who got Nixon were the congressional investigators, the special prosecutors Archibald Cox and Leon Jaworski, and the FBI who tracked down the money that was found in the conspirators’ accounts, taking them all the way to Mexico and back again to Washington DC. The role of the FBI in getting Nixon has always been underestimated.

We know now that it was a disgruntled top FBI man who was the infamous Deep Throat who fed the information to Woodward and Bernstein. For the moment we don’t know if there is a Deep Throat for Trump. I doubt whether there is, but Trump has already committed some very serious errors. Most important of which is the sacking of the FBI Director James Comey. If he gets Robert Mueller sacked that will be an even greater misstep.

Some of the key questions in the Trump investigation took place during the campaign and in the early stages of the administration: the National Security Advisor Michael Flynn lying to the Senate in his hearings about campaign connections and consultation with Russian officials; Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey; even Trump’s personal finances are now coming into the mix. You might say that Trump is in a position now that Nixon was in late 1973 and early 1974.

Trump needs to avoid further obstruction of the investigation. So far, Trump hasn’t had any contact with Russian officials; he should just let the investigation go its way. We might very well find out that there is nothing worthy of impeachment, but Trump of course seems to have no capacity to keep quiet. I suspect that if he gets into trouble it will be largely his own doing. I think he has it within his political grasp to avoid impeachment.

Nixon is one of three Presidents to have gone through the impeachment process, along with Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton. There is one common factor to all three of them: Congress was under the control of the opposition party to the President. Right now, both houses are under Republican control. House Republicans are not going to move any time soon to draw up articles of impeachment against Trump and even if they do, I suspect it will be very difficult to get a two-thirds majority in the Senate as currently constituted.”

The similarities between now and then are hard to ignore: dirty political tactics to get an edge in an election, accusations followed by denials that lead to the President and a media outcry that is driving the public discussion. Trump’s fate is now in the hands of the investigation that is going on around him and how Washington will deal with him remains to be seen. For now Morgan’s answer is a simple one: "What Trump needs to do is get on with the job of being President."