Thursday marked the 45th anniversary of President Richard Nixon announcing that he would be resigning — and today, Friday, is the anniversary of that historic move actually happening. With our recent conversation with former “Slow Burn” podcast host Leon Neyfakh in mind, we honored Fridays’ anniversary by speaking with University of Virginia Miller Center expert Ken Hughes. He lives and breathes all things Watergate and impeachment, and told us about its impact today.
Nixon resigned 45 years ago today. Can you give us a brief overview of what went down?
Nixon’s resignation came down to him being caught committing the crime of obstruction of justice. For over a year, the Senate and the House investigated whether he had done anything to interfere with the FBI’s investigation of the Watergate break-in and other crimes that were committed by those involved. Nixon had claimed all along that he had not interfered with the investigation — that he had encouraged it to go forward, and let the chips fall where they may. He lost when it came out that he had secretly recorded his Oval Office conversations. On one of those tapes — the “smoking gun” tape — Nixon was recorded ordering his aides to have the CIA tell the FBI to stop looking into an aspect of the Watergate investigation.
In today’s political climate, we’re seeing more and more Democrats calling for an impeachment inquiry into President Trump. Why did Republicans change their opinions towards Nixon after Watergate? And why many Senate Republicans today still stand by Trump?
There are similarities and there are differences. At first — with Nixon — Republicans were very steadfast in support of Richard Nixon. He was much more popular than Donald Trump, especially within the Republican Party. So back then, as now, the Republican lawmakers were afraid to hold Nixon accountable because their base of support might turn against them. If they turned against the president — that still is a large motivating factor for Republicans in the House in the Senate today. They realize that if they try to hold Donald Trump accountable, their Republican voters back home might support, opposing candidates in their next primary. So that’s one of the reasons that they are not willing to take a stand against some of the abuses of power that we’ve seen.
Back in the ‘70s, when did American voters’ perception towards Nixon change?
What changed everything was a series of televised hearings before the Senate Watergate Committee. The public got to hear from the president’s administration. This, more than anything, turned public opinion against Richard Nixon. Until those hearings, Republicans in Congress didn’t have much incentive to turn against Nixon. He was a great political asset to them at the start of 1973. They weren’t worried about supporting him because most of the public still supported him at the start. But after the evidence of the testimony was placed before the public, day after day for a very long period of time, public opinion changed.
Then, toward the in August of 1974, Republicans in Congress found themselves in a new position. Before, they had to worry about losing their primary voters — because their primaries hadn’t taken place here. But by August of 1974, the polls showed them that they really had to worry about losing moderate voters at the general election. So that was a huge change. And their worries changed from offending their right wing base tolosing moderates who were disgusted by the overwhelming evidence of wrongdoing by the president himself.
So, why do you think this happened to Nixon, and how does it differ from the calls for impeachment for Trump?
I think, in part, it’s structural fear. The Republicans in Congress know that if they hold Donald Trump accountable, then their primary voters are going to turn against them. So basically they’re going to lose their jobs. But it won’t be until after their primaries that some of them will fear losing their jobs, too, because the moderate voters will turn against them.
What do you think House Democrats today could learn from what happened with Nixon?
The House Democrats have learned most of the lessons from the Nixon era; they just haven’t been able to put them into practice. The House Democrats know that they need to have Trump’s aides testify in public, but it’s hard to get them to do that if they’re unwilling. In Nixon’s case, there was one very important willing witness in John Dean — the White House counsel. Dean had been the point man in the Watergate cover up until the prosecutors caught up with him and he faced the prospect of going to prison. So then he became a witness for the prosecution, and was willing to testify in public against the administration. That meant Nixon had to provide witnesses to Congress to testify in his favor. And that made a much more dramatic set of hearings — since some of the most powerful people in the government were being questioned about criminal wrongdoing before congressional committees on live television. So the Democrats in the house know all that. They’ve learned all that. But they’re just having a hard time getting witnesses.
Today there are more than 100 House Democrats calling for an ‘impeachment inquiry’ into President Trump. What does an impeachment inquiry mean?
An impeachment inquiry is the constitutionally established procedure for holding a president accountable for high crimes and misdemeanors. So, if an impeachment inquiry takes place, members of Congress will submit bills saying President Trump is guilty of the following high crimes and misdemeanors and the committee will investigate. Some people have made the mistake assumption that the president can be forced to cooperate with an impeachment inquiry. Nixon did not. At one point, he said he would not turn over his tapes to the House and he wouldn’t allow anybody to testify before that Committee either. So the president can refuse to cooperate. In Nixon’s instance, the House Judiciary Committee went ahead using information that had been gleaned from the Senate Watergate Committee investigations and from the criminal proceedings. It came up with three specific articles of impeachment against Nixon. One of them for abuse of power and another one for obstruction of justice.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
This appeared in Katie Couric’s Wake-Up Call newsletter. Subscribe here.