Donald Trump, Richard Nixon, and Honey Badger Politics

Donald Trump, Richard Nixon, and Honey Badger Politics

The investigation into President Trump's adventures in potential crimes may end very differently from Nixon and Watergate.

During the 2016 election campaign, then-candidate Donald Trump made his views on America’s Afghan war crystal clear, calling for its termination. To his credit, as president he gave U.S. military efforts in Afghanistan one last chance during 2017–18, escalating rather than disengaging. As a result, these efforts have now been ongoing for over seventeen years, and have clarified that neither the Taliban nor the United States will be defeated in conventional military terms. The president has made plain he wants a negotiated settlement, and U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad is pursuing one. But the devil is in the details.

Reports indicate that key outlines of a possible settlement include the withdrawal of U.S. troops, and a promise from the Taliban never to attack the United States. Some gentle souls appear to believe the Taliban can furthermore be reconciled into a sincere and strictly non-violent participation in democratic Afghan party processes. This is highly unlikely. The Taliban are a fierce, determined adversary, deeply committed to spreading their authoritarian Islamist vision wherever they take hold. They will of course sooner or later take advantage of any shift in the American posture. The United States must therefore take care to ensure that any American troop withdrawal is carefully coordinated with U.S. allies and partners in the region, including Kabul’s own government—and that some residual American counterterrorism capacities remain.

The lengthy U.S. war in Afghanistan has been frustrating for many Americans. Another way of looking at it is to recognize that it’s been painful for the Taliban as well. Specifically, the Taliban have learnt that if you harbor or support terrorist attacks on American soil, U.S. soldiers, Marines, and drones will pursue you over a period spanning decades to kill your warriors in large numbers. Now that this has sunk in, perhaps we can return to the original purpose of the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan, namely to punish and prevent terrorist attacks on the United States. American officials from President Trump on down should make it clear to Taliban leaders that if they ever support another 9/11, they do so at peril of their lives. A lack of enforcement will be fatal.

Watergate Redux?

In the year following his re-election, revelations of Richard Nixon’s criminal misconduct over the Watergate affair consumed his presidency. By the end of 1973 his public approval ratings had fallen below 30 percent, and never recovered. Republican defections at both the congressional and popular levels were crucial in this collapse. In the end it was stalwart conservatives like Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater, who told the president directly that his impeachment and removal were certain. Under no other circumstances would the tenacious Nixon have voluntarily resigned. Nixon’s view was that he had done nothing more inappropriate than previous presidents such as FDR, JFK and LBJ. But in the face of public revelations over undeniable misconduct, his many enemies—including the irreverent Hunter S. Thompson—were delighted to see him toppled. Here, Nixon’s strangely insecure and brooding paranoia helped undermine him, for of course no such criminal misconduct had ever really been required. As Nixon admitted years later, “I brought myself down. I gave them a sword, and they stuck it in, they twisted it with relish. And I guess if I’d been in their position, I’d have done the same thing.”

The public release of the redacted Mueller report has Washingtonians looking for additional evidence either for or against Trump’s innocence of criminal misbehavior. Most of Trump’s critics believe that evidence of the president’s guilt is already hiding in plain sight, and that more evidence is to come. Congressional Democrats will therefore continue aggressive investigations on a number of matters, including Trump’s tax returns, his inauguration committee, the Trump organization, obstruction of justice, and possible campaign finance violations. More quietly, and also more impressively, the Southern District of New York continues its own separate investigations into some of these same matters. Leading Republicans, for their part, issued a call to investigate the investigators. All such allegations are deadly serious. But there are a number of significant differences from the Watergate scandal already. First, on the central matter of so much loose speculation over the past two years, special counsel Mueller did not find that the Trump campaign conspired with Russia in order to influence the 2016 election. Second, U.S. party politics are considerably more polarized than they were in Nixon’s day, and this obviously affects the process in more than one direction.

Bill Clinton’s tenure helped to clarify that a sitting president can engage in shabby personal misconduct inside the White House, lie about it under oath, then survive scandal and even impeachment, so long as he never quits, while retaining the support of core partisans. This was a hard lesson from President Clinton in power politics, and neither party will forget it. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California knows perfectly well that under current circumstances, impeachment is a nonstarter. Even if it passed through the House, there is no two-thirds majority in the U.S. Senate prepared to remove the president from office. Most Republican voters, and numerous political independents, believe Trump is innocent until proven guilty, and will insist that their own senators view it the same way. In fact, even many Trump-skeptical Republicans would view such proceedings as an invalid attempt to reverse the democratically legitimate verdict of 2016. Democrats will therefore have to defeat Trump the old-fashioned way, namely at the ballot box. If Trump wins re-election instead, look for congressional Democrats to restart talk of impeachment in 2021, based on whatever they can dig up in the meantime.

All things considered, this current set of investigations may end very differently from Nixon and Watergate. It is simply far too soon to tell. The nature of Donald Trump’s character and personality is such that he will be constantly surrounded by a cloud of scandalous allegations. The nature of Donald Trump’s character and personality is furthermore that he will always fight back against such allegations with the ferocity of a wild honey badger. And as everybody knows—what Hunter S. Thompson could have told you—is that honey badger don’t give a damn.

Colin Dueck is a professor in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, and a Jeane Kirkpatrick non-resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the author of Hard Line: The Republican Party and U.S. Foreign Policy since World War II (Princeton, 2010) and Age of Iron: On Conservative Nationalism (Oxford, forthcoming autumn 2019.)


Image: Reuters