A New Watergate? Trump, Nixon, Leaks and the Media


On March 16, the Center for the National Interest hosted a panel discussion titled “A New Watergate? Trump, Nixon, Leaks and the Media.” Speakers included Robert Merry, Editor of The American Conservative, former President and Editor-in-Chief at Congressional Quarterly and political reporter at the Wall Street Journal, as well as a former Editor of The National Interest, and Aram Bakshian, a former speechwriter for Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan and Deputy Assistant to the President and Director of the Presidential Speechwriting Office in the Reagan Administration. The discussion was moderated by Ambassador Richard Burt, a former U.S. Ambassador to Germany and, earlier, a national security correspondent for The New York Times. The speakers discussed the similarities and differences in the actions of the two presidents—both while in office and during their campaigns—as well as those of their critics and opponents in the media, the Congress, and the government bureaucracy. A summary of the event can be found below. Video of the discussion can be accessed here.

A New Watergate? Trump, Nixon, Leaks and the Media

At a panel hosted by the Center for the National Interest on March 16, two prominent speakers suggested that notwithstanding important questions about the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russian officials and calls for a special prosecutor to investigate them, there are many differences between the current situation and the Watergate investigation that forced former President Richard Nixon to resign.

Aram Bakshian presented five key differences between the two scandals. First, Bakshian described a stark contrast between the two men’s personalities, characterizing Nixon as a bold and visionary statesman with an insecure personality who lacked passionate supporters (despite his triumphant re-election) and Trump as an untested world leader, but a “canny survival artist” unhampered by self-doubt. Where Nixon was “Metternich abroad and Hamlet at home,” Bakshian said, Trump is “one-third Teddy Roosevelt, one-third PT Barnum and one-third Evel Knievel.”

Second, Bakshian contrasted the “playing field,” noting that Democrats maintained longstanding majorities in both houses of Congress during Watergate and that a handful of established news outlets dominated the media and shaped the national narrative. In contrast, Republicans control both houses of Congress today and the media is “wide open, vulgar, and loud” with several competing publications and networks as well as numerous cable and internet information sources. At the same time, while Trump did not win a majority of the popular vote, he has a large devoted base providing enthusiastic popular support. Bakshian described Trump’s style as “banana Republican”—more reminiscent of countries with less stable parliamentary systems and more emotionalism in their politics. Also, Trump has been in office for only 8 weeks, whereas the Nixon resignation came two years after the Watergate break-in following an accumulation of grievances over six years in office.

Third, Bakshian drew a distinction between the political and social climate today and that of the Watergate era, arguing that today’s America is significantly less divided than America at the height of the Vietnam War and the time of the Watergate break-in. He claimed that the cultural divide during the Nixon era dwarfed that of today, citing considerably larger and more destructive riots and disorder on college campuses. While there is a lot of noise nowadays, he said, there is much less violence.

Fourth, according to Bakshian, the largest difference between Watergate and “Russiagate” is in the “facts of the case.” Whereas the former began with a clear criminal act followed by denial and cover-up, there is so far no evidence of an initial criminal act involving Trump today. While acknowledging that investigations and reporting are appropriate, Bakshian argued that some press reports have outpaced the facts to such an extent as to demonstrate a media paranoia comparable to the paranoia within the Nixon White House. Bakshian suggested that this could make it harder for the media to make a persuasive case if solid evidence of abuses emerges in the future. Bakshian concluded that as far as the case against Trump is concerned, “there is no ‘there’ there” when compared to that of Watergate, and President Trump will survive the frenzy of rumors and accusations because that’s what he does – survive.

Fifth, Bakshian cited potential “wild cards.” In Nixon’s case, they were either cases of bad luck or a result of Nixon not being able to “roll with the punches,” let alone “deliver any,” he said. Trump, in contrast, pushes back against the media. Bakshian asserted that Trump is the first president who has not been passive in the White House-media interaction. While Trump is not invulnerable, Bakshian argued, “Russiagate” is a “case without a case.” If the Trump presidency fails, Bakshian said, it will have less to do with the “Russiagate” stories than the release of his full tax returns. Robert Merry, though, pointed out it would be difficult for investigative journalists to obtain Trump’s tax returns in full, thereby making him less vulnerable to this.

Merry also shared his impressions of the climate inside the beltway, describing it as “crazy times.” Before comparing today’s situation and Watergate, Merry laid out a second question: “Was Watergate equivalent to Watergate?” Merry stated that there are differing views on what happened with Watergate, and that the conventional view laid out by investigative journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein is not the whole story—Merry’s point being that nothing is as it seems in Washington, especially when involving law enforcement investigations and the intelligence community. He specifically mentioned Secret Agenda by Jim Hougan, Silent Coup by Len Colodny and Robert Gettlin, and The Strong Man by James Rosen as books providing revisionist narratives about Watergate.

After laying out the facts of the current situation regarding Trump and his alleged ties to Russia, Merry agreed with Bakshian’s assessment of the media, likening today’s media to a “feeding frenzy.” Merry cited a The New York Times article that explored a former Trump advisor exchange of Twitter messages with the hacker Guccifer 2.0. as an example. This story, according to Merry, would never have been published in the past for lack of solid evidence. Merry and Bakshian agreed that events like these should have continued being the target of reporters’ investigations rather than being quickly published. Merry claimed that the journalistic principles of objectivity and dispassionate coverage—originally products of technological innovations in the press in the 1840s—have eroded considerably with the advent of social media and other new technologies that drive today’s partisan journalism.

Further building upon the topic of the media’s legitimacy, Bakshian said that the American people have a lower trust in media today than they did in the 1970s and that this trend is part of a broader decline in public trust in American institutions. Paul Beckett, the Washington bureau chief of The Wall Street Journal, asserted that while his team does not know where the ‘Russiagate” story is going due to the series of ongoing investigations being carried out by multiple government agencies and the media, it is premature to say “there’s no ‘there’ there” and his readers expect the publication to continue its investigative reporting on the topic until a definitive conclusion is reached. Merry responded by saying that while there may be a “there” there, he questions how media organizations are handling the situation due to the ongoing deterioration of “culture and civility” in Washington. Still, Bakshian and Merry agreed that the media plays an important role in a free society.

Moderator Richard Burt emphasized that the ongoing debate in Washington distorts efforts to adopt a coherent foreign policy, as growing Russophobic sentiments make it more difficult to have a constructive conversation about U.S.-Russia relations. As an example he cited Senator John McCain accusing Senator Rand Paul of “working for Putin” because the latter opposing the addition of Montenegro into the NATO alliance. Merry described Russophobia as “ignorant,” “monolithic” and “almost impossible to penetrate.” According to Merry, these sentiments are concerning as they define the broader narrative surrounding U.S.-Russia relations and, more specifically, Trump’s alleged ties to Russia.