Frank Rich is a writer at large for New York magazine, which published his piece “Just Wait: Watergate Didn’t Become Watergate Overnight, Either.” He’s also an executive producer of VEEP at HBO. At The New York Times he was an award-winning op-ed columnist and drama critic. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Jon Wiener: You recently wrote about how you immersed yourself in the history of the end of the Nixon presidency. What did you call that?
Frank Rich: “Wallowing in Watergate.” Of course, that’s a phrase that Nixon used after two months of brutal Senate Watergate hearings in July 1973—the “what did he know and when did he know it” part of Watergate. With his typical faux piety, Nixon said, “Let others wallow in Watergate, we are going to do our job.” That’s the sort of thing we’ve heard other presidents say when they’re under attack for scandal, including the current one.
JW: We know that times have changed since 1973 and ’74, but you found some illuminating parallels from your wallowing in Watergate. One of the most striking was a New York Times story reporting that Americans were feeling “a certain numbness about Watergate,” and that congressmen going home for the summer recess found “no public mandate for any action as bold as impeachment.” What do you make of these reports as our current representatives head home for this summer’s recess?
FR: Nixon resigned in August of 1974. This New York Times report was a year before that. It was after the hearings, and after John Mitchell had been indicted—he had been campaign chairman for Nixon and then his attorney general. Nixon’s approval rating had sunk to the mid- to upper-30s, sort of where Trump’s has been fairly recently. And yet people were sort of ready to move on.
What happened a year later? Many more revelations—and also the midterms were approaching. That’s when it all started to run downhill for Nixon. If you want to transpose then onto now, this would be July of ’73 and the 2018 midterms will be approaching next July. Under this scenario, that’s when things would blow up for the current president.
JW: Probably the biggest difference between then and now is that, in the Watergate years, the Democrats controlled both the House and the Senate. The Democrats hope to retake the House in November 2018, but it seems there’s no chance they’ll retake the Senate. That would seem to be the end of the story, at least as far as impeachment goes.
FR: Saying Nixon was in bigger trouble than Trump because he was up against a Democratic Congress is actually a misunderstanding of what that 1974 Congress was. In the early 1970s, many Democrats, particularly Southern Democrats, were Nixon supporters, including powerful people in the Senate. Sam Ervin, the Southern Democrat who ran the Watergate hearings, began by saying there’s no way in the world Nixon could be guilty of any of this. These were the sort of Dixiecrat Democrats who would ultimately become Republicans. Nixon actually had a very supportive Congress. In the end, however, his luck ran out.
JW: Nixon was way ahead of Trump in several ways, including his margin of victory. In the 1972 election, Nixon got 60 percent of the popular vote. Trump got 46 percent.
FR: Absolutely. Nixon started with a much bigger base of support than Trump, and indeed entered the White House with much higher approval ratings. Of course Trump had a historic low approval rating for someone just after inauguration. The fact is, the only place where Trump trumps Nixon is that Nixon did have something of a drinking problem, and Trump is a teetotaler. But that’s it. In every other way—intelligence, wiliness, legal knowledge, political skills, political support—Nixon was in a much better position to sustain the damage of scandal than Trump is.
JW: Please read one my favorite concluding paragraphs in your piece in New York magazine on how a presidency ends.
FR: “Perhaps Trump won’t fire Robert Muller. Perhaps Muller will determine that Trump is not guilty of collusion with the Russians with Trump’s voluntarily released tax returns as confirming evidence or of obstruction of justice. Perhaps Muller will uncover no improper financial dealings or subversive collaborations with the Kremlin and its network by any of the president’s men. Perhaps the courts will find Trump not guilty of violating the emoluments clause that restricts a president from profiting from office. Perhaps Trump will stay out of trouble, stay off Twitter, miraculously avoid perjury, brilliantly staff up the Executive Branch and deliver fabulously on his promises to secure cheap health care for all Americans, cut everyone’s taxes, and rebuild America’s infrastructure. Perhaps Jared Kushner will bring peace to the Middle East and reinvent American government, rather than follow his father to prison. Perhaps.”
FR: —or perhaps not.
JW: After wallowing in Watergate, what is your prediction about how the Trump presidency will end? Will it be that the Democratic House after 2018 will vote articles of impeachment, the Senate will prepare to go to trial, and Mitch McConnell will play the role of Barry Goldwater, leading a Republican delegation to the White House to tell the president he needs to resign?
FR: I really don’t think there’s going to be impeachment. This is completely conjecture, just a gut feeling based on what I know about Trump and a little bit about what I know about history. There will come a point where it will suit him to get out. He doesn’t enjoy the job anyway. He’s not any good at it. At some point he’s going to figure out that he’s not popular no matter how many rallies he goes to in Ohio or West Virginia, and that people around him are in tremendous legal jeopardy, including his own son-in-law. I picture a scenario where he resigns, which is what Nixon did, and then blames it all on everyone else. He says, “The swamp got me. Including the Republicans in the swamp. And now I’m going to go and fight back from the outside.” This is my fantasy Trump speech.