President Nixon’s resignation from office in August 43 years ago to avoid certain impeachment should stand as a stark warning to President Trump about the consequences of trying block the investigation headed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller into Russiagate.
Last May, Trump fired FBI Director James Comey for not dropping his investigation into Trump’s former national-security adviser Michael Flynn. This action was the first major indication of the president’s deep hostility to the investigation into his campaign’s possible collusion with Russia over the 2016 presidential election. It also showed how far he was willing to go to stop it. Firing Comey actually made Trump’s situation worse. It led directly to Mueller’s appointment as special counsel, and to an investigation into whether Trump obstructed justice by firing Comey.
In July, Trump took another step by relentlessly attacking his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, for removing—recusing—himself from the Russia investigation. Trump saw the recusal as the original sin, because, without it, Mueller, one of the country’s most respected law-enforcement figures, would never have been appointed special counsel. These attacks clearly appeared designed to force Sessions to resign, allowing Trump to replace him with an AG who would not have to recuse himself and could and would fire Mueller. (In Watergate, both the AG and deputy AG resigned rather than fire the special prosecutor investigating the president.)
Trump’s plan came to naught, primarily because Sessions’s former colleagues in the Senate rebelled: The Senate Judiciary Committee Chair said he would hold no confirmation hearings on a new AG, and the Senate adjournment procedures prevented a recess appointment that doesn’t need confirmation.
One of Trump’s objectives in getting a new AG was to avoid the huge political cost of personally firing Mueller. In Watergate, when President Nixon ordered the firing of the Watergate special prosecutor because his investigation was closing in on him, it triggered Nixon’s downfall. The public outrage set in motion impeachment proceedings that resulted in Nixon’s resignation from office.
But, whatever tricks Trump may use to remove Mueller, they will not automatically shield him from accountability. His firing the Watergate special prosecutor was a ground for the articles of impeachment against Nixon voted by the House Judiciary Committee. Removing Mueller without cause at Trump’s instigation could similarly form a basis for his impeachment—a grave abuse of power intended to obstruct the investigation for the president’s personal benefit.
Trump also appears to have taken another page out of Nixon’s playbook by talking about pardons. Part of the Watergate cover-up was keeping the burglars quiet about higher-ups. To do that, Nixon authorized offering them presidential pardons—which became another ground for the impeachment vote against him. This too was a serious misuse of presidential powers.