There is plenty to compare in two presidents accused of influencing elections nearly a half century apart.
There are echoes of Nixon’s secret efforts to meddle in the 1972 election in Donald Trump’s very public effort to overturn the 2020 election.
But this is not a case of history repeating itself. Trump’s effort was arguably more brazen and more dangerous since it threatened the peaceful transfer of power for the first time since the Civil War, when Southern states seceded from the Union after Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 victory.
January 6 hearings vs. Watergate hearings
The Watergate hearings, on the other hand, broke ground and helped uncover the Watergate conspiracy.
Put on by a special Senate committee nearly a year after the break-in by White House-backed operatives at Democratic National Committee headquarters, the hearings captivated the nation’s attention.
Watergate hearings featured a top-ranking Nixon whistleblower
Trump’s top aides have refused to cooperate with the House committee investigating January 6.
In contrast, at the Watergate hearings Nixon’s White House counsel, John Dean, turned on the President and told the world about a conspiracy plotted in the White House.
Watergate hearings started a chain reaction
The Watergate hearings also uncovered the existence of the now-infamous tapes of Nixon’s White House conversations that ultimately corroborated Dean’s testimony.
Nixon’s effort to keep those tapes out of the public led to the “Saturday Night Massacre” in October 1973, in which the two top Department of Justice officials resigned in protest.
What to expect from the House January 6 hearings
It may be top aides to former Vice President Mike Pence who provide compelling testimony at the House January 6 hearings this week. Pence, who was presiding over the counting of electoral votes on January 6, was targeted by rioters.
Senate Republicans never turned on Trump like they did on Nixon
Nixon resigned because he lacked the power to beat impeachment. Republican senators told him he’d lost nearly all his support among Republicans in the Senate and would be pushed out in an impeachment trial if he didn’t resign.
“Mr. President, you have five votes. And one of them is not mine,” then-Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona told Nixon at the White House, according to The Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward in CNN’s documentary series.
More than a year later, most Republicans have stopped criticizing Trump.
The difference between then and now
Trump wields more absolute power over Republicans than Nixon did, which is either a symptom of or a contributing factor to the paralyzing power of partisanship in today’s politics.
That may be the most important difference between the Watergate scandal and the January 6 investigation.
“What America and the world saw in 1974 was the most powerful man in the world lose his job,” historian Timothy Naftali, a professor at New York University and former director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, says in the CNN documentary series. “And for anyone who doubted the strength of the US Constitution, what they witnessed removed those doubts.”
Trump survived impeachment and didn’t resign. But he did lose his job when voters threw him out of office. The question today is whether his refusal to accept that loss will raise new doubts about the strength of the Constitution.
But the root of their sins is the same.
“Both their crimes began with undermining the most basic element of democracy” Bernstein said, “free and fair elections.”