Richard Nixon and Donald Trump
Credit: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration/Wikimedia Commons and Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Let’s do a bit of comparing and contrasting by looking at how President Trump is behaving and then taking a look back at President Nixon’s last days in office. In our sequel, the role of Henry Kissinger will be played by self-styled Democrat, attorney Alan Dershowitz. John Kelly will very inadequately play the role of Alexander Haig. They say history doesn’t repeat itself but it does rhyme. Let us see.

Inside the White House, Mr. Trump — furious after the F.B.I. raided his longtime personal lawyer, Michael D. Cohen — spent much of the day brooding and fearful and near what two people close to the West Wing described as a “meltdown.”

…Mr. Trump’s mood had begun to sour even before the raids on his lawyer. People close to the White House said that over the weekend, the president engaged in few activities other than dinner at the Trump International Hotel. He tuned into Fox News, they said, watched reports about the so-called deep state looking to sink his presidency and became unglued.

At times in those last few weeks, Nixon brooded in the Lincoln Sitting Room or his secret hideaway office in the Old Executive Office Building across the street from the White House.  Even in the White House summer, Nixon would sit in one of the two rooms with a fire burning in the fireplace scribbling memos to himself on his familiar yellow legal pads…Often, an aide or valet would find Nixon loudly blaring his favorite music — the score from the 1950’s documentary “Victory at Sea”.  Other times, Nixon would listen to the tapes from his Oval Office recording system that were bringing his Presidency down around him, rewinding, fast-forwarding, listening again-and-again to his own voice saying the things now coming back to haunt him.

Richard Nixon and Donald Trump are much different people but they have some unfortunate traits in common. One is their tendency to sulk and brood when things are going badly for them. Another thing they seem to share is simmering resentments that get expressed in unhealthy ways, including displays of paranoia.

Mr. Trump angrily told his advisers that people were trying to undermine him and that he wanted to get rid of three top Justice Department officials — Jeff Sessions, the attorney general; Rod J. Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general who appointed Mr. Mueller; and Christopher A. Wray, the F.B.I. director — according to two people familiar with what took place.

Nixon was a ferociously introspective person — a man who hated people but loved politics.  Not only did he love politics, but he was extraordinarily skilled at it…Yet, for all of Richard Nixon’s immense political skills, intelligence, ability, and achievements, he allowed his uncontrollable paranoia to destroy him.

Both too tightly wound, they have a tendency to meltdown in the clutch.

…White House advisers were particularly alarmed by the president’s tirade in front of reporters on Monday, when he called the raids on Mr. Cohen “an attack on our country” in far angrier terms than he has ever referred to the Russian assault on the American election.

When Republican Congressional leaders indicated that they would no longer support Nixon and would vote for articles of impeachment, all hope was lost and Vice President Gerald Ford — in office for less than 8 months — began preparations to assume the Presidency.  Nixon held out the longest, but he was so out of touch that he was losing the ability to exercise the powers of his position.  

By the end, key aides like John Erlichman and Bob Haldeman had been forced to resign, which seemed to leave Nixon more isolated and mistrustful than ever. He became so dysfunctional that his chief of staff Alexander Haig had to run the day-to-day operations of the government in his stead. In Trump’s case, the situation is much worse.

There were few people still at the White House able to restrain Mr. Trump from acting on his impulses after the departure of crucial staff members who once were able to join forces to do so, including Hope Hicks, his former communications director; Rob Porter, his former staff secretary; Donald F. McGahn II, the White House counsel; and, in 2017, the chief of staff Reince Priebus and the chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon.

John F. Kelly, the current chief of staff whose influence over the president has waned for months, appeared beaten down and less hands-on, according to two White House officials.

For weeks, the day-to-day operations of the White House — and, really, the Presidency itself — were handled by General Alexander Haig, a four-star Army general and the White House Chief of Staff.

In his darkest hour, President Nixon summoned Henry Kissinger to confide in him his deepest fears and sorrows. President Trump is relying on Alan Dershowitz.

On Tuesday, top White House aides described themselves as deeply anxious over the prospect that the president might use the treatment of his lawyer as a pretext to fire Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel.

But Mr. Mueller still had a job by the end of the day as Mr. Trump sought solace in allies like Alan Dershowitz, a professor emeritus at Harvard Law School and frequent Fox News commentator. Mr. Dershowitz met with Mr. Trump at the White House on Tuesday and then stayed for dinner.

The 37th President of the United States was hysterical.  Crumpled in a leather chair in the Lincoln Sitting Room, his favorite of the 132-rooms at his disposal in the White House, Richard Milhous Nixon called for his Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger.  Nixon was drinking, Nixon was exhausted, Nixon was physically and mentally unwell and, hours earlier, Nixon had finally realized that he had no other choice but to become the first President in United States history to resign his office.

In both cases, the presidents were facing crises on the international stage, and in both cases the foreign policy establishment grew concerned that they were not mentally fit to be making decisions of war and peace.

Elsewhere in the White House, as the president considered options on Syria and absorbed cable news chyrons about Mr. Cohen, staff members at the National Security Council were rattled by the ouster of the homeland security adviser, Thomas P. Bossert. Two White House officials said the move came at the urging of the new national security adviser, John R. Bolton, whom one of the officials described as serving as the president’s shiny new object.

Aides throughout the White House and staff from other departmental agencies worried about the President’s ability to function and continue to lead the country while in his current mental state.  Discussions were quietly held about whether it was necessary to attempt to invoke the 25th Amendment of the Constitution, which calls for the Vice President to assume the powers of the Presidency if the President is somehow incapacitated and unable to discharge the heavy everyday responsibilities of his office.  Nixon was barely sleeping, drinking heavily, and making bizarre, rambling late-night phone calls to subordinates throughout the Executive Branch of the United States government.  Nearly everyone who knew his condition questioned the President’s capacity to function.

The portrait I’ve been painting of Nixon came later in the game, after it became clear that he’d lost support in Congress and would have to resign or face impeachment and a likely term in prison. So his conversation with Kissinger that night was undoubtedly different in kind from Trump’s conversation with Dershowitz. But let’s take a look at that meeting Nixon had with Kissinger anyway because it could foretell the future:

It was after dinner that night when Nixon summoned Henry Kissinger to the Residence of the White House and sat with his Secretary of State in the Lincoln Sitting Room…When Kissinger answered the President’s summons on the evening of August 7th, 1974, he found that Nixon was nearly drunk, sitting in a darkened room, and lost in thought…Sitting there in the smallest room of the White House, Nixon asked Kissinger about how he would be remembered.  Although he had made mistakes, he felt that he had accomplished great things for his country.  Nixon was worried that his legacy would be Watergate and resignation, but he desperately wanted to be thought of as a President who achieved peace.  Kissinger insisted that Nixon would get the credit he deserved.

President Nixon started crying.  At first, it was a teary-eyed hope that his resignation wouldn’t overshadow his long career, but soon, it broke down into sobbing as the President lamented the failures and the disgrace he had brought to his country.  Nixon — a man who never wore his Quaker religion on his sleeve — turned to Kissinger and asked him if he would pray with him.  Despite being Jewish, Kissinger felt he had no choice but to kneel with the President as Nixon prayed for peace — both for his country and for himself.

After finishing his prayer, Nixon remained in a kneeling position while silently weeping, tears streaming down the large jowls often caricatured by political cartoonists.  Kissinger looked over and saw the President lean down, burying his face in the Lincoln Sitting Room’s carpet and slamming his fist against the ground crying, “What have I done?  What has happened?”.  Nixon and Kissinger both disliked physical affection and Nixon in particular hated being touched, but Kissinger didn’t know any other way to console his weary, broken boss.  Softly patting Nixon’s back at first, Kissinger embraced Nixon in a hug and held the President of the United States until he calmed down and the tears stopped flowing.  Kissinger helped Nixon up to his feet and the men shared another drink, talking openly about what role Nixon could have in the future as a former President.

When Kissinger returned to his office a little later, he couldn’t even begin to explain what had happened to his top aides, Brent Scowcroft and Lawrence Eagleburger.  Kissinger was saddened and shocked, and Eagleburger noted that he had never seen the Secretary of State so moved by something.  A few minutes later, Nixon called Kissinger’s office and Eagleburger listened in on the call on another extension.  The President was clearly drunk and again thanked Kissinger for visiting him, imploring him to help Ford in the same way he had helped Nixon.

Before hanging up, Nixon pleaded with Kissinger, “Henry, please don’t ever tell anyone that I cried and that I was not strong.”

Trump also likes to project himself as a fighter to the end, always with a stiff upper lip.

On Tuesday on the South Lawn, Mr. Trump appeared to leave such concerns behind during the event with the Crimson Tide, winners of the N.C.A.A. championship. Mr. Sessions, a former Alabama senator, was on hand to salute his home-state players, but the president did not acknowledge him.

Instead, he praised the team’s pugnacious spirit, saying that they “fought back as they did all season long.”

“They kept fighting and fighting,” the president said.

As President Trump considers the legal implications of the FBI gaining access to Michael Cohen’s files and records, he’s coming apart, variously described by associates as “unhinged,” “unglued,” “dry tinder,” “ready to explode,” and the like. In the case of Nixon, the military was so concerned that they drew up contingency plans.

There were also serious questions about whether or not Nixon, in a desperate attempt to hold on to power, might use the military to protect himself and the White House.  Tensions were already high in the streets of Washington, D.C. with protesters loudly demonstrating and calling for Nixon’s resignation.  High-ranking officials in the Department of Defense and the White House privately worried about the possibility that Nixon would ring the streets around the White House with tanks and armored personnel carriers, ostensibly to protect the Executive Mansion from acts of civil disobedience, but also to set up a fortress-like barrier that might allow him to remain in the White House in the case of a Congressional or Supreme Court-ordered removal from office.

Most startling of all is the fact that in the week before his resignation, Nixon’s inability to efficiently or appropriately wield executive power had dwindled so far that Secretary of Defense James R. Schlesinger urged General George S. Brown, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to not take military orders directly from the President.  In an attempt to save the country from any extra-constitutional power grab by a desperate President, the military chain-of-command took the extra-constitutional step of removing the President from the loop.  Schlesinger also investigated what his options would be if troops had to forcibly remove the President from office.  The Defense Secretary’s plan was to bring the 82nd Airborne to Washington from Fort Bragg, North Carolina if that was necessary.

At times recently, Trump is reported to have said that he could fire Robert Mueller and survive because his voters would stick with him. Nixon also harbored those kinds of illusions for a time:

Still, Nixon continued to fight, believing that he could win back the American people and once again come back from disaster as he had done many times before.  This time was different, however.  There was no comeback from this scandal.  If Nixon did not resign, he would be impeached and found guilty in a Senate trial.  If Nixon did not resign, he would probably go to prison.  When the impossibility of survival was finally understood by the President, the man who had told Americans “I am not a quitter” realized that he had to quit.

I can’t finish this comparison without sharing the most concerning and pathetic episode of Nixon’s last days.

While Nixon’s aides and fellow government officials worried about his mental health and ability to lead, Nixon’s family worried about his physical well-being.  The President was exhausted, erratic, and not sleeping well at all.  He downed sleeping pills, drank scotch, and continued sitting alone in one of his two favorite offices.  Nixon attempted to put on a brave face for his family, but they too were weary of the process and his wife Pat’s health was already precarious.  Nixon sometimes found solace in the company of his daughters Tricia and Julie and their respective husbands, Edward Cox and David Eisenhower (grandson of the late President Dwight Eisenhower).

Yet the toll was terrible on the family and while Nixon’s daughters were supportive and urged him to continue fighting, both Cox and Eisenhower felt that their father-in-law needed to resign for the good of the country and the good of their family, and worried that the President might not leave the White House alive.  On August 6, 1974, Edward Cox called Michigan Senator Robert Griffin, a friend of Nixon’s who was urging resignation.  Notifying the Senator that Nixon seemed irrational, Griffin responded that the President had seemed fine during their last meeting.  Cox went further and explained, “The President was up walking the halls last night, talking to pictures of former Presidents — giving speeches and talking to the pictures on the wall.”  Senator Griffin was flabbergasted and even more taken aback when Cox followed that bombshell with a worried plea for help, “The President might take his own life.”

It may take a while, but one day we may see something like this happen.

In his office in the Old Executive Office Building on the evening of Tuesday, August 6th, Nixon met with Haig and Press Secretary Ron Ziegler to inform them that he was definitely resigning before the end of the week and that he would announce the decision in a speech to the nation on Thursday evening from the Oval Office.  Nixon, Haig, and Ziegler discussed ideas for the resignation speech and during a moment of contemplative silence, Nixon looked up at his two loyalists and said, “Well, I screwed it up good, real good, didn’t I?”.

Whenever that day comes, Sarah Huckabee Sanders and whomever is then serving as Trump’s chief of staff will surely agree. Let’s hope it all goes just as smoothly this time around.

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Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at