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Whatever his intellectual and political gifts, Richard Nixon, the 37th president of the United States, was a cunning and dangerous criminal. For him, issuing illegal orders was literally just another day at the office.
One such day, in July of 1971 (nearly a year before the Watergate break-in), found him ordering his chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, to execute a burglary. The president was exercised about politically damaging documents that he imagined were possessed by scholars at the Brookings Institution, a respected Washington think tank, where I now work. “We’re up against an enemy, a conspiracy,” Nixon railed, banging on the desk for emphasis. “They’re using any means. We are going to use any means. Is that clear? Did they get the Brookings Institute raided last night?”
Haldeman: “No, sir, they didn’t.”
Nixon: “No. Get it done. I want it done! I want the Brookings Institute safe cleaned out!”
Anyone who wants to hear the president of the United States sounding like a B-movie mobster will find dozens of examples on the Nixon presidential library’s website. Nixon compiled lists of enemies, tried to suborn the IRS and the CIA, demanded that Jews be investigated and fired (“You can’t trust the bastards”), created a personal black-ops team (the Plumbers), raised hush money and established slush funds, suggested engaging thugs to beat up protesters, proposed selling ambassadorships, spied on political activists, and orchestrated cover-ups. He remained in office for nearly six years, ultimately being forced out only because he made the astonishing mistake of recording himself breaking the law. Until the Supreme Court ordered the tapes turned over to a special prosecutor in July of 1974, Nixon still had enough support to survive a removal vote in the Senate.
The 45th president, Donald Trump, might pose the gravest threat to the constitutional order since the 37th. Of course, he might not. Perhaps we’ll get Grown-up Trump, an unorthodox and controversial president who, whatever one may think of his policies and personality, proves to be responsible and effective as a chief executive. But we might get Infantile Trump, an undisciplined narcissist who throws tantrums and governs haphazardly. Or perhaps, worse yet, we’ll get Strongman Trump, who turns out to have been telegraphing his real intentions when, during the campaign, he spread innuendo and misinformation, winked at political violence, and proposed multiple violations of the Constitution and basic decency. Quite probably we’ll get some combination of all three (and possibly others).
After waking up at 5 a.m. on a Saturday, hunkered down in his sunny vacation home far from the White House, a bleary-eyed president of the United States offered a few thoughts to sum up his mood: “Above all else: Dignity, command, faith, head high, no fear, build a new spirit, drive, act like a President, act like a winner,” he wrote in a staccato stream of consciousness.