“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it sometimes rhymes,” Mark Twain is reputed to have said.
My first job after law school was as an attorney at the U.S. Department of Justice. I reported for work September 1974, just weeks after Richard Nixon resigned.
In the years leading up to his resignation, Nixon turned the Justice Department and FBI into his personal fiefdom, enlisting his political appointees to reward his friends and penalize his enemies. Reports about how compromised the Justice Department had become generated enough public outrage to force the appointment of the first Watergate special prosecutor, Archibald Cox.
Before Nixon’s mayhem was over, his first two attorneys general were deep in legal trouble — John Mitchell eventually served 19 months in prison — and his third resigned rather than carry out Nixon’s demand to fire Cox.
Watergate also ushered into politics a young man named Roger Stone, who, under the Committee for the Re-election of the President (known then and forevermore as CREEP), helped devise lies and conspiracy theories to harm Democrats.
After Nixon resigned, the entire slimy mess of Watergate spawned a series of reforms. During the years I worked at the Justice Department, regulations were put into place to insulate the FBI and DOJ from political interference.
“Our law is not an instrument of partisan purpose,” said Edward Levi, Gerald Ford’s attorney general.
Now we’re back to where we were 50 years ago. Donald Trump seems determined to finish Nixon’s agenda of rigging elections and making the Justice Department a cesspool of partisanship. In Trump’s 2016 campaign, even Stone was back to his old dirty tricks of issuing lies and conspiracy theories directed at a Democratic opponent.
Trump has out-Nixoned Nixon: firing FBI Director James Comey after asking him to “let go” of an inquiry into former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s interactions with Russian officials; repeatedly calling the Russian inquiry a politically motivated “witch hunt”; launching an assault on special counsel Robert Mueller’s own investigation; and appointing a lapdog attorney general, William Barr, to do whatever the president wishes.
Barr has out-Nixoned Nixon’s attorney general, John Mitchell: whitewashing Mueller’s conclusions; defending Trump’s phone call to the president of Ukraine seeking dirt on Joe Biden; opening an “intake process” for dirt Rudy Giuliani dredges up on Trump’s political opponents; and continuing to respond to Trump’s every whim, including, last week, suggesting Stone should get a milder sentence than the one career prosecutors recommended.
In November, Stone was convicted of obstructing Congress and seeking to intimidate witnesses. Last week, prosecutors recommended that Stone be sentenced to between seven and nine years in federal prison.
This prompted an enraged Trump to tweet: “Cannot allow this miscarriage of justice!” Hours later, Barr decided to seek a more lenient sentence. In response, the career prosecutors withdrew from the case. One decided to leave government altogether.
The incident caused such an uproar that Barr was forced to declare last Thursday in a TV interview that he wouldn’t be “bullied” and that Trump’s tweets make it “impossible to do my job.”
But anyone who has watched Barr repeatedly roll over for Trump saw this as a minimal face-saving gesture. As if to underscore Barr’s subordinate role, on Friday Trump tweeted that he has the “legal right” to meddle in cases handled by DOJ.
That’s as wrongheaded now as it was when Nixon held the same view. If a president can punish enemies and reward friends through the administration of justice, there can be no justice. Justice requires impartial and equal treatment under the law. Partiality or inequality in deciding whom to prosecute and how to punish invites tyranny.
A half-century ago, I witnessed the near dissolution of justice under Nixon and the enablers then drawn to him, such as Roger Stone. I served in the Justice Department when it and a bipartisan Congress resolved that what had occurred would never happen again.
But what occurred under Nixon is happening again. Like Nixon, Trump has usurped the independence of the Department of Justice for his own ends.
Unlike Nixon, Trump won’t resign. He has too many enablers — not just a shameful attorney general but also shameless congressional Republicans — who place a lower priority on justice than on satisfying the most vindictive and paranoid occupant of the White House since Richard Milhous Nixon.