Trump vs Nixon: A look at how the two presidents compare

We rated the parallels to date between the Russia-gate and Watergate scandals. The similarities are striking.


Comparing Donald Trump to that other, ill-fated U.S. president, Richard Nixon, is an increasingly popular parlour game. For weeks, observers have noted parallels in the two leaders’ popular appeal and personal idiosyncrasies—from their paranoid musings to their exploitation of the politics of grievance. But as clashes between the White House and those investigating Trump’s associates intensify, the similarities are getting downright eerie. Former FBI director James Comey’s recent testimony that Trump tried to persuade him to drop an investigation into the activities of Michael Flynn, the former national security advisor, is the latest to stir 43-year-old memories.

Note: Ratings and text are periodically updated to incorporate ongoing developments 

A comparison of events in each president’s respective crises:


Similarity rating:
The FBI investigates a break-in of Democratic National Committee headquarters (at the Watergate office complex). The burglars had intended to install wiretaps to gather intelligence and damaging information about Nixon’s opponents in advance of 1972 election.
The FBI investigates Russian hacking of Democratic National Committee computer networks. The hackers gained access to emails containing embarrassing and damaging information about Trump’s opponents in advance of 2016 election.
Rating comment:
Substitute “burglar” for “hacker” and “G. Gordon Liddy” for “Russia,” and today’s probe sounds a lot like the early days of Watergate.


Similarity rating:
“Deep Throat” tips the Washington Post to links between Watergate burglars, the committee to re-elect Nixon and members of the administration. Deep Throat is ultimately revealed to be Mark Felt, associate director of the FBI.
Numerous unidentified leakers advance the story that the FBI is looking into links between Trump associates/aides and Russian officials with intelligence connections. Content of Comey’s memo-to-file on Trump’s request to drop the Flynn matter leaks to the New York Times. Comey tells the Senate committee he “indirectly” leaked it himself.
Rating comment:
Felt defied a massive cover-up by a sitting administration that extended through multiple agencies. In Trump’s case, the intelligence and law enforcement agencies are leaking like a barn roof, as officials seem loath to do the president’s bidding.


Similarity rating:
The Senate strikes a committee to investigate Watergate scandal. Nixon’s attorney general, Elliott Richardson, appoints Archibald Cox as special counsel to look into the affair.
Both the House and Senate assign committees to investigate potential links between the Trump campaign and Russia. The House oversight committee demands the Comey memo, with a view to possible inquiry. The Justice Department appoints Robert Mueller, a former FBI director as special counsel to look into the affair.
Rating comment:
Mueller’s appointment is an enormous win for congressional Democrats, suggesting high-ranking Justice Department officials—and even members of Trump’s administration—no longer give the president the benefit of doubt.


Similarity rating:
It emerges that Nixon recorded his conversations and phone calls at the White House; Cox subpoenas the tapes and wins a court decision ordering Nixon to release them.  They eventually reveal Nixon’s role in orchestrating the cover-up.
Trump disputes leaked accounts of his conversations with FBI director James Comey and tweets that Comey had “better hope” there are no tapes of the exchanges.
Rating comment:
There are no confirmed Trump-Comey recordings to date. But if Nixon’s fate is any guide, Trump, too, had better hope there aren’t any. As Comey puts it to the Senate committee: “Lordy, I hope there are tapes.”


Similarity rating:
In a desperation move, Nixon orders the firing of Cox, who is heading up the investigation. Richardson and his deputy AG both refuse to do so, and the task goes to Robert Bork, then the solicitor-general.
Trump fires James Comey from his post of FBI director; Trump and aides give differing reasons for the move, initially claiming the decision was influenced by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Rosenstein reportedly urges the White House to amend that account.
Rating comment:
Both sack the authorities investigating them and their aides. Is there a surer way to raise suspicion of a cover-up?


Similarity rating:
A House committee recommends impeachment of Nixon for obstruction of justice, abuse of power and contempt of Congress. He resigns before the articles proceed.
No impeachment proceedings are underway. Chances remain remote at least until mid-term elections in the fall of 2018, as Republicans hold majorities in both houses of Congress.
Rating comment:
If punditry and speculative media stories were articles of impeachment, Trump would be answering to Congress now.


Similarity rating:
On June 23, 1972, Nixon directs his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, to have Vernon Walters, the deputy director of the CIA, pressure the FBI to shut down the Watergate investigation. Tape of the conversation becomes known as the “smoking gun” that ultimately brings Nixon down.
On Feb. 14, Trump himself tells Comey he hopes the FBI director can “see [his] way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go,” according to a memo Comey prepares immediately after the conversation (and describes to Congress under oath). Five weeks later, according to reports in the Washington Post, Trump asks several top intelligence officials—including Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence; and Mike Pompeo, director of the CIA—to intervene with Comey and have him rein in the Flynn probe.
Rating comment:
If accounts of Trump’s actions are borne out, he could go down not only as an obstructionist but as an all-time bungler. No one trying to cover tracks has left so many of his own—or so utterly failed to heed the lessons of history.