It was an imperfectly rendered document full of redactions, handed over at long last and at the insistence of an imperious Chief Justice by a mistrustful White House. But the transcript, full of blank bits replaced by words such as “unintelligible,” “inaudible,” and “expletive deleted,” told a story of a repellant, shockingly vulgar, unquestionably cynical and unequivocally criminal regime. Richard Nixon had gambled and lost. It had been a bitter contest between Executive Privilege and the Rule of Law, and the Rule of Law had won. These were the transcripts of the Nixon White House tapes.
It was one of the most notorious chapters in the history of the American political landscape, one in which most observers alive at the time would have been justified in believing they would never behold its equivalent again. The time was so notorious it was given its very own vocabulary: “covert,” “stonewall,” “at this point in time,” “Watergate.”
That was the world of Richard Milhous Nixon, a deeply flawed, limited but brilliant man who somehow, despite an “image problem,” had become president of the United States. Nevertheless, in his own way he was a patriot, with deeply held principles and an odd but indelible respect for the rule of law.
We have no word for what is occurring today except “Trump.” Speaking as one who lived through the charnel house of Watergate and is now in the middle of Trump, I can only tell you Trump feels worse. Far worse. For one thing, flawed though he may have been, there were certain things I trusted about Nixon. As observed, I believed he had a warped but indelible faith in the rule of law. I believed he was a patriot and a man of courage. Above all, I believed Nixon would never betray the United States of America in order to save himself.
I believe none of those things about Trump. Trump is for Trump, no one and nothing else. When Trump does something it’s exclusively for himself. What’s more, Trump is that most loathsome of creatures who sometimes occupy high office: he is a moral and physical coward.
I believe we are at the crossroads of an unprecedented Constitutional crisis. The tremors we are feeling could be prelude to a kind of metaphorical second American Civil War, where Donald Trump’s sweeping abuse of an Executive Privilege denying Congress access to an unredacted Mueller Report may very well be recollected one day as the first proverbial shot fired.
In the technicality of our full understanding, the fight over the full Mueller Report means little. In all likelihood Robert Mueller himself will clear things up when he testifies before the House Judiciary Committee next week, assuming Trump isn’t able to stop him. But symbolically, the fight over the report itself may be an ominous portent of Donald Trump’s contempt for the rule of law, and exactly how far he is willing to allow the rough beast of his contempt to slouch.
Robert Harrington is an American expat living in Britain. He is a portrait painter.