It always helps when your wedding anniversary coincides to an historic event that the news media will remind you of in advance. A big 50th anniversary is coming up.
On the pleasant Saturday afternoon of June 17, 1972, I got married in a short ceremony followed by ham sandwiches in a Grand Rapids church basement, and then the two of us headed to Detroit so I could be back at work at Ford Motor Company on Monday morning. We, like the rest of the nation, were oblivious to the arrest early that morning of some burglars at a hotel/office complex called the Watergate in Washington, DC. History and great love affairs often start humbly and anonymously.
The legal fallout of that burglary produced what I have called the “Nixonian fate” for the cast of characters in that political drama. The “Nixonian fate” was that the principal actor, Richard Nixon himself, never faced criminal prosecution for his role in the Watergate affair and related crimes. However, most of his inner circle saw their careers end in disgrace, and most of them actually did serve some prison time, “bearing Nixon’s sins” while he personally skated. [see Note 1 for a partial list]
The question at hand — Will the Trump family and their closest associates also experience the “Nixonian fate,” or will we see different consequences (or no consequences) from this political corruption?
Then versus now
In comparison to more recent events, let me assert two big differences between “then” and “now.” First, in hindsight, the burglary “straw” that brought Richard Nixon down, although a big deal at the time, seems relatively minor today compared to Donald Trump’s attempt to circumvent the Constitutional election certification process for a new president for the first time in 228 years (i.e., a coup). Nixon was, according to biographers, literally paranoid (and needlessly at that) about the inner workings of the Democratic Party; he was convinced that a burglary of their headquarters would reveal key secrets of conspiracy against him. Even through the populace as a whole suspected Nixon was behind that burglary, 49 states sent electors to the Electoral College to install him back in office just five months later in a rare electoral sweep.
Current Republican Party dogma to the contrary, the actions leading to the January 6, 2021, assault on the Capitol were completely unprecedented and incredibly dangerous for continued American democracy in future elections. We already see a new pattern and language emerging. In the recent primary election in Georgia, Donald Trump’s endorsed candidate David Perdue was trounced by the current governor and Trump foil Brian Kemp by over 50 percentage points. Nonetheless, Trump has recently been contending that the election was “rigged” to defeat his candidate. In “Trump language” ANY election that he loses (a pattern that began with his loss in the 2016 Iowa caucus to Ted Cruz) is “rigged” against him. You would think people would learn the scam after it being repeated so many times.
The second difference in the 1972-73 Watergate scandal was that it was the winning president’s own party stalwarts, such as Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, who forced Nixon to resign, and it was his own Justice Department that sent Nixon’s closest confidants to prison. The pardon from his successor, Gerald Ford, who was also my former Grand Rapids congressman, saved Nixon himself from prosecution and likely ended Ford’s own political career, even though he had no direct association with the Watergate scandal.
While Donald Trump’s Justice Department has won convictions or indictments against General Michael Flynn (Trump’s first national security adviser), Paul Manafort (campaign manager), and Steve Bannon (another campaign manager), these were all for criminal and traitorous activity before and after their White House service (“only the best people!”). The Trump Justice Department and (apparently so far) the Biden Justice Department have been slow to publicly acknowledge the criminal scope of the 2020 election crimes committed, focusing mostly on the rabble who were convinced by Trump and his spokespeople to actually breach the Capitol.
Within two years after the second Nixon inauguration, the Nixon/Ford Justice Department had processed most of the Nixon associates through to prison or other criminal punishment, including Nixon’s close personal friend and Attorney General, John Mitchell. Other than some Cuban refugees recruited for the burglary, there were no “rabble” in Nixon’s case to take the blame and serve the time.
Donald Trump’s Republican Party has closed ranks to protect him from two impeachments, and very few national elected officials are brave enough to acknowledge the threat to future elections caused by the would-be autocrat’s continued railing against the Constitutional state. Trump pardoned Flynn, Bannon, and Manafort in his last days in the presidency, and so far there has been very little justice carried out on his closest associates. Will the “Nixonian fate” still come to pass on anyone of significance?
Trump’s earlier crimes
While Donald Trump has so far escaped most judgement relative to his past actions, several important cases are still active against him personally. A few of these are civil actions relating to past business activities or sexual behavior, while others are more directly related to his presidential actions and his January 6 culpability.
Donald Trump’s financial fortune has always been much smaller than what he has publicly touted. As I have documented in the past, Trump has long intentionally confused gross revenue with net earnings in valuing his properties and companies, and he has often overstated their value while understating related debt or equity held by investment partners. This misstatement of asset values underlies one of the most active investigations against him currently.
I first came across Donald Trump during “the casino years” in the 1990s when I was on a task force working to integrate a newly acquired specialty New York legal publisher into my employer’s suite of companies. We learned that the Trump Organization had sent a “goon” to threaten the publisher’s Accounts Receivable clerks for trying to collect a substantial debt owed. Only more recently did I learn from Congressional testimony that this “goon” role was part of Michael Cohen’s job after he arrived on the scene several years later, and that vendor intimidation and disavowal of debt was a key part of the Trump business model. My employer quietly wrote off the debt in the acquisition, but I have long known that criminal behavior was at the root of the Trump wealth.
Trump’s three eldest children have also been implicated in his misadventures. Donald Junior and Ivanka have long been known to publicly misstate the status of condominium projects in order to attract new buyers. They are personally named in the property valuation lawsuit currently being advanced by New York Attorney General Letitia James. Son Eric is reputed to be the official signatory on a number of important Trump financial statements after his father assumed the presidency, and he is personally named in one of the active lawsuits.
Even if Trump is hit with substantial financial penalties, the new reality of anonymous ultra-rich benefactors makes this decade different from the Nixon era. When Alex Jones lost a lawsuit for defaming the parents of Sandy Hook massacre victims, a reported $8 million worth of cryptocurrency was donated to him by one anonymous person. Donald Trump likely has enough rich “anonymous partners” to keep him in gold toilets for the rest of his life.
Prosecuting the close associates
As the House hearings on the January 6 insurrection begin later in June, close attention will be focused on the reaction of the Justice Department as to whether any people named face further criminal jeopardy. Peter Navarro, the former Trump trade adviser who has bragged publicly about the legal maneuver for stealing the presidency he called “the Green Bay Sweep,” has now been subpoenaed by federal prosecutors, with the documents indicating that they are following closely the documents uncovered by the House January 6 Commission.
But the road ahead is very difficult. Any prosecution of a Trump insider, especially the children or Trump himself, will be seen by millions of Americans as partisan political payback, and Trump retains a cultic hold over millions of followers. Trump has long used lawyers to delay good cases against him for so long that either the clock or the opponents’ money run out. There appears to be no end to the line of lawyers willing to burn billable hours on this strategy for even something as simple as a subpoena, nor any end to the obscure sources of funds to pay for these lawyers.
When J. Paul Getty, the richest man in the world in Richard Nixon’s day, died in 1976, he was worth an estimated $6 billion. When adjusted for inflation, this comes out to about $30 billion in 2022 dollars, which is one-tenth of the fortunes of today’s richest men.  Thanks to the rightward move of the Supreme Court, we live more than ever in our history in a “one dollar, one vote” country, and so an electoral or judicial “Nixonian fate” for Trump’s closest circle looks increasingly remote.
We will see shortly the sentencing of Ghislaine Maxwell, close confidant of rich man and sexual abuser of young women Jeffrey Epstein. With the exception of England’s Prince Andrew’s slap on the wrist, none of the many men involved in Epstein’s sexual abuse club, which allegedly included Donald Trump, will see any consequences from their involvement, while the only woman charged as an accessory spends perhaps the rest of her life in prison. That is the state of justice in Trump’s “one dollar, one vote” America.
On a nicer note, those two kids who got married on Watergate Day 50 years ago are still together and still in love. Take that, Donald!
- Nixon associates serving jail time included H.R. Haldeman and John Erlichman (White House staff); John Dean (White House legal counsel); John Mitchell, Attorney General and Chairman of the Committee to Re-elect the President (CRP); Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy (Watergate burglary operation planners); Charles Colson (special counsel to the President); James McCord (security director of CRP), Jeb Magruder (deputy director of CRP) among others.
- The late Lord Kenneth Thomson, who was the majority owner of my employer for many years, was very quietly in the “Top Ten Richest Men” club for many years and was a confidant of J. Paul Getty. Thomson did not like debt, rather preferred acquiring “cash cow” companies. The same New York lawyer who told me about Donald Trump’s goon anti-collection tactics also remarked at the time, “There is Donald Trump rich and there is Lord Thomson rich, and they are not the same.”