If Richard Nixon were alive today, he probably would not agree that "President Trump is facing a test to his presidency unlike any faced by a modern American leader." Leading with this sentence, the anonymous "Steady State" op-ed that appeared in The New York Times this week followed that declaration with assuring, but also vague, examples of resistance inside the Trump administration that conflated concerns over some of the President's policies with his affinity for authoritarianism.
The piece rightfully condemned the President's demonization of the press and his "anti-democratic" leanings, but placed them next to concerns regarding his "anti-trade" impulses.
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The figures who said no to President Richard Nixon, on the other hand, did so not because they worried about their policy differences with the President, but because they were concerned about his clear attacks on the nation's democratic institutions. What remains to be seen is whether or not today's acts of "resistance" are only backroom policy squabbles or something more substantive, equaling or surpassing the actions of the Republicans who stood up to Nixon.
Looking back at the history of the Nixon era, one can see not only troubling parallels to the present, but also actions taken that should serve as a standard for the anonymous author and others inside the Trump administration.
It was Republicans inside the Nixon administration who stopped the President from using the Internal Revenue Service to harass hundreds of political enemies, including numerous anti-war activists, members of the press, and Democratic Party officials.
Nixon's White House counsel, John Dean, gave the now-infamous enemies list to the commissioner of the IRS, Johnnie Walters, in September 1972 so the agency could initiate full-scale audits against the President's opponents. Walters refused and met with his superior, then-Secretary of Treasury George Shultz, to discuss the order.
Shultz fully supported Walters's actions and later remembered telling his colleague to tell Dean, "Tell him that you report to me. If he has a problem, he's got a problem with me."
Both Shultz and Walters came from conservative backgrounds, but saw the White House's order as an abuse of power. When led by Shultz and Walters, the IRS took no action when it came to the White House's order.
Years later, when describing his decision to resist the enemies list project, Walters often framed his actions in nonpartisan terms. "I felt, and still feel that had IRS implemented the request it would have ruined our tax system for years to come," wrote Walters in his memoir.
The most notable figure who resisted Nixon was Elliot Richardson, the attorney general who resigned in protest when the President ordered him to fire the Watergate special prosecutor, Archibald Cox. In what came to be known as the Saturday Night Massacre, the deputy attorney general, William Ruckelshaus, also resigned before the order was carried by out by the Justice Department's next-in-line, Solicitor General Robert Bork.
The overwhelming backlash to the Saturday Night Massacre was a turning point for the Watergate scandal -- particularly the way the public perceived Nixon -- but it also marked the moment when Richardson could no longer stay silent.
For years, Richardson had acquiesced to the Nixon White House, even though he and his staff had serious policy differences with the President, such as over Nixon's refusal to back a more ambitious busing policy and universal child care. The President's order to fire Cox was the boiling point for the attorney general, who saw it as a clear attack on an independent investigation into the President's wrongdoings. It wasn't his policy differences that caused him to break with the President; it was Nixon's unethical attempt to protect his presidency.
The anonymous op-ed this week in the Times assured readers that there are "adults in the room" inside the Trump administration who will put their country first. However, if the anonymous figure and his or her colleagues truly seeks to represent all Americans in their efforts to rein in the current President, then there should be a greater emphasis on protecting "democratic institutions" over traditional conservative policies. The two were not conflated when Republicans resisted Nixon's authoritarian impulses, and the same is true today.
In a January 1973 meeting with his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, and assistant Fred Malek, Nixon encouraged his aides to develop a more loyal administration that would carry out his orders during his second term. "There must be absolute loyalty," exclaimed Nixon, who was determined to squash dissent within his administration.
The men who resisted Nixon's dark side were collectively combating the President's attacks on institutions like the IRS and the Justice Department that affect the entire nation. Any attempt to stop Trump from inside of the administration should place these types of attacks, above everything else, at the forefront of their internal resistance.
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