How President Trump's Legal Problems Compare To His Predecessors Presidential historian Jon Meacham speaks with NPR's Audie Cornish how President Trump's legal troubles compare to those of his predecessors.

How President Trump's Legal Problems Compare To His Predecessors

How President Trump's Legal Problems Compare To His Predecessors

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Presidential historian Jon Meacham speaks with NPR's Audie Cornish how President Trump's legal troubles compare to those of his predecessors.


We're going to take the next few minutes to talk about the significance of this moment. After all, a longtime associate of the president is now accusing him of a crime. At this point, it's Michael Cohen's word against President Trump's. And the president, as we just heard, says he did nothing wrong. The writer and historian Jon Meacham has spent much of his career bringing context and perspective to moments like this. He joins us now. Welcome to the program.

JON MEACHAM: Thanks so much.

CORNISH: So we have a habit in the media of slapping a reference to Watergate on everything...

MEACHAM: (Laughter).

CORNISH: ...Big and small, right? We just say something-gate.


CORNISH: But in this moment, is this an appropriate comparison?

MEACHAM: Well, it's certainly more commensurate than usual. You're right. The suffix gate is one of the more overused elements of our political vernacular. But we do have really two important similarities, maybe even three. One is a lawyer for the president is now testifying or cooperating with authorities against his interest, which is rather like when the White House counsel of John Dean in June of 1973 went and began to testify before the Senate Watergate Committee.

We have the promise or the allegation that there is more to come, which is not unlike when Alexander Butterfield, who was a deputy to Bob Haldeman in the Nixon White House, revealed a couple of weeks after Dean began to testify that there were White House tapes. And you have a unfolding story not unlike Watergate where a lot of people's common sense suggests that the president almost certainly has something to do with something that is at best illegal and perhaps even at worst unconstitutional and even impeachable.

CORNISH: When you take in all of this - the Mueller investigation, Michael Cohen's plea, the Manafort convictions - how do you think this impacts the office of the presidency itself?

MEACHAM: Well, we do know this a year and a half in. The presidency has not changed Donald Trump (laughter). The question is going to be whether Donald Trump changes the presidency. The office is incredibly resilient. It has been from generation to generation. It's ebbed and flowed, mostly flowed in recent years. If we had been talking in September or actually August - if we were talking on this day in 1974 - Nixon is gone; Ford has taken over; Nixon has not yet been pardoned - we would have thought I think - we would've been reasonable to have said that the presidency is going to be constricted; we're going to see a Democratic generation coming out of the - out of Watergate. And yet we only had four years before we had - then had 12 years of Republican rule.

So I believe the office is quite resilient. To me, the thing to watch as ever is, where is the country broadly put? Thirty percent of the country is going to be with the incumbent I think no matter what. If they carry him out in handcuffs, 30 percent of the country is going to say it was a witch hunt; it was a frame-up. Nixon never got below - I think I'm right about this - never got below 20 percent as a national approval rating. Joe McCarthy, the red-baiting senator, had a 34 percent approval rating after the Army-McCarthy hearings and the great have-you-no-decency-sir. The thing to watch is, where is the 60, 65 percent of the country that is not part of a die-hard base for this particular person? And that's the thing to watch in the coming months.

CORNISH: What about the other interlocking and competing institutions? How are they being affected?

MEACHAM: Well, I think members of Congress right now are wondering about their career choices (laughter). You know, maybe they should have (laughter) - maybe they should...

CORNISH: Yeah, yeah, but that's every few years, right? And luckily...

MEACHAM: That's true.

CORNISH: ...There is a referendum, and we're able to tell them how we feel. I guess I'm asking...

MEACHAM: They're...

CORNISH: ...Because there's so much handwringing about what this administration would do...


CORNISH: ...To the other branches of government. And it seems like they're holding up.

MEACHAM: Here's what I think. I think that yesterday is actually a sign of strength and progress. The courts, the prosecutors, the Justice Department, the justice system is doing its job. Congress, which will ultimately have - there are two ways to deal with a president who seems beyond the pale. One is congressionally with the very difficult work of impeachment. The other is with all of us. It's with a quadrennial election.

And one of the reasons I think that so many people are more fundamentally disturbed by this than, say, the Clinton scandals or something more ordinary, if you will, is because this was about an election. There is an enormous question in front of the country, which is, did a foreign government - did Russia significantly subvert the 2016 election? And to what extent did the president - did the incumbent president collude even with his own people to affect this outcome?

CORNISH: And those are the questions we are going to be thinking about more going forward. Jon Meacham is a historian and author. His latest book is "The Soul Of America: The Battle For Our Better Angels." Thank you.

MEACHAM: Thank you.

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