OPINION | To overcome crisis, Trump can be like Nixon or Reagan
© Getty Images

The Trump presidency teeters at a historic inflection point, and the coming days will determine its future, and perhaps the future of American conservatism. Even before the events in Charlottesville, the Trump administration was facing the specter of a failed 2017, with little to show for unified Republican control of government, save for the successful nomination of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch and the trimming of some regulatory underbrush.

If the slow drip of the Russia investigation was distracting from the administration’s Washington agenda, the equivocating response to Charlottesville has derailed Trump’s progress, as much of the GOP establishment seeks to distance itself from the Oval Office. Within the White House, the presence of multiple competing power centers — with constant infighting and leaks to the media — has destroyed the vital unity of effort needed to advance a presidential agenda. With the departure of Steve Bannon, there looms the threat of even greater fragmentation of the president’s political base.

History offers insights on how past presidents have responded at these inflection points — either succeeding in righting their administration, or sinking beneath waves of political controversy and scandal. For much of my career, I had the opportunity to consider those lessons of presidential history at the right hand of one of Washington’s great statesmen, a man I was lucky to call my mentor, the late Ambassador David Abshire.

ADVERTISEMENT
A true believer in the power of history’s lessons, Abshire gave wise counsel to presidents and congressional leaders throughout the second half of the 20th century. Time and again, Ambassador Abshire would highlight two key moments from his own firsthand experience where presidents reached a critical pivot point that changed the course of American history: first, the failures of Richard Nixon during Watergate, and second, his own experience in helping Ronald Reagan move past the Iran-Contra scandal.

 

The path to Watergate was set long before the infamous break-in. Despite his electoral success and policy achievements, Nixon continually felt besieged and belittled by wide swaths of American society. Recorded on the White House taping system, Nixon’s comments about many groups of his fellow Americans ranged from somewhat comical remarks about “long-haired hippies” and smug Ivy Leaguers to highly bigoted complaints about African Americans and Jews.

Nixon’s sense of besiegement blossomed into a noxious mixture of paranoia and ego that would lead him to do whatever it took to retain the presidency. Each illegal action was compounded by another subsequent lie, until Nixon lost the trust of lawmakers and the American people. Facing impeachment and possible criminal charges after removal from office, Nixon chose resignation. The fundamental character flaws of the president manifested themselves in the actions of his subordinates and the conspiracies crafted to smear opponents and gain electoral advantage.

For Reagan, the Iran-Contra scandal had the potential to become his own Watergate. Faced with an ongoing hostage crisis in Lebanon and the threat of Communist expansion in Central America, members of the Reagan national security team — emboldened by the president’s hands-off management style and the disorganization within the White House — pursued an independent and illegal foreign policy. Thus, the “arms for hostages” deal with Iran, and the transfer of the illegally gained monies to Nicaraguan Contras who were barred from receiving U.S. support by Congress, threatened to bring down the Reagan administration.

Instead of lying or covering up the scandal, President Reagan — with the vital advice of the First Lady and others — realized that his decisions would, for good or for ill, seal the fate of his presidency. He shook up his White House and ensured that three transparent investigations — one internal to the White House, one by an independent prosecutor and one by Congress — would get to the bottom of the scandal. Throughout this investigative process, the emphasis from the White House was to restore the trust of the American people and a working relationship with Congress.

Ambassador Abshire was asked by both Presidents Nixon and Reagan to help manage their responses to their respective scandals. He refused Nixon’s call and answered Reagan’s. The reasoning he always provided was simple yet critical: he trusted Reagan, but not Nixon.

For the Trump administration, that is the crux of this inflection point — trust. The Nixonian path compounded the scandal with lies and obfuscation. Reagan chose the high road, accepting outside advice, reorganizing his administration, cooperating with the investigations and, when the time was right, taking responsibility and speaking directly to the American people.

For President Trump, the trust of the American people and their elected representatives has been squandered with a stalled political agenda, the inability to once-and-for-all answer the questions surrounding Russia, and now the even louder questions about the president’s character that stem from the response to the heinous attack in Charlottesville.

It has been said that “trust is the coin of the realm.” President Trump is in danger of squandering his last reserves. To accomplish his agenda, he should turn away from self-inflicted scandals and distractions, and heed history’s lessons for regaining the trust in the hallowed office he holds.

Dan Mahaffee is senior vice president and director of policy at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress, a nonpartisan think tank based in Washington, D.C.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.