The Administration

OPINION: Why President Trump should fear John McCain


Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is key to President Trump’s political survival. And that might not be good news for the president given the long history of bickering between the two men. What McCain thinks and says may well determine whether Trump becomes the first president convicted of impeachment and removed from office, or whether he becomes the second president to resign from the presidency.

There are a number of eerie parallels between Trump’s turbulent presidency and Richard Nixon’s Watergate woes. Campaign interference, secretive financial transactions, fired investigators, hatred of the media and allegations of obstruction of justice are just the start of the stunning déjà vu moments that are unfolding now.  But there is one other overlooked parallel involving McCain that may yet play out in the drama of Trump’s presidency.

{mosads}On August 7, 1974, it was another Arizona senator, Barry Goldwater, who led a small delegation of congressional leaders to the White House to tell Nixon that his support among Republicans had eroded significantly and that he would very likely be impeached by the House and convicted by the Senate. Two days later Nixon resigned.


Ten years earlier, Goldwater had been the GOP’s presidential standard-bearer and had lost in a devastating landslide to Lyndon Johnson. 

Next year, it will be ten years since McCain lost the 2008 presidential race to Barack Obama.

If Trump loses support from McCain, his lease on the White House could end abruptly.

Nixon’s downfall began with his nefarious campaign actions in his 1972 re-election bid. A bungled break-in of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) headquarters by operatives with ties to the president’s re-election campaign started the Watergate scandal. To ensure Nixon’s success at the polls, they were trying to get an inside look at DNC secrets by stealing (or photographing) campaign documents and wiretapping the phones. 

Trump and his campaign are the subjects of multiple investigations by Congress and a special counsel to the Justice Department about whether his campaign colluded with Russia to tilt the election to the billionaire real estate mogul. 

Like Watergate, Trump’s emerging Russiagate scandal involves stealing strategic campaign information. While Nixon’s henchmen sought to use the DNC information privately to the president’s electoral advantage, whoever was behind the hacking of sensitive emails of the Hillary Clinton campaign, released them to directly sway voters. The Trump investigations also seek to uncover whether any level of Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia in their disinformation campaign against Clinton. 

It was the investigative work of The Washington Post that set in motion the unraveling of Nixon’s presidency. They followed the trail of the money. And money appears to be at the heart of the Trump-Russia investigations with growing concerns about the president’s investments and loans. Because the media has the potential to blow the lid on any emerging scandal, it’s not surprising that neither Nixon or Trump expressed any fondness for media, with Trump calling them “the enemy of the American people.” Nixon also called the press the “enemy.”

But what eventually sunk Nixon wasn’t so much the Watergate break-in. It was his cover-up. Keeping facts from seeing the light of day and maintaining secrecy of records is just part of a cover-up. Just as Nixon refused to initially turn over his secret White House tape recordings, Trump refuses to disclose his income tax returns which may shed light on his relationship with Russia.

Nixon asked the CIA to stop the FBI’s investigation of Watergate. When two top Justice Department officials refused to carry out the president’s order to fire the special prosecutor investigating Watergate, Nixon sacked them in the infamous Saturday Night Massacre. 

Obstruction of justice was at the top of the list in the articles of impeachment approved by the House Judiciary Committee that charged that Nixon “prevented, obstructed, and impeded the administration of justice.” 

Trump has put himself in a precarious position if allegations about his attempts to obstruct the investigations into his campaign’s reported collusion with Russia are proven true. The president supposedly asked former FBI Director James Comey to back off his investigation of former national security advisor Michael Flynn. Trump fired both. Trump said that he had the “Russia thing” in mind when he canned Comey. The president reportedly told two Russian officials that firing the “real nut job” Comey had relieved the “great pressure” he felt “because of Russia.”

And there are reports that Trump asked both Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats and Director of the National Security Agency Michael Rogers to publicly deny any collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russia. They both declined to act on the president’s request.

In his comments about revelations that the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner may have attempted to set up an unsecured back channel communication with Russia after the election, McCain said “I don’t like it.”  He went on to comment about the tangled web of Russian intrigue by noting that “this becomes more and more bizarre. In fact, you can’t make it up.”

Why should Trump be worried about what McCain thinks? The maverick senator is one of the few congressional Republicans who is departing from party allegiance and orthodoxy that calls for unabashed support for the beleaguered president. McCain, known for his blunt comments, is bucking a sitting president.

McCain, who has been in the Senate for 30 years, understands history. “We’ve seen this movie before,” he stated, calling the unfolding Trump scandals an issue of “Watergate size and scale.”

When Trump loses support from Republicans in Congress — which will occur when they realize their own political fortunes are at risk of being swamped by Trump’s un-presidential behavior, if not his more serious ethical issues — they will desert the president. First they’ll timidly go one-by-one, then in mass.

Even if the investigations do not reveal a smoking gun against Trump, impeachment is ultimately a political process. Certainly, for impeachment to move forward, there needs to be documented and credible charges of “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.” But as then-Rep. Gerald Ford said in 1970, “an impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history.”

Will McCain — the respected Republican senator from Arizona and former presidential candidate — cement the eerie comparisons to Watergate and lead a delegation to the White House next year (or this year) to tell an embattled Trump that his days on Pennsylvania Avenue are over? The dread of such a meeting must give the president nightmares.

Mike Purdy is a presidential historian and the founder of He is a frequent and popular speaker and is often quoted by the media about presidential history and politics, including CNN, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Reuters, Bloomberg, The Huffington Post, BBC and others.

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

Tags Barack Obama Barry Goldwater Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation Dismissal of James Comey Donald Trump Federal Bureau of Investigation Hillary Clinton James Comey John McCain John McCain Mike Purdy Politics Presidency of Donald Trump Richard Nixon Russian interference in the 2016 United States elections United States Watergate scandal
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