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“Conspiratorial Mindset”: From Nixon to Trump, Lessons for Jan. 6 Hearing 50 Years After Watergate

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The 50th anniversary of the Watergate burglary in 1972 this Friday comes as public hearings are underway by the House committee investigating the January 6 Capitol insurrection. We speak with Garrett Graff, author of “Watergate: A New History,” about critical lessons and historical parallels between the defining controversies of the Nixon and Trump presidencies. Rather than isolated crimes, Watergate and January 6 should be seen as culminating events of U.S. presidencies that share a “dark, criminal, conspiratorial mindset that drives and links together so many of their scandals,” says Graff.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: House select committee investigating the January 6th Capitol insurrection holds its third hearing on Thursday. Democracy Now! will bring you live coverage starting at 1 p.m. Eastern Time. We will be live-streaming that hearing. On Friday’s show, we’ll feature highlights from the hearing.

This comes as Friday marks the 50th anniversary of the bungled June 17th, 1972, break-in, when police answered a call at the Watergate building complex and found five men burglarizing the office of the Democratic National Committee. They had been hired by staff members of the committee to reelect President Richard Nixon. It was called CREEP, the Committee to Reelect the President. This led to an investigation that revealed multiple abuses of power by the Nixon administration and, ultimately, Nixon’s resignation two years later.

But before Nixon stepped down, the scandal was examined in the Watergate hearings, which lasted 51 days and were broadcast on television with wall-to-wall coverage. Critics called it a “television-viewing phenomenon.”

Among those who testified were Nixon’s former White House Chief of Staff John Ehrlichman. Here he’s being questioned by Republican Senator Howard Baker.

SEN. HOWARD BAKER: When did you first learn of the break-in?

JOHN EHRLICHMAN: On the day following the break-in, when I received this telephone call toward dusk, late in the afternoon.

SEN. HOWARD BAKER: Did you talk to the president on the 17th?

JOHN EHRLICHMAN: No, I didn’t. Not that I can recall.

SEN. HOWARD BAKER: Did you talk to Mr. Haldeman on the 17th?

JOHN EHRLICHMAN: I think I talked to him the following day.

SEN. HOWARD BAKER: Were you concerned about it?

JOHN EHRLICHMAN: Not — not particularly.

SEN. HOWARD BAKER: If someone on my staff, even remotely on my staff, were charged with breaking and entering to the Democratic National Committee headquarters, or someone was even associated with in a newspaper column, then I would be determined to find out if that happened. Now, was there this air of urgency in the White House on your part or Haldeman’s part or Dean’s part? It’s not coming through that way. It sounds like a routine staff operation. But this wasn’t a routine staff operation.

AMY GOODMAN: Again, that was the Republican Senator Howard Baker, just one of the dramatic scenes that played out in the Watergate hearings that followed the Watergate break-in 50 years ago on Friday.

For more, we’re joined by journalist and author Garrett Graff, who has an op-ed in The New York Times, “Three Critical Lessons of the Watergate Hearings That the Jan. 6 Committee Should Learn.” It draws on his new book, Watergate: A New History.

Garrett, welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us. Before we talk about the lessons learned and what today’s committee could learn about — from the Watergate hearings, which were — you know, shook this country, for those who weren’t even born then, can you tell us about what the Watergate scandal was all about? What happened 50 years ago on Friday?

GARRETT GRAFF: Yeah. As you said in the introduction, Friday the 17th marks the 50th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, which in many ways is where America thinks the Watergate story begins. And what my book tries to do is piece together all that we have learned over the last 50 years in terms of new details and newly declassified and released investigative files.

And what we now really understand about Watergate was that it was less an event and more a mindset, that that Watergate burglary was the equivalent of America walking into the second or third act of a play that had been underway for years at that point, and that Watergate is really about this dark, criminal, paranoid, conspiratorial mindset that Richard Nixon brings to the White House that permeates the upper ranks of his administration, that drives the actions of so many aides, including men like John Ehrlichman, who we heard from a moment ago, and that Watergate really becomes an umbrella for about a dozen interrelated but distinct scandals, all of which stem from presidential abuses of power, abuses of American civil liberties, the Nixon administration’s attempts to weaponize the government against its political enemies, and that carry straight from the campaign of 1968 through the summer of ’74, when Nixon finally resigns from office.

And so, my book and sort of where history, I think, is settling on the Watergate story is to look at the burglary as really just one event in this six years of, at least until then, unprecedented corruption and criminality inside the White House.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Garrett Graff, that actually begins even before Nixon actually becomes president, doesn’t it? Talk about the Chennault affair, the Anna Chennault affair, and how that affected, even as Nixon — the politics in the U.S., even as Nixon was running for president.

GARRETT GRAFF: Exactly. And this is one of those events that we didn’t understand, really until the last decade, was connected to Watergate at all. And yet we now understand, thanks to newly declassified documents from the Lyndon Johnson Presidential Library, that Watergate begins not with the burglary in '72, but with Nixon's campaign for president in the fall of 1968 — so, remember, fall ’68, Nixon, the former vice president, running against the sitting vice president, Hubert Humphrey.

Lyndon Johnson, the president, is desperately trying to bring the Vietnam War to a close, convening the Paris peace talks to wind down and find a resolution to the Vietnam War. And Richard Nixon, as a private citizen, presidential candidate, working with his campaign director, John Mitchell, interferes in the Paris peace talks with a woman named Anna Chennault, a Washington socialite. And Anna Chennault sends a message from the Nixon campaign to stall the South Vietnamese government, to tell them that Richard Nixon will give them a better deal as president.

And to put a very fine point on this, what we see — what we now understand is that Richard Nixon kept the Vietnam War going for his own political benefit in the fall of 1968 and kept American servicemen dying in the jungles of Vietnam, because he thought it would help him win that election.

In the final hours of the campaign, President Johnson discovers this treachery and confronts Richard Nixon. Richard Nixon denies it, and the clock runs out. Effectively, he wins the election before Johnson is able to take action. Johnson decides, for the good of the country, to bury this treachery. You know, these are some of the most serious, most credible allegations approaching outright treason that we have against any political figure in the 20th century, but Johnson decides he can’t undermine Nixon’s presidency before it begins.

But Nixon knows that Johnson knows, and this treachery, this secret, becomes this sort of Edgar Allan Poe tell-tale heart secret, beating away, eating away at the Nixon presidency, and drives Richard Nixon’s overreaction to the Pentagon Papers and, eventually, the creation of the White House Plumbers unit that leads to the dirty tricks operation in the '72 campaign. And so, this is a huge new secret that we're really only understanding in the last decade about where Watergate begins and just how closely linked Vietnam, the Pentagon Papers and Watergate actually turn out to be.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I wanted to ask you, though, taking it to the current January 6th hearings, if you could talk — compare the impact of Watergate with these hearings. And I wanted to quote from Chris Hedges. The former New York Times reporter and radical critic recently wrote that these hearings, he believes, are spectacle replacing politics. And he writes, “The committee echoes back to Trump opponents what they already believe. It is designed to present inaction as action and substitute role-playing for politics.” He actually compares these hearings more to the 1924 Weimar Republic trial of Adolf Hitler for his Bierhaus Putsch, that it really is more farce than politics. I’m wondering what your thoughts are, not only about Hedges, but the comparisons between the Watergate hearings and the current hearings, which are much more scripted than Watergate. Watergate was all live give-and-take, and this is all — a lot of it is actually video, playings of depositions, that are carefully crafted and selected, rather than a live give-and-take.

GARRETT GRAFF: Yeah, I think part of the challenge is, you know, we don’t know yet the full impact of the January 6th hearings. We don’t know whether it will lead to action or more inaction. We don’t know the evidence that is going to come forward and the political ramifications that are going to unfold.

I do think that one of the clearest analogues is this idea of trying to capture that January 6th was not an event as much as a mindset, and that actually Richard Nixon, in Watergate, and Donald Trump share this dark, criminal, conspiratorial mindset that drives and links together so many of their scandals. You know, just as we now understand Watergate as this collection and umbrella of a dozen distinct scandals, abuses of power and corruption schemes inside the Nixon administration, I think one of the things that is becoming more clear with the Trump administration is the way that all of the scandals of Donald Trump’s presidency are linked, that the Russian attack on the 2016 election — you know, the way it connects to the Mueller investigation, to Trump’s obstruction of justice, to that perfect telephone call with Ukraine, to the first impeachment, to the lies around the 2020 election, and eventually the insurrection on January 6th and the second impeachment, that it’s really all one story stemming from the paranoid and criminal and conspiratorial mind of Donald Trump.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Garrett Graff, I wanted to go back again, because when you talk about the dark and conspiratorial mind of Nixon, it is really incomprehensible why — for example, a year before the Watergate break-in, in June of 1971, Dan Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers. Nixon went crazy over these, but in no way did it implicate him. I mean, it implicated his enemies: Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. It was a secret history of the war in Vietnam. Nixon at that point was not a part of that. Explain why he then went off on that, and everything else that ensued.

GARRETT GRAFF: Yeah, well, and this has long been one of the great mysteries, which is — you are absolutely right — there are 2 million words in the Pentagon Papers, and not a single one of them is “Nixon.” These should have been one of the great political coups of his life. I mean, his two mortal enemies, JFK and LBJ, are slammed in these papers, and Nixon is not mentioned at all.

However, the key that we now understand, that has been unlocked in the last couple of years, that sort of gives us our understanding for the first time of Nixon’s overreaction to the Pentagon Papers, is this Chennault affair, which is that Nixon becomes afraid, in the wake of the Ellsberg release of the Pentagon Papers in June 1971, that as part of these leaks, that the documents documenting the Chennault affair will come out. He knows these documents exist. He doesn’t know where they are.

He comes to think that they’re actually at the Brookings Institution, the think tank in Washington. And so, he is on tape in the summer of 1971 ordering the only burglary that he’s actually on the White House tapes ordering, which isn’t of the Watergate in '72, but is of Brookings in 1971. And the White House, with G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt, the sort of overeager Plumbers who go on to become the “masterminds,” quote-unquote, of the Watergate burglary a year later, they come up with this fantastical, wild criminal plan to fire upon the Brookings Institution and bring in the same team of Cuban burglars that they use a year later in Watergate, and dress them up as D.C. firefighters, equip them with a secondhand D.C. fire truck and have them respond to the firebombing at Brookings and, in the chaos of the firefighting, break into Brookings, break into its safe and steal back these Chennault papers to keep Nixon's treason and treachery secret.

And the White House decides to abandon the plan, not because this is sort of wild and awful and criminal, but because they turn out to be too cheap to buy the fire truck. And that over the course of multiple days in the wake of the Pentagon Papers release, Nixon is storming in the Oval Office, repeatedly ordering this burglary and asking why it hasn’t been carried out. And what it amounts to is the creation of the Plumbers unit, which then goes on to break into Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office in the fall of 1971, one of the sort of related scandals that comes out later in Watergate and actually is the reason that the charges are ultimately dropped against Daniel Ellsberg, as you know, and that it sort of creates this unit with an overeager imagination and a sort of criminal rambunctiousness to punish Richard Nixon’s enemies inside the White House.

AMY GOODMAN: So, I just want to ask, why was Nixon — ultimately, the biggest deal was this burglary of the DNC, the Democratic National Committee, inside Watergate. Why was it all about that, and not the illegal bombing of Cambodia or why — the whole issue of Johnson, you know, understanding clearly Nixon had prolonged the war, the deaths of so many Vietnamese, but he was concerned about U.S. soldiers, so he could get elected?

GARRETT GRAFF: Yeah, and this is where, you know, it’s fascinating to go back and look at all of these events 50 years later, because the Watergate that has been handed down to us in popular culture, in history, you know, movies like All the President’s Men with Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, turn out to capture a very small slice of the overall story, and much of it has only become clear with the passage of time.

And that was really the goal of my book, to try to retell the full story of Watergate, start to finish, soup to nuts, because what becomes clear is that the guiding adage that we think is true out of Watergate — you know, the cover-up is always worse than the crime, which you hear in basically every modern political scandal — turns out not to be true in Watergate, that Richard Nixon’s crimes were many and quite terrible and serious abuses of power.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Garrett Graff, you note in your recent New York Times piece that the third lesson from the Watergate committee, quote, “underscores the vast gulf politically between 1973 and 2022,” especially the role of the Republicans on the committee and in Congress, more generally, who back then were good-faith participants. Could you talk about that comparison to the current hearings?

GARRETT GRAFF: Yeah, and you played a little bit of this time with — or, quote from Howard Baker in the introduction as he’s interrogating John Ehrlichman. What really stands out then and now — you know, obviously, Watergate, my book, is a story of 50 years ago, and it’s about Richard Nixon’s crimes and corruption. But Donald Trump looms over every page of this book on Watergate. You know, the parallels and the challenges to our country and our democratic system really ring across a half-century of American politics here.

But the biggest difference I think you see between then and now is the behavior of the Republican Party, that what — Watergate is a story of a criminal president, but it’s also, I think, a very hopeful story about how American democracy works and how our system can protect democracy. And you see the delicate ballet and role that every institution in American government and life had to play to bring Richard Nixon to justice in ’74 — you know, the press, the FBI, the Justice Department, the House, the Senate, the district court, the appeals court, the U.S. Supreme Court.

And when you compare that to the modern times, most of the rest of the system did its role. The media did the investigations that they were supposed to. The FBI, the Justice Department did what they were supposed to. And where holding President Trump to account fell apart was in the House and in the Senate. And where it fell apart was in the behavior of the Republicans, specifically, in Congress.

That in Watergate, you saw the Republican members of Congress understand that they had an important prerogative as members of the legislative branch to hold the co-equal executive branch to account, to keep its abuses of power in check, and that they had a role as legislators first, and only as partisan Republicans second. And that was true across the Republican spectrum in 1972, '73 and ’74. You know, you saw moderates like Lowell Weicker, you saw, you know, sort of solid Republicans like Howard Baker, and you saw even the conservative standard-bearer Barry Goldwater all play important roles in bringing Richard Nixon to justice, because they understood that protecting American democracy meant making sure that the executive branch didn't run out of control.

And what we see now is Republicans in Congress acting as partisans first and members of Congress second, if at all. And, in fact, the number of people who have — the number of Republicans who have acted to hold the presidency to account is short and getting shorter — you know, Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger on the January 6th committee; you know, we saw last night one of the very few Republicans who voted to impeach Donald Trump in the House lose his primary. You know, this is a pretty dark time for the behavior of the Republican Party.

AMY GOODMAN: Very quickly, how did Nixon go down? As you say, Trump, you know, sort of infuses this whole book when you look at the parallels. But you have Trump perhaps about to announce for again running for the presidency, but then you have Nixon going down. He wasn’t impeached; he resigned.

GARRETT GRAFF: Yes. And what you saw — you know, remember, those Watergate hearings in the summer of '73, it takes a full additional year for the scandal to play out. And you see the accumulation of Nixon's lies, the accumulation of the evidence of the cover-up becomes inescapable. You know, following the Saturday Night Massacre, his abuse of power in forcing the resignation of the leadership of the Justice Department, the firing of the special prosecutor investigating him, you know, really weighs on the Republicans in the Senate and in the House. And they decide, by the spring of ’74, that basically Nixon is unsaveable. And particularly in the wake of the Supreme Court decision that forces him to release the White House tapes that show his participation in the burglary cover-up, which he had long denied, the Republican Party made a decision to abandon him.

AMY GOODMAN: Garrett Graff, we want to thank you for being with us, journalist, historian, author of several books. His latest, Watergate: A New History. And we’ll link to your piece in The New York Times headlined “Three Critical Lessons of the Watergate Hearings That the Jan. 6 Committee Should Learn.”

Next up, President Biden addresses the AFL-CIO convention as delegates elect their first woman president and first African American secretary-treasurer. Stay with us.

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