Forty-four years ago, with his presidency under siege, Richard Nixon shuffled the top White House staff. It didn’t matter.
Today President Donald Trump is apparently considering reshuffling his White House staff. It won’t matter this time, either. The fundamental problem of a president unwilling to acknowledge his limits or listen to wisdom just can’t be solved that way.
In that long-ago spring, the Watergate scandal hadn’t exploded. Few thought that Nixon, who just six months earlier had won re-election by a landslide, would be forced from office. But the signs of a coverup were emerging and the problem wasn’t the staff. It was the president.
There’s no evidence of criminal behavior by Trump operatives at this point. By contrast, more than 30 people pleaded guilty or were convicted of crimes related to the 1972 break-in by Republican operatives at the Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington, including an attorney general and top White House officials. But Trump’s is nevertheless a troubled White House where the problem isn’t the staff. It’s the president.
I don’t doubt the accuracy of a Washington Post report on Monday that Trump revealed highly classified information in a meeting last week with Russian diplomats. And it’s safe to assume that the president was adequately briefed beforehand by his national security staff.
The problem is that Trump didn’t know enough or care enough to heed good advice. He virtually said as much himself in two tweets this morning:
“As President I wanted to share with Russia (at an openly scheduled W.H. meeting) which I have the absolute right to do, facts pertaining….
“…to terrorism and airline flight safety. Humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS & terrorism.”
Trump has a penchant for blaming others for his own mistakes. That proclivity was on shameful display last week after he fired James Comey as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, then blamed his communications staff for the outraged public response.
Staff shake-ups can matter. In the middle of a scandal involving illicit sales of arms to Iran, President Ronald Reagan dumped his chief of staff in 1987 and enlisted Howard Baker. The new chief helped the president get out of trouble, paving the way for successes in his final years.
But even if Trump could find a 2017 version of Baker, it wouldn’t matter. Unlike Reagan, Trump doesn’t listen. He’s a stranger to personal responsibility. Out of narcissism or insecurity, he thinks his instincts are superior to the wisdom and experience of others.
His Ivy League education at the University of Pennsylvania, of which he likes to brag, didn’t teach him these four words: It is my fault.
Conversations this week with a handful of top Republicans who have held high office reveal that leaders of Trump’s party understand his shortcomings and don’t expect him to change.
But that doesn’t mean a Republican revolt is coming soon. Most congressmen and senators think the Republican base is still with the president, and there’s little they can do now anyway. In some cases, they just want him to stay out of the way. Senate Republicans, for instance, are engaged in the uphill task of crafting a health-care overhaul knowing that Trump doesn’t know or care about the specifics.
History can be instructive. As a young reporter, I covered some of the Senate Watergate hearings and House Judiciary Committee deliberations in the 1970s.
I spent considerable time with influential Republicans as they wrestled with the fate of their president and party. A special focus was Barber Conable, an upstate New York Republican who commanded enormous respect in the House.
Conable had voted with Nixon more than any other House member; it’s easy to forget that Nixon advanced moderately conservative proposals that were attractive to policy-oriented lawmakers like Conable.
He also was a thoroughly decent politician — he never accepted a campaign contribution of more than $50 — and saw public service as a noble calling. Over the course of a year and a half, I watched his scant concern about White House shenanigans turn to puzzlement about how a smart president could countenance such behavior and then to the realization that high crimes had been committed.
By the summer of 1974, I had little doubt that Conable would vote to impeach Nixon. I was standing with him in the Speaker’s lobby off the House floor reading the United Press International wire service machine as it spat out news of the “smoking gun” tape showing that Nixon had participated in the coverup of the Watergate burglary. “The only question now,” said Conable, speaking of his friend, Vice President Gerald Ford, “is the orderly transfer of power.”
In the months ahead, looking for a contemporary version of Barber Conable may be more important than finding a new Howard Baker.
Albert Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.