Some presidents have really bad years.
For Nixon, it was 1974 — the Watergate year, which ended with his resignation. For Clinton, it was 1998 — the Monica year, which culminated with an impeachment trial in the Senate in 1999. He won that vote easily and came out more popular than before.
It’s a good guess that Donald Trump’s really bad year will be 2019. And it’s not yet clear whether he’ll survive, like Clinton, or be forced out of office, like Nixon.
Nixon’s worst year resulted from crimes in his 1972 reelection effort, when burglars working for the campaign got caught breaking into the Democratic headquarters, and then Nixon and others conspired to stop the break-in investigation and cover up what had happened.
The events that brought Clinton to an impeachment trial in the Senate had nothing to do with his political campaigns. His misdeeds were strictly personal: He had sex with a White House intern, Monica Lewinsky, and then denied it under oath.
The storm clouds gathering around Trump involve both the personal and the political. More than a dozen federal and state investigations are underway focused on Trump and those who worked on his election effort. He will also soon be facing aggressive congressional investigations by the House Democrats.
It’s easy to get lost in the details of Russiagate and the guilty pleas of Trump associates involved in a range of crimes, but what is developing is not that complicated: It’s a political corruption scandal with the potential to be larger than anything we’ve seen before in American history.
The infamous Trump Tower meeting, where Don Jr., Jared Kushner and campaign chief Paul Manafort met with a Russian operative offering help in the election, could turn out to be far worse than anything that happened in Watergate. And Trump’s sexual troubles would be worse than Clinton’s, too, if he is found to have violated campaign funding laws in trying to buy the silence of women he slept with.
Still, there are many similarities between Trump’s troubles and earlier presidential scandals — along with some differences.
Both Nixon and Clinton faced allegations of obstruction of justice. They were tripped up not so much by the acts themselves, but rather by attempts to cover them up.
Obstruction is also a focus of the investigations facing Trump. For Trump, the possible obstruction involves his efforts to stop the Russiagate investigation and his firing of FBI Director James Comey.
Trump is also facing potential charges that neither Nixon nor Clinton had to deal with. The biggest question is whether Russiagate was a quid pro quo in which Russia offered to help Trump win the election in exchange for Trump easing Russia sanctions. We will probably learn more this year about what Russia did, exactly, during the election, both with “information influence” spread through social media and cyberattacks on the Dems. But the big question will remain what the Trump campaign knew about those efforts, and who exactly was in the loop.
I’m betting that, in the end, Trump resigns and gets an advance pardon for himself and his children.
Trump also faces campaign finance issues that neither Nixon nor Clinton had to deal with. If, as Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen has said, Trump directed that payments be made to two women to keep them silent during the election campaign, then the payments could be construed as illegal campaign contributions.
Trump also faces allegations that he violated the emoluments provision of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits federal officeholders from receiving payments from foreign or state governments while in office. The attorneys general of the District of Columbia and Maryland argue that Trump violated the emoluments clause by receiving money from foreign governments while holding office, through hotels owned by his family.
And if that weren’t enough, Trump also faces investigations into alleged illegalities at the Trump Foundation and in the fundraising and spending by his inauguration committee.
Nixon’s troubles hold another possible caution for Trump in a year when committees in the House will almost certainly be subpoenaing the president’s tax returns. For Nixon, news that he had violated tax laws by taking an illegal write-off did a lot to turn the public against him. Nixon had backdated the deed of gift of his papers to the National Archives in order to take his write-off in a more advantageous year.
People who shrugged off Watergate on the grounds that “everybody does it” were outraged that the president had claimed an illegal deduction of $576,000 — the equivalent today of more than $3 million.
We don’t know whether Trump’s tax returns contain dubious write-offs, but it seems likely we’ll find that out this year — and also, perhaps, whether the public is more forgiving of him than of Nixon for tax shenanigans.
Both Clinton and Nixon faced impeachment proceedings. The House Judiciary Committee voted articles of impeachment in 1974 against Nixon, but the full House never voted on them, and the Senate never held an impeachment trial. He resigned before that — and was promptly pardoned by his successor, his former vice president, Gerald Ford, for any crimes he may have committed. Clinton was impeached by the House and went on to face a Senate trial, which fell far short of the required two-thirds vote for conviction.
I’m betting that, in the end, Trump resigns and gets an advance pardon for himself and his children. That may not happen until 2020, but in the meantime, 2019 will be the worst year of his life.
Jon Wiener is a historian and a contributing editor to the Nation. He is the author of “How We Forgot the Cold War: A Historical Journey Across America.”