Journalist and presidential historian Theodore H. White thought of Richard Nixon’s downfall as the consequence of a “breach of faith.” Perhaps it was a “myth,” White wrote, but it was important nonetheless that Americans believe that this office, conferring extraordinary power, would “burn the dross from [the president’s] character; his duties would, by their very weight, make him a superior man, fit to sustain the burden of the law, wise and enduring enough to resist the clash of all selfish interests.”
A president who frustrates this expectation, failing to exhibit the transformative effects of oath and office, will have broken faith with the American public. And yet, White believed that Nixon’s presidency had been an aberration. “[M]any stupid, hypocritical and limited men had reached that office,” he wrote. “But all, when publicly summoned to give witness, chose to honor the legends” of what the office required of a president’s behavior in office.
White’s understanding of what constitutes a “breach of faith” is well worth recalling in considering the presidency of Donald Trump. As White understood it, the term encompassed more than illegal conduct or participation in its cover-up. It was a quality of leadership—or more to the point, the absence of critical qualities—that defined a president’s “betrayal” of his office. What elevated Nixon’s misdeeds to a fatal constitutional flaw, forcing him to surrender his presidency, was the breaking of faith with the American people. Nixon brushed the legal and ethical limits on pursuing his own political and personal welfare. He held grudges and was vindictive; he looked to destroy his enemies rather than simply prevailing over them in hard, clean fights. He lied repeatedly to spare himself the costs of truth-telling.
All of this may be said of Donald Trump, but for a key difference: Nixon was anxious to conceal much of this behavior from public view.
Much has been said and written about Trump’s leadership style: the chronic resort to false claims; the incessant tweeting of taunts and personal attacks on his adversaries; the open undermining of members of his own administration; the abandonment of norms; the refusal to credit, respect or support the impartial administration of justice where his personal or political interests are stake; and the use of office to promote his personal business enterprises. By now, almost two years into his administration, it is clear that this is who he is.
Like Nixon, Trump seems to believe that his behavior is justified by the extraordinary and ruthless opposition of an “establishment”—comprised mainly of the media, the opposition party, and intellectuals—to his election and his politics. The similarity in these two presidents’ outlooks is striking. In the tape of an Oval Office conversation of March 13, 1973, as the Watergate scandal escalated, Nixon’s legal adviser, John Dean, suggested that the president should tell all. Dean argued that without a full account, the “press, the Democrats, the intellectuals” would never believe Nixon’s side of the story. In reply, the president snapped:
They got the hell kicked out of them in the election … Basically, it’s the media, uh, I mean it’s the Establishment. The Establishment is dying, and so they’ve got to show that … ‘well it just is wrong [the election] because … of this [Watergate].’ … They are trying to use this to smear the whole thing.
This is how Nixon saw things in comments he never expected would see the light of day. White argues that the exposure of Nixon’s thinking was a critically significant consequence of the release of the Watergate tapes: They were important not only as the “smoking gun” evidence that sealed Nixon’s fate, but because they captured the president in the raw, as he spoke and deliberated. They revealed “a vulgarity of language, an indecision of tone and a profanity of such commonness as to make the imaginative level of Lyndon Johnson’s obscenities seem artful by comparison.” Nixon was not leading, he was conspiring; and the coarse language he used seemed to fit well with the underhanded strategies he was devising to save himself.
So Nixon’s breach of faith consisted, at least in part, of how he led, not just of what he did. The office failed to “burn the dross from his character.” He was shown to be unfit. Republican leaders in Congress who read the tape transcripts began to turn decisively away from him. His public support withered. It matters, of course, that in what they deemed the president’s interest, his aides had planned and committed clearly illegal activities. As importantly, at critical moments when Nixon could have chosen differently, the president lied about what he knew and when, while actively plotting to obstruct justice. But in White’s account, the decisive breach of faith lay in how this had come to this pass: the sort of leader Nixon was. On this question, and not only as evidence of illegal conduct, the tapes were devastating.
Trump shows himself all the time to be what Nixon sought to conceal. Trump repeats his version of Nixon’s counter-“establishment” narrative, publicly insisting that it explains why he must reject the legitimacy of the inquiry into what may prove to be his Watergate—Russian electoral interference and possible collusion by his campaign. As Trump sees the world, those who would question his campaign’s political involvement with Russia are liars, engaged in a cynical “witch hunt” in order to taint his election and bring him down.
But unlike Nixon, Trump does not feel that his office compels him to honor—even to pay lip service—to the legal process. He has never suggested, as did Nixon when speaking to the country in April 1974, that his “first and obvious” responsibility is “to find out just exactly what had happened and who was involved … [to see] that justice was done, fairly and according to the law.” As became clear from the irrefutable evidence of the tapes, Nixon didn’t mean it. But he understood that a president would have to appear to keep the faith. Trump does not bother with any such pretense.
Trump has gone even further, moving systematically to discredit the system of justice and firing in some cases, vilifying in others, those who have stood behind the need for an independent investigation in the Russia matter. He is now experimenting with new tools of retribution, as in revoking former CIA director John Brennan’s security clearance as express punishment for his role in the early phases of the Russia investigation.
Trump is going where Nixon would not go, openly flaunting his breach of faith. Ret. Adm. William McRaven has now powerfully made this case in an Aug. 16 letter to the president, in which McRaven asked that his own security clearance be withdrawn so that he could stand with Brennan. Trump, McRaven wrote, is a bad leader who has abysmally failed to “rise to the occasion” upon election to the presidency. “Through your actions, you have embarrassed us in the eyes of our children, humiliated us on the world stage and, worst of all, divided us as a nation.” McRaven omits any claims or concerns about “collusion.” He is speaking only to the leadership qualities missing in Donald Trump, such as “putt[ing] the welfare of others before himself or herself.”
Trump does not appreciate that when the purely legal accounting of his actions arrives, its significance will be subject to judgment in the light of these profound leadership issues at the heart White’s notion of “breach of faith.” He might try to pass off the responsibility for any direct or indirect Russian contacts to his son, Roger Stone, and others, and he might dismiss as harmless his own public call for Russian assistance in locating missing Clinton emails. He will strive to minimize active misrepresentations to the public, accomplished, for example, through the wholly misleading and incomplete account of the Russian meeting with the campaign in Trump Tower in the summer of 2016 that, he dictated to his eldest son. He will claim that presidents can obstruct justice if so inclined, because it is their constitutional right to do so.
Thinking about his defense in these terms, Trump will have missed, maybe fatally, the key point: The charge that a president has broken faith with the American people is more than a legal charge and cannot be disposed of with a legal defense.
What is in question, rather than only a determination of legal responsibility, is Trump’s fitness to hold office. As the president looks to undermine the ongoing special counsel investigation by bullying and punishing his critics, he is providing the most damaging evidence yet in a future case for impeachment.