The day after President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, he tweeted, “When things calm down, they will be thanking me!” But that hasn’t happened yet.
Comey’s firing on May 9 garnered the commander in chief derision and criticism from people across the aisle, as reported by the Washington Post, New York Times and other news outlets. As soon as reports of the firing became public, media corporations began comparing the event to President Nixon’s actions during the Watergate scandal, Nixon’s attempted cover-up of illegal spying during the 1972 presidential election.
In a press release shortly after the announcement, the White House cited Comey’s mishandling of the Clinton email investigation as grounds for termination. As head of the FBI, Comey oversaw the investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia during the 2016 election.
The so-called “Comeygate” is not a modern-day Watergate. Comparing the presidencies of Trump and Nixon is more harmful than helpful in understanding the two different men and the controversies surrounding them. Most importantly, conflating the two presidents overestimates Trump’s political skill.
Trump isn’t Nixon — he isn’t smart enough.
To be fair, Trump’s actions were unquestionably legal. The U.S. Constitution empowers the president to appoint and fire principal officers in his cabinet and government.
The director of the FBI serves at the pleasure of the president, something which Comey reaffirmed in his opening statements to the Senate Intelligence Committee on June 8.
“Even though I was appointed to a 10-year term, which Congress created in order to underscore the importance of the FBI being outside of politics and independent,” Comey said, “I understood that I could be fired by a president for any reason or for no reason at all.”
Nixon’s actions, on the other hand, were illegal.
After the Watergate break-in, then-attorney general Elliot Richardson appointed an independent special prosecutor to investigate potential acts of presidential impropriety. Archibald Cox, former U.S. solicitor general, quickly saw paths of corruption leading straight toward the Oval Office.
When Cox subpoenaed Nixon for the release of privately recorded tapes that would prove his complicity in the Watergate break-ins, Nixon pressured his attorney general to fire him. In what would be soon called the Saturday Night Massacre, both Richardson and his replacement resigned rather than bowing to the illegal order from President Nixon.
Both Nixon and Trump’s reactions smack of hidden guilt. Both probably attempted to prevent investigations into the White House. But only Trump was in the clear to do what he did.
Even more importantly, the outcomes of the scandals will most likely be different.
According to the U.S. House of Representatives website, Democrats controlled both the House and Senate in 1973. This was in spite of Nixon’s landslide reelection a month prior. This meant that Nixon could easily be impeached and removed from office.
A majority of the House needs to vote in favor to impeach a sitting president and two thirds of the Senate needs to vote in favor to convict and remove the president from office. Two presidents have been impeached — Clinton and Johnson — but none have ever been removed from office.
If Nixon had not resigned before his impeachment trial, he surely would have been removed from office.
Trump, on the other hand, has a majority of Republicans in both the House and Senate. This means that his own party would have to abandon their commander in chief in order to remove him from office.
President Trump has the potential to survive this scandal. David Greenberg at the Washington Post argues that Trump is much more secure than Nixon because of the polarization of Congress. Before Nixon’s resignation, Republicans were inundated with calls and telegrams urging action on Watergate. Now, however, Republican lawmakers have faced angry constituents and packed town hall meetings, and haven’t changed their opinions on Trump and his agenda.
Even though upcoming congressional elections could change the makeup of Congress and put Trump in hot water, Trump has a history of overcoming obstacles and prolonged legal battles.
Although the two stories may sound similar, they are about different people in different situations with different backgrounds. Forcing a political event into the mold of a well-known political scandal waters down the intricacies of the new scandal as well as the importance of the old scandal.
Though “Comeygate” grabs readers’ attentions, framing Comey’s firing as a Watergate-like scandal distorts what it really is: a bad but legal firing by a man famous for saying, “You’re fired.”
The public should question comparisons to historical figures in popular media. Active questioning allows readers to learn more about the issues and holds members of the media accountable to their comparisons.
If people really thought about Trump’s actions, maybe they’d see Trump for what he truly is: unpresidential.
Seamus Howard studies modern American history at UC Berkeley.