A half-century before Donald Trump dismissed the four criminal cases against him as a “witch hunt,” a defensive President Richard M. Nixon famously declared, “I’m not a crook.”
Nixon made the comment 50 years ago Friday, on Nov. 17, 1973, at Disney World in Florida as the Watergate scandal was swirling around him. It came a month after what became known as the Saturday Night Massacre, when Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus resigned rather than carry out Nixon’s order to fire Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox. Then Solicitor General Robert Bork fired Cox.
Now Nixon was addressing 400 people at the Associated Press Managing Editors annual convention in an hour-long televised question-and-answer session, where he said he never obstructed justice. “People have got to know whether or not their president is a crook,” he said. “Well, I’m not a crook.”
While declarative, his protestation of innocence didn’t have the same animus as Trump’s response to the criminal charges he’s faced in four different cases this year. Following his latest criminal charges, related to his efforts to overturn his loss in Georgia in the 2020 election, he told Fox Business that the prosecution was a witch hunt.
“I have four of them now, if you look. I mean, this is not even possible,” he complained. “Four, over the next, last couple of months. And frankly, it discredits everything. And they’re all very similar in the sense that they’re, there’s no basis for them.” Earlier, he called special counsel Jack Smith, who is overseeing criminal charges against Trump in two federal cases, a “deranged lunatic.”
Nixon, too, would often attack his critics, especially his perceived enemies in the press. For example, a few days after the Saturday Night Massacre, Nixon complained of “frantic, hysterical reporting” on the episode and said, “I have never heard or seen such outrageous, vicious, distorted reporting in 27 years of public life.” Later, when a reporter asked why he was so angry, the president replied with a smile, “Don’t get the impression that you arouse my anger. You see, one can only be angry with those he respects.”
But he was much more cordial in his meeting with the editors, who hailed from 43 states.
“In contrast with some of his recent appearances, he did not berate his critics or his political enemies,” the New York Times observed at the time.
Earlier that year, the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein had reported that Nixon and his top political aides viewed the Senate Watergate hearings as a “political witch hunt.” Trump has used “witch hunt” as a go-to line to attack his enemies.
“I learned a lot from Richard Nixon,” Trump said in an interview with Fox News in May 2020, when he was still president. “Don’t fire people. I learned a lot. I study history.” He added that there were differences between him and his fellow Republican president.
“No. 1, he may have been guilty,” Trump said. “And No. 2, he had tapes all over the place. I wasn’t guilty. I did nothing wrong. And there were no tapes.”
Some 30 years before Trump won the presidency, Nixon sent him fan mail about Trump’s appearance on the daytime talk show “Donahue.” “I did not see the program, but Mrs. Nixon told me you were great on the Donahue Show,” the former president wrote to the future one in 1987. “As you can imagine, she is an expert on politics and she predicts that whenever you decide to run for office you will be a winner!” He signed the letter “RMN.”
The Post described Nixon as tense and nervous but not flustered by any of the questions at his 1973 meeting with the editors at Disney World, about 170 miles northwest of where Trump would set up residence at his Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Fla.
Nixon made a couple of macabre jokes at his own expense. When asked about energy conservation – a big issue at the time – he told the editors he flew to the event without a backup plane.
“The Secret Service didn’t like it, communications didn’t like it, but I don’t need a backup plane. If this one goes down, it goes down – and then they don’t have to impeach,” he said, to laughter.
When an editor asked him what he planned to do after he left the White House, Nixon didn’t miss a beat. “I think it depends on when I leave!” he said, drawing more laughs. In fact, the president would last less than nine more months in office, before resigning in the face of certain impeachment and removal from office.
He might have made a Freudian slip when an editor asked about former top aides John D. Ehrlichman and H.R. Haldeman. “I hold that both men and others who have been charged are guilty until we have evidence that they are not guilty,” Nixon said. His press secretary later got a questioner to suggest that he misspoke – and Nixon thanked the person for correcting him. But Nixon had it right the first time. Both men went to prison for their roles in the Watergate scandal.
Harry Rosenfeld, the assistant managing editor for metropolitan news at the Post, asked about reports that the Secret Service had tapped the telephone of his brother, Donald Nixon, at the president’s direction. Nixon replied that the agency “did so for security reasons, and I will not go beyond that. They were very good reasons, and my brother was aware of it.”
Then the president, who had long been livid at the Post’s aggressive and groundbreaking coverage of the Watergate scandal, which Rosenfeld helped oversee as Woodward and Bernstein’s direct supervisor, had yet another quip: “And may I say, too, to my friend from the Washington Post, I like your sport page. Be sure [sports columnist Shirley] Povich isn’t paid too much for what I just said then.” (Nixon was a huge sports fan; in 1972, for example, he wrote a story for the Associated Press listing his picks for the greatest baseball players of all time.)
Before Nixon’s appearance, the Associated Press Managing Editors Association presented the Post with the Freedom of Information Award “for its tenacious coverage of the Watergate story.”
When Nixon was asked again about the tapping of his brother’s phone, he elaborated, “The surveillance involved not what he was doing. The surveillance involved what others who were trying to get him, perhaps to use improper influence and so forth might be doing. And particularly anybody who might be in a foreign country.”
Two months earlier, the Post had reported that Nixon had ordered the tapping out of concern that his brother’s financial activities could embarrass the administration.
Today, President Biden is dealing with headaches from his own family members. Last week, the GOP-led House Oversight and Accountability Committee issued subpoenas to his son and brother in its probe of the Biden family’s finances.
The Times reported that some of Nixon’s answers were as long as 12 minutes, while others were as short as one minute.
“The political importance of the occasion and the sober comportment of the editors was in sharp contrast to the setting,” the paper wrote. “Mr. Nixon spoke in a gaudily modern room – blue draperies, orange chairs, mirrors on the ceiling – near the monorail line that passes through the hotel and leads to the Magic Kingdom.”