[Opinion] Echoes of Watergate, Pentagon Papers and imperial president

President Trump’s narcissistic claim that the search of his lawyer’s office was an “attack on our country” echoed from the days of Watergate, the Pentagon Papers and the imperial presidency.

Trump, like President Nixon, is conflating himself with the country, mistaking his welfare for the nation’s.

The press has a special role disabusing presidents of this grandiose delusion that they are above the law.

It was the press that told the American people the story of the Pentagon Papers and the long line of presidents who had lied about Vietnam.

Nixon feared the top-secret history of the Vietnam War would pull back the curtain on the myth of presidential infallibility.  And it did.

H.R. Haldeman, the president’s chief of staff, put it this way during a June 14, 1971 Oval Office conversation with Nixon:

“But out of the gobbledygook, comes a very clear thing: …you can’t trust the government; you can’t believe what they say; and you can’t rely on their judgment; and the – the implicit infallibility of presidents, which has been an accepted thing in America, is badly hurt by this, because it shows that people do things the President wants to do even though it’s wrong, and the President can be wrong.”

A year later, Nixon’s illegal conduct was revealed by the Washington Post during the Watergate scandal and displayed to the American people in the secret White House recordings Nixon had to surrender.

After he was forced from office, Nixon gave an interview to David Frost, in which he was shockingly candid about this belief that the president is above the law.

Frost asked, “Would you say that there are certain situations….where the president can decide that it’s in the best interests of the nation, and do something illegal?”

Nixon: Well, when the president does it, that means it is not illegal.

Frost: By definition.

Nixon: Exactly, exactly.

Trump delivered his tantrum, arms-across-his chest, at a meeting Monday with his glum-faced cabinet convened to respond to the horrific chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians.

But the president wanted to talk about himself.  He wanted to talk more about the extremely unfair attack upon him than the inhumane attack on Syrians.

 “So, I just heard that they broke in to the office of one of my personal attorneys, a good man, and it’s a disgraceful situation.”

A break-in is hardly the way one would expect to hear a president describe a legal search approved by his top Justice Department appointees and a federal judge.  Especially when there was no break-in.  Michael Cohen, the lawyer, says the FBI agents were “courteous.”

And “good man” is not exactly the way the president usually refers to the target of a criminal investigation – although it is a frequent adjective in Trump’s vocabulary for his growing gallery of wrong doers, such as Rob Porter and Michael Flynn.

In one amazing sentence the president linked the American military and the crisis in Syria with his own legal troubles, arguing it was unfair for him to have to face this “witch hunt” when he was making important decisions about the Middle East.

“Here we are talking about Syria, we’re talking about a lot of serious things with the greatest fighting force ever, and I have this witch hunt constantly going on for over 12 months now …And it’s a disgrace, it’s frankly a real disgrace. It’s an attack on our country in a true sense. It’s an attack on what we all stand for. …that is really now in a whole new level of unfairness.”

Actually, in every true sense this is not an attack on the country.   Nor does it undermine the legal protection for the lawyer-client relationship, as Trump claimed.  Confidentiality doesn’t extend to lawyers helping their clients violate the law.

After Trump’s remarks Monday, a Fox reporter, Jon Decker, tossed him a question he apparently wanted to answer:

REPORTER:  Why don’t you just fire Mueller?

TRUMP: Why don’t I just fire Mueller?

REPORTER: Yeah, just fire the guy.

TRUMP: Well, I think it’s a disgrace, what’s going on. We’ll see what happens. But I think it’s really a sad situation when you look at what happened. And many people have said you should fire him.

Trump apparently mouthed “thank you” to Decker as he walked out of the room.

The last time the nation went through this — the last time we had a president accused of dirty election tricks and obstruction of justice,  the last time we had a president who saw the press as a mortal enemy, the last time we had a president who thought he was above the law and that his interest was synonymous with the nation’s — things worked out.  The process worked.  The courts and Congress, with a big assist from the press and the American people, forced the president out of office.

Will the system work this time?