Whatever Trump claimed to learn from Richard Nixon wasn’t enough, interview reveals

The lessons of Watergate, the president claims, informed him to not try to fire Robert Mueller, who the president repeatedly attempted to fire.

(Photo by © Bettmann/CORBIS/Bettmann Archive)
(Photo by © Bettmann/CORBIS/Bettmann Archive)

There are two reasons no one should think President Donald Trump committed obstruction of justice, according to President Donald Trump.

Each of them derives from the president’s allegedly close study of the Nixon era, Trump suggested to ABC’s George Stephanopoulos in an interview that aired Sunday morning.

The lengthy back-and-forth, filmed in multiple locations, sees the two repeatedly sparring over the basic findings of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s lengthy investigative report. The ABC host corrected Trump’s false assertion that the report found “no collusion” by reminding him that it in fact concluded there was insufficient evidence to merit criminal conspiracy charges and sufficient evidence to merit obstruction-of-justice charges against any other citizen.

For his part, Trump dug in on the collusion line in a clippy back-and-forth inside his armored limousine, before abruptly cutting the exchange off by hopping out of the car.


Later, with the two chatting inside the Oval Office, the subject once again emerged. Trump, reworking his position on the fly, insisted he couldn’t have possibly obstructed justice by telling his employees to fire Mueller because, according to him, “I was never gonna fire Mueller.”

This lack of intent, known only to Trump inside his heart, might not be sufficient to obviate the Mueller report’s unanswered questions as to whether he broke the law in repeated exhortations to former Attorney General Jeff Sessions and White House Counsel Don McGahn to fire Mueller. But whatever significance it might have to future legal or constitutional proceedings, Trump’s explanation of why he never would have pulled the Mueller trigger is notable.

“I wasn’t gonna fire. You know why? Because I watched Richard Nixon go around firing everybody, and that didn’t work out too well,” Trump said.

However, in the same exchange, Trump seemed to be somewhat at odds with the standard sort of wisdom one might obtain through a careful study of Nixon’s travails. Under questioning from Stephanopoulos, Trump embraced the Nixonian view of presidential power that his allies have brandished to stave off the most damning portions of Mueller’s findings. More than once, often in the same breath, the president insisted he’d never talked about firing the man investigating him and insisted that if he’d done so he’d have been perfectly within his rights.

“I would be allowed to fire Robert Mueller,” Trump said. “Article II allows me to do whatever I want. Article II would have allowed me to fire him.”


Article II of the U.S. Constitution does not actually provide the president with broad powers to “do whatever [the president] want[s],” including any Constitutionally-provided to obstruct justice.

Pressing further, Stephanpoulos quoted Nixon’s infamous aphorism that “when a president does it, it is not illegal,” Trump once again encouraged the “This Week” host to read Article II of the Constitution. The final resolution of that conversational thread is unknown, buried beneath another edit as the producers shift on to another portion of the pair’s far-ranging conversation, which repeatedly revolves back to the unsolved mysteries within the Mueller report and the president’s embattled status less than 18 months from Election Day 2020.

Elsewhere in the interview, Trump offered new insight into how he justifies his repeated, adamant, and false claims that he had zero business dealings with anyone in Russia.

“Do you know that I don’t even think they had a site? I don’t even think they knew who was gonna do the deal,” Trump said when Stephanopoulos noted he was pursuing a real estate deal in Moscow during the same months he repeatedly denied any such involvement in speeches to his supporters.

The ABC host pressed again, suggesting to the president that surely voters had had a right to know he was in talks about a Moscow project instead of hearing him mislead them on the topic.

“I wouldn’t mind telling ‘em,” Trump said. “I didn’t consider that pursuing a deal when you don’t even have a site.”


The flailing interview aired Sunday morning, days after leaks from the president’s reelection team revealed that the campaign’s own internal polling shows Trump in a deep hole across a wide range of states he’d need to win to be reelected. The Trump campaign fired some of the pollsters it believes were to blame for the leaks, NBC News reported Sunday morning.

Though other political operations might be thrilled to have expectations so dramatically lowered by internal polling leaks, the dynamics of Trump’s current situation are unusually complicated. The administration has made repeated pushes to foreground immigration and border security in the weeks since the full Mueller report arrived. That report was, in the week’s since gradually come to be widely understood as an impeachment referral, and not the exoneration Trump’s team claimed in the early days.

Though history tends to compress the timeline of Nixon’s own fall from grace, it actually took the better part of two years to play out. The current administration’s dogged efforts to draw a line below the Russia affair while projecting serenity and confidence going into a reelection campaign do not benefit from polling leaks which suggest he is more vulnerable in more places than conventional wisdom would suggest an incumbent with strong surface-level economic indicators should be — absent, of course, some sort of serious scandal.