During the House Jan. 6 committee hearing on June 21, I had a teenage flashback to the 1973 Senate Watergate hearings after hearing the word “cancer” used in a political context. Nearly five decades later, it is likely that millions of Americans have had similar flashbacks since that word was seared into our Watergate memories and is now equated to actions related to Jan. 6, 2021. And for that, we can thank committee member Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.).
Referencing former President Trump in his opening statement, Schiff said, “The president’s lie was and is a dangerous cancer on the body politic.”
For maximum historical impact, Schiff channeled the bombshell revelation by then-President Nixon’s former White House counsel John Dean during his testimony before the Senate Watergate Committee hearing on June 25, 1973. After being granted immunity, Dean recounted what he told Nixon in March 1973: “I began by telling the president that there was a cancer growing on the presidency, and if the cancer was not removed, the president himself would be killed by it.”
Forty-nine years later, could there be instructions for moving our nation beyond Trump by connecting Schiff’s “cancer on the body politic” with Dean’s “cancer growing on the presidency”? Yes, but first, some background.
While coming of age during the Watergate scandal, I believed that whatever crimes Nixon or his staff had committed, truth would prevail, perpetrators would be punished, our democracy would stay strong and our nation would move ahead.
The “cancer growing on the presidency” stemmed from wide-ranging attempts to cover up a bungled burglary inside the Watergate building headquarters of the Democratic National Committee on June 17, 1972. The men arrested were connected to Nixon’s Committee to Re-elect the President, aptly called CREEP.
Over two years, the cover-up metastasized, later revealing how Nixon illegally mobilized the FBI, CIA and IRS as political weapons against his enemies. Ultimately, on Aug. 8, 1974, Nixon resigned rather than face certain impeachment, conviction and removal from office for obstruction of justice, abuse of power and contempt of Congress.
Remember the Watergate outcome: 69 of Nixon’s henchmen were indicted, with 48 sent to jail, including the White House chief of staff and the attorney general; John Dean received just four months. Then, national outrage erupted when President Ford pardoned Nixon on Sept. 8, 1974. But years later, the pardon was characterized as a positive move for the nation.
Currently, Schiff’s description of Trump as unleashing a “cancer on the body politic” — the totality of all Americans — appears more egregious than any of Nixon’s crimes. If Trump’s actions go unpunished, they institutionally threaten our democracy, security and electoral system. Speaking for the Jan. 6 committee, Schiff said, “If you can convince Americans that they cannot trust their own elections, that any time they lose it is somehow illegitimate, then what is left but violence to determine who should govern.”
The mounting evidence of witnesses’ explosive testimony, including Cassidy Hutchinson’s (who appears to be the new John Dean), was summarized last week by Schiff: “President Trump and his campaign were directly involved in advancing and coordinating the plot to replace legitimate Biden electors with fake electors not chosen by the voters.”
All that culminated in a violent attack on the U.S. Capitol, preceded by Trump continually pressuring Vice President Mike Pence to commit an illegal act to keep himself in power. Trump’s actions stained the hallmark of American democracy — a smooth transition of power — dutifully followed by every president until the 45th attempted to subvert this revered constitutional order.
So what are the Watergate-learned instructions for moving our nation forward?
Attorney General Merrick Garland must fearlessly prosecute Trump and the Trump aides and elected members of Congress who assisted him in trying to undermine our democracy.
But every step Garland takes or chooses not to take is fraught with harrowing political risks that could alter the course of American history. If Garland’s Department of Justice decides to indict former President Trump, his ensuing trial could, and likely will, shred the cloth of a nation with split seams. Violent outbreaks could erupt, possibly fueled by Trump encouraging millions of his armed supporters to stand up.
Moreover, don’t put it past Trump to take preemptive measures shortly before or during prosecution by announcing that he is running for president in 2024 — making Garland’s actions appear more politically daunting.
Yet Garland not prosecuting Trump would be equally horrific. Our justice system must not fear punishing a former president who violently tried to cling to power and might have succeeded if not for well-positioned heroes at every level of government who stood up to Trump and bravely said “no.”
What follows is a multipart compromise based partly on Watergate:
First, Garland must prosecute and potentially convict all of the Trump underlings who assisted his illegal efforts, including members of Congress who asked for pardons.
Second, Trump must be indicted for crimes against the United States (or whatever is the appropriate legal language). At the same time, the Justice Department should make a concerted effort to educate the public about the overwhelming evidence for his conviction.
Third, before Trump heads to trial, Garland should offer him a compromise that avoids trial but precludes Trump from running for or holding public office. The compromise would include Trump making a live public statement apologizing to the American people for perpetuating lies about his election victory, the attempted overthrow and all the events related to Jan. 6, 2021.
Indicting Trump but avoiding a Trump trial is in our nation’s best interests. Nonetheless, the former president must be held accountable so America can move ahead and secure the integrity of future presidential elections.
“We need to get back to the solemn business of preserving, protecting and defending the Constitution of the United States and the United States of America,” said retired federal Judge J. Michael Luttig during his recent Jan. 6 committee testimony.
If not, our nation can expect chaos no matter which party wins in 2024.
Through the filter of history, Watergate is often associated with Nixon infamously saying, “I am not a crook.” And someday, Trump might one-up Nixon with this potential one-line zinger: “I did not stage a coup.”