If you’re of a certain age — and I confess I’ve been at that age for a good while now — you can’t listen to the damning Trump/classified document tape without thinking back to its obvious precursor.

Yes, the Nixon Watergate tapes. 

I miss Nixon. In my youth, he served as a moral compass, the man who could always be counted on to inform my thinking on the difference between right and wrong. If I wanted to be right, and often I did, I just stood 180 degrees from wherever Nixon stood — unless he was signing, say, a clean air bill — and could be confident that I’d made the good, decent and honest choice.

Trump’s place in America is a little more complicated. He’s not just a former-for-now president. He’s a cult figure, with a raised-on-Fox-News following of tens of millions, some of whom would even assault the Capitol in order to try to keep him in office.

The scariest thing about Trump is not that he was elected president, which was obviously scary enough, but that even after Trump’s four disastrous years in the White House, 73 million people — most of them not cultists — still voted to reelect him. 

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And now, of course, Trump is running again. And not just running. As you know, according to the still-too-early and hardly infallible national polling, Trump is running away with the GOP primary race. That’s despite the two indictments he’s facing, with more indictments probably on the way. Or maybe it’s because of the two indictments he’s facing with more almost certainly yet to come.

I told you. It’s complicated. Trump may be a narcissist and a sociopath and a demagogue and a congenital liar, just for starters, but still it’s complicated. It will take years and many biographers to figure out how Trump came about and the hold that Trumpism would have on so many Americans.

Nixon was easier. Yes, he was elected twice. Yes, in 1972, he won 49 states when beating George McGovern. But still, no one actually liked Nixon. The joke at the time was that Nixon’s mother — whom he called a saint — might have been the lone exception.

Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic presidential candidate who lost twice to Dwight Eisenhower and running mate Richard Nixon, once spoke of a place called Nixonland — “a land of slander and scare; the land of sly innuendo, the poison pen, the anonymous phone call and hustling, pushing, shoving; the land of smash and grab and anything to win.”

The expletive-deleted Nixon tapes proved Stevenson right, of course. Even if you weren’t alive at the time, you know the story. It was probably in your high school history books, at least if you were in high school when such books were allowed to have actual history in them. 

To recap, when Watergate had exploded and Woodward and Bernstein were riding high, most Republicans still stood with Nixon and against any move to impeach him. That is, until that dramatic day when White House aide Alex Butterfield told the Senate Watergate Committee that Nixon had taped everything in the Oval Office and elsewhere.

You know the rest. The tapes revealed that Nixon knew all about the Watergate burglary and the plumbers and the coverup and all the rest. The facts became so hard to deny that most of Nixon’s GOP allies abandoned him, leading to Nixon’s resignation and to Gerald Ford’s unfortunate pardon. 

From that time, every Washington scandal would have a “gate” affixed to it. And every “gate” required a smoking gun.

And now?

Now, we can listen to the 2021 tape, first published by CNN, which is a recording of Trump sharing classified documents about a contingency plan to attack Iran. It’s hard to think of a document that would be more sensitive. In any case, it’s definitely smoking. 

The most serious indictment Trump faces at the moment is about his mishandling — that’s the nice way to describe it — of the classified documents he took with him from the White House and then hid in various rooms at Mar-a-Lago. Much of what’s on the tape is transcribed in the indictment against Trump, but listening to the tape is, let’s just say, a different experience.

What might be most striking about the tape — beyond the grating laughter from the toadies listening and cheering him on, even beyond the jokey carelessness with which Trump handles the documents — is that Trump was showing the classified papers in order, he believed, to disprove Gen. Mark Milley’s concern that Trump could begin a war with Iran as a way to remain in office.

Trump said what he called a “secret” and “highly confidential” document proved that it was Milley and the Defense Department — and not Trump  — who were contemplating war. All you can guess from listening is that Trump, the former president, doesn’t seem to understand what a contingency plan is. 

When you listen to the tape, you know, too, that Trump was lying when he told Bret Baier on Fox News that the papers he was holding were just newspaper clippings and the like. Of course, he was lying. But there’s no denying it now, not after Trump is heard to say the papers were classified and that he couldn’t declassify them as a former president. That also put the lie to the idea that, as president, he had declassified all the purloined documents simply by thinking about declassifying them.

I wonder what Trump thinks now. He might be thinking that he wishes Rose Mary Woods were still around. If you read his ravings on Truth Social, he’ll tell you that the tape is somehow a total “exoneration” and that, of course, prosecutor Jack Smith is “deranged” and a “thug.”

You’ve heard it. I’ve heard it. Everyone who wants to hear it can hear it.

And yet, where’s the wholesale abandonment this time from Republicans? Does evidence — even evidence recorded for your listening pleasure — not matter any more?

Well, House Speaker-for-now Kevin McCarthy is saying it’s time to look into impeaching Attorney General Merrick Garland. Lauren Boebert and Marjorie Taylor Greene are battling about which one should be first in line to force an impeachment vote on Joe Biden. The primary polls show Trump getting a bump with each charge against him. Most of Trump’s primary rivals are afraid to even mention the indictment, much less the tape.

So, yeah, I miss Nixon. He was a crook. And, in the end, hardly any sentient being could deny it.

Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow. Sign up for Mike’s newsletter.

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