Donald Trump already faced more than 30 charges related to his illegal retention of classified documents—in addition to a grab bag of alleged felonies in a number other cases. So when prosecutors added three more charges against Trump last week, it was never going to turn Trump’s legal or political fortunes upside down.
Trump now faces two new counts of obstruction of justice over his attempts to erase security footage at Mar-a-Lago, as well as a new Espionage Act violation over his alleged possession of an Iran war plan that he waved around during an interview.Donald Trump
While the superseding indictment may not seem any more serious than the original charges, they could substantially aid special prosecutor Jack Smith in getting a conviction—both in the public’s eye and in an actual courtroom.
As Richard Nixon taught America: It’s not the crime; it’s the coverup. And with this new evidence, that Trump directed assistants to wipe a computer server that would show security footage at his South Florida club—evidence that Trump not only knew he was doing something wrong, but also that he tried to conceal the whole affair—Smith may have the smoking gun. Just like Nixon’s accusers did when they found out the president wouldn’t turn over White House tapes—and that there was an 18-minute gap in the audio.
Presidential scholars told The Daily Beast that the parallels between Trump and Nixon weren’t difficult to draw.
“I couldn’t help thinking of that Peter, Paul and Mary line: ‘When will they ever learn?’” said Barbara Ann Perry, presidential studies professor at the University of Virginia.
“It’s not an instance of the coverup being worse than the crime,” she stressed. “We know he’s broken the law of the Presidential Records Act. We don’t have to debate that… and he allegedly waved this document around about war plans with Iran—the most secret of documents—that put our military service men and women in harm’s way. What is more damning than that?”
The superseding indictment lays out how, just two hours after hearing from his lawyer that the feds had subpoenaed camera footage outside a Mar-a-Lago storage room that was illegally housing boxes filled with classified records, Trump put out word that he wanted to speak to his Diet Coke valet, Walt Nauta.
Over the next few days in June of last year, Nauta and Mar-a-Lago maintenance worker Carlos De Oliveira scoped out the cameras. De Oliveira allegedly pulled the estate’s IT director, identified by The New York Times as Yuscil Taveras, into an “audio closet” to quietly let him know “the boss” wanted the server deleted. Prosecutors say the IT director pushed back, questioning whether he even had the permission to do that, directing both Trump lackeys to the Trump Organization’s security director.
The idea that Trump hatched a plan to destroy evidence dramatically increases the seriousness of the case against him, threatening to amplify his infamy in the history books. And if proven at trial next year, it could very well derail his ambitions to return to the White House in 2025.
Presidential scholars told The Daily Beast that Trump is cementing himself in history as the closest progeny of Nixon’s notorious lawlessness.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about the Trump-Nixon stuff,” said American University professor Chris Edelson, who studies the power of the presidency.
Both men were driven to act by a relentless obsession with remaining in power, scholars noted.
“The two of them have what my family would call a ‘mental aberration’—a personality disorder of some kind. Their desire to be president and remain president causes them to act illegally,” Perry said. “This is so Shakespearean… Nixon brought himself down, and we don’t know how this will end for Trump. “
And their self-serving justifications are the same.
“Nixon believed that he was justified in committing crimes because he assumed the Democrats were doing the same thing… Trump is the same,” Edelson said, pointing to a section of the recent indictment that lays out how Trump nudged his lawyers to resist federal investigators by mischaracterizing actions undertaken by an attorney for his one-time political archenemy, Hillary Clinton.
“There’s a part in there where Trump is praising Hillary Clinton’s lawyer, saying they got rid of all this stuff. He has this fantasy that other people are breaking the law, so he can do the same thing. And I suspect that’s how he justified this too, like Nixon, who believed the other side is terrible,” Edelson said.
But the parallels don’t stop there. Presidential scholars noted that Nixon was eventually undone by his role directing underlings to commit additional crimes to hide previous ones. As time went on, investigators began to squeeze out information from the burglars who broke into the Watergate Office Building that then served as the Washington headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.
“The biggest problem for Nixon was how intimately he became involved in the coverup. There were just so many people involved. The burglars start talking and other people working for the committee to reelect the president. That’s the problem for Trump too,” Edelson said. “That’s the thing about conspiracies. You have to make sure everyone keeps their mouth shut.”
Trump’s indictment, which cites phone calls and text messages with exact dates and times, makes clear that Smith’s investigators have collected people’s private phone communications and have also interviewed several Mar-a-Lago employees.
It’s also telling that prosecutors waited 50 days to add De Oliveira’s name to the original indictment, hinting at a quiet effort to get additional information from him or others before bringing down the hammer on someone who could serve as a key witness.
Nixon’s decision to cover up evidence of his crimes seems to have been prompted by his fear that John W. Dean III, a White House lawyer who had started talking to Watergate prosecutors, would lay out a roadmap that led straight to the top. The Washington Post, which famously covered the scandal, also discovered decades later that Nixon had suggested they ought to “get rid” of Oval Office recordings in April 1973, months before the public ever heard that they even existed.
“Well, the hell with Dean,” Nixon told his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman—also on tape. “Frankly, I don’t want to have in the record discussions we’ve had in this room on Watergate.”
The American public might find out more about Trump’s tape-deletion scheme at the scheduled May 2024 trial in Fort Pierce, Florida, where prosecutors will have to share the evidence in court.
So far, the indictment only implies that a conversation took place. It notes that Nauta, after hearing that the former president wanted to speak with him, suddenly changed his plans to travel with Trump to Illinois and instead went to Florida on a low-key mission that came straight from the top.
Nixon faced a Republican Party that couldn’t stomach being led by a humiliated and disgraced politician. Today’s GOP has so far remained loyal to Trump, no matter the embarrassment.
“I think Trump sees it’s in his best interest to keep fighting, because his only way out at this point is to win an election and pardon himself—or get the Department of Justice to shut this down,” Edelson said.
And that leads to what former journalist Luke Nichter, now a presidential historian at Chapman University, calls the real takeaway here.
“Nixon was never ready for battle, ready to mount the defense the way Reagan did with Iran-Contra,” he said. “With Trump’s base, you could impeach him 10 times. That’s the lesson of Nixon and Watergate: It pays to be partisan. It doesn’t matter what the evidence is, you stand by your leader. Since Watergate, that’s what parties have done.”