Opinion: Trump killed the old GOP — and he’s getting away with the murder
Opinion by Colbert I. KingColumnistMay 14, 2021 at 3:57 p.m. EDT
Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney’s ouster from her high-ranking House Republican leadership post was foreshadowed by Donald Trump’s getting away with what his onetime pen pal, former president Richard M. Nixon, could not. During his ill-fated presidency, Trump learned that he could cross lines, abuse power, punish enemies, lie his head off and still stick around to brag about it.
Nixon lived in a different time and was part of a Republican Party not of his own making, as I observed in an earlier column.
Finding his back pressed against the wall by special prosecutor Archibald Cox’s pursuit of the White House Watergate tapes, Nixon accepted the resignation of Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus when each refused to discharge Cox. Frustrated by this principled stance, Nixon directed Solicitor General Robert Bork, newly installed as acting attorney general, to carry out the order to obstruct the Cox probe, which Bork did. Nixon went on to abolish the special prosecutor’s office and instructed the FBI to seal the Justice Department offices of Richardson and Ruckelshaus, as well as Cox’s.
That political nightmare, which unfolded on Oct. 20, 1973, is recorded in U.S. history as the “Saturday Night Massacre.” Nixon was oblivious to the firestorm he had ignited. But the American electorate didn’t miss a thing.
People might not have been able to cite laws that Nixon might have violated. But they knew by the offensive odor coming out of Washington that Nixon had gone too far. Congress got an earful from voters, and the press corps went into overdrive.
Nixon’s resignation was just over the horizon.
Trump said a year ago in a phone call to “Fox & Friends” that one of the things he supposedly learned from Nixon was “don’t fire people,” suggesting that Nixon made a mistake in firing aides who wound up providing evidence against him.
But Trump, in fact, followed suit. He, too, ousted people, and with fanfare. Exhibit one: His loud-mouthed firing of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who managed to come across as both venal and hapless during his Justice Department tenure.
Trump’s motive for firing James B. Comey as FBI director was also a Nixon copycat. Both embattled GOP presidents sought to quash federal investigations into activities associated with their presidential campaigns.
So how was it Nixon had to skip town, while Trump was allowed to stick around and gleefully watch the Jan. 6 bloody function at the junction of the U.S. Capitol?
Trump was on hand for the great insurrection because he had — still has — what Nixon lacked: the backing of a Republican Party controlled by weak-kneed leaders whose notion of duty is limited to what they perceive Trump expects of them.
Thus enter Cheney, who believed that the truth about Trump’s presidential defeat should trump his lies, and that integrity deserves a place in her party. Proving her wrong on both counts, the Republican Party showed her the door this week.
Again, Nixon couldn’t have gotten away with something like that. The U.S. senator for whom I worked for four years, Charles McC. Mathias Jr. (R-Md.), was about as popular with Nixon as Cheney is with Trump. Mathias, a vocal opponent of two of Nixon’s Supreme Court nominees — G. Harrold Carswell and Clement F. Haynsworth Jr. — was also a Vietnam War opponent, a key sponsor of civil rights and campaign finance laws, an early and outspoken critic of Watergate, and an earner of a place on Nixon’s ”enemies list.”
But unlike Cheney, Mathias could not be taken down from within his party.
A number of Senate and House Republicans in the 1970s, while generally more conservative than many Democrats on fiscal issues, were united among themselves and more closely aligned with non-Southern Democrats on civil and voting rights and domestic social policies.
Mathias remained popular in his state, and his outreach and partnership with Democrats at home and in Congress were bulwarks against the Nixon terrors.
That is not Cheney’s world. She holds membership in a party that has devolved into a self-segregating, ideologically rigid cult that views outsiders as a threat to Trump and, by extension, themselves.
Trump is — in their hearts — owed the Republican Party’s devotion.
The only room for a Liz Cheney is in the house out back. A small but plucky bunch of GOP outsiders — whose leaders include former congressman Charlie Dent, former party chairman Michael Steele and former New Jersey governor Christine Todd Whitman (names from a long-gone era) — are weeping and wailing over Cheney’s ouster and huffing and puffing about blowing down the House that Trump built. Every good wish.
Today’s Republican Party is to Donald Trump what the Workers’ Party of Korea is to Kim Jong Un, the Chinese Communist Party is to Xi Jinping and the United Russia Party is to Vladimir Putin.
The party of Mathias, Cheney, Dent, Steele and Whitman is dead. The death blow was landed by Trump. And he’s getting away with the murder.