Power  /  Q&A

How Watergate Set the Stage for the Trump Impeachment Inquiry

The Nixon impeachment proceedings and their parallels with the Trump-Ukraine scandal.
Demonstrators with signs reading "Impeach Nixon" march toward the U.S. Capitol.
Jordon Kalilich/Wikimedia

This whole controversy partially arose out of a whistle-blower complaint. How much have rumblings in the bureaucracy mattered historically, especially in terms of misbehavior or uncovering it?

Certainly in the reign of J. Edgar Hoover, the role of the bureaucracy, and Hoover’s role, actually, was more often to aid Presidents in their misdoings, amid some of his own. But in terms of his relationships with the President, leading up to Nixon, in any case, he would have been more in a position to help contain this kind of scandal than to be the one fuelling it. That really changes with Nixon, for a couple of reasons. When Nixon came into office—a little bit like Trump, but in a much more focussed and concerted way—he had the aim of bringing the massive executive bureaucracy, and in particular the intelligence community and the F.B.I., much more overtly under White House control. He saw these big administrative bureaucracies as sprawling, with far too much independence, and he wanted to be able to use them politically in a much more significant way. He was absolutely explicit about this, certainly in conversations with his aides. And Hoover, for one, really, really didn’t like that. That piece of the story is very important to how we end up with Watergate.

And the other important piece is that Hoover died in 1972, about a month before the Watergate burglary, and so a lot of those very early rumblings around Watergate were really coming out of a discontented intelligence bureaucracy, and particularly coming from the guy who thought he was going to be Hoover’s successor at the F.B.I., Mark Felt.

One idea that your work has raised is that Watergate might not have emerged as a huge scandal if J. Edgar Hoover had lived. Is that where you are going with this?

You are absolutely right. That was certainly Nixon’s view. By 1973 and 1974, in recorded conversations, he is really lamenting the loss of Hoover, feeling like Hoover would have been able to control the bureaucracy and shut down the leaks that were happening, and feeling like Hoover would not have wanted to see the Presidency itself damaged in this way. Hoover and Nixon had been pretty good friends, for a long, long time, and done lots of politics together. They were somewhat at odds during Nixon’s first term, but I think there is a good case to be made that, at the very least, Watergate would have played out much, much differently if Hoover had still been alive.