Programming note: CNN Original Series “Tricky Dick” explores Richard Nixon’s political rise and fall, with never-before-seen footage, starting Sunday, March 17, at 9p ET/PT.
Washington (CNN) -- President Donald Trump’s rhetoric about the Russia investigation might seem unprecedented, including his blistering attacks on investigators and pushback against the press. But history presents another strong example. More than 40 years ago, President Richard Nixon grappled with Watergate and hit many of the same points as the scandal unfolded.
In both cases, the President and his White House were enveloped by a sprawling Justice Department investigation. Both times, this led to the departure of senior officials, a slew of criminal charges against people close to the President, and allegations of a cover-up. Nixon and Trump both relished opportunities to proclaim their innocence and go after their opponents.
There are parallels, but there are also some differences. Watergate forced Nixon from office in August 1974 after Republicans in Congress withdrew their support. Trump has maintained the backing of GOP lawmakers and voters alike. Indeed, many Trump supporters have embraced his narrative that he is the victim of a “witch hunt” and the investigation itself is the problem.
With special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation in the rear-view mirror, and Democrats on Capitol Hill ramping up their own probes, here are a dozen ways Nixon and Trump struck similar tones.
“When you talk about innocent, I am truly not involved (in) any form of collusion with Russia. Believe me, that’s the last thing I can think of to be involved in.”
Since the Russia investigation was first publicly acknowledged by the FBI in March 2017, Trump has consistently and repeatedly stated that there was no collusion between his campaign and Russia. However, Trump has also denied that anyone on his team had ties to Russia, which was untrue.
“I welcome this kind of examination because people have got to know whether or not their president is a crook. Well, I am not a crook. I’ve earned everything I’ve got.”
From the start of the investigation, Nixon was adamant about his innocence. He repeatedly stated that he never told any member of his staff to do anything illegal and that he knew nothing about the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters during the 1972 presidential campaign.
“There was no obstruction. I mean, unless you call obstruction the fact that I fight back. I fight back. I really fight back. If you call that obstruction, that's fine. But there's no obstruction.”
Trump often denies obstructing justice, and he repeated it more often than Nixon did. Trump has taken advantage of tools unavailable to Nixon, like Twitter, to spread this message. Responding to critics who accuse him of obstruction, Trump often says he is just fighting back against an unfair investigation.
“I made my mistakes. But in all of my years of public life, I have never profited, never profited from public service. I’ve earned every cent. And in all of my years of public life, I have never obstructed justice.”
Throughout the investigation, Nixon denied and resented the notion that he had obstructed justice. He asserted that he would never compromise his morals for political gain. He said he would “deplore” it if his aides obstructed the investigation into the 1972 campaign.
Ultimately, Nixon was named as an unindicted co-conspirator in the criminal indictment against seven of his senior aides, which included charges of obstruction of justice.
“Of the 34 people (charged with crimes), many of them were bloggers from Moscow or they were people that had nothing to do with me, had nothing to do with what they’re talking about, or they were people that got caught telling a fib or telling a lie.”
During Trump’s first year in office, Mueller brought criminal charges against three campaign staffers and one top White House official. After these indictments and guilty pleas, Trump distanced himself from these men and downplayed their role on the campaign.
“I first learned from news reports of the Watergate break-in. I was appalled at this senseless, illegal action. And I was shocked to learn that employees of the re-election committee were apparently among those guilty.”
A key part of Nixon’s defense strategy was to distance himself from his associates at the center of the investigation. He portrayed himself as an innocent bystander who was wrongfully wrapped up in the events of Watergate. In his first public comments, Nixon said he learned about the break-in from news reports while vacationing.
“Mike Flynn is a fine person, and I asked for his resignation. He respectfully gave it … what he did wasn’t wrong.”
“(Manafort) happens to be a very good person. And I think it’s very sad what they’ve done to Paul Manafort.”
Trump similarly lost some of his top aides amid scandal and scrutiny.
His first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, resigned after only 23 days after revelations that he discussed sanctions with the Russian ambassador during the transition and lied about it to White House officials. He later pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and cooperated with Mueller.
Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort resigned from his post in August 2016 after a spate of damaging news reports about his lobbying work in Ukraine. He was later convicted on eight felony counts, and pleaded guilty to two more, relating to his work for pro-Russian politicians.
“In one of the most difficult decisions of my presidency, I accepted the resignations of two of my closest associates in the White House -- Bob Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, two of the finest public servants it has been my privilege to know.”
Once Nixon realized that Watergate was not going away, he parted ways with the top aides who were involved in the affair.
This included chief of staff H.R. Haldeman and domestic affairs adviser John Ehrlichman, who resigned, and White House counsel John Dean, who was fired. All three men were later charged with crimes relating to the cover-up. Dean became a key cooperator in the investigation and directly implicated Nixon in testimony before the Senate Watergate Committee.
“Nobody has ever been more transparent — I have instructed our lawyers (to) be totally transparent. I believe we’ve given them 1.4 million pages of documents.”
Trump’s legal team often pointed out that the White House was cooperating with the inquiry and made senior officials available for interviews. Usually, Trump makes these points while also calling on the investigation to come to a close. But like Nixon, the situation shifted. Trump gave written answers to some questions, but his team refused to agree to a sit-down interview.
“I have provided to the special prosecutor voluntarily a great deal of material. I believe that I provided all the material that he needs to conclude his investigations and to proceed to prosecute the guilty, and to clear the innocent.”
In an effort to clear his name, Nixon stressed his willingness to cooperate with investigators. But as the probe dragged on, Nixon unsuccessfully tried to block prosecutors’ demands for evidence. This resulted in the landmark US v. Nixon decision in July 1974, where the Supreme Court unanimously ordered Nixon to turn over damaging White House tapes to investigators.
“I’d like to see it end. Look, the whole Russian thing was an excuse… They ought to get to the end of it because I think the American public is sick of it.”
Trump has dialed up the heat on Mueller and his team. He regularly calls the investigation a “witch hunt” and claims that Mueller’s team is full of biased Democrats who are perpetuating a hoax. (Mueller is a lifelong Republican; some members of his team donated to Democratic political candidates in the past.) Trump has routinely said the investigation should end.
“I believe the time has come to bring that investigation and the other investigations of this matter to an end. One year of Watergate is enough.”
Once Nixon realized his approach to Watergate wasn’t slowing down the probe, he appealed to the public with a call for the investigation to end. At his 1974 State of the Union address, which touched on policy issues such as inflation and environmental protection, Nixon took time to discuss the investigation.
“An economic miracle is taking place in the United States and the only thing that can stop it are foolish wars, politics or ridiculous partisan investigations. If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation.”
Trump and his allies have argued that the Russia investigation places a burdensome weight on a president who is trying to handle major issues, such as nuclear negotiations with North Korea. (Though even when Trump says he is going to focus on the issues, he still tweets about the probe.)
“…We have reached a point at which a continued, backward-looking obsession with Watergate is causing this Nation to neglect matters of far greater importance to all of the American people.”
Throughout the investigation, Nixon portrayed Watergate as a distraction from pressing issues facing the United States. He said that focusing on Watergate was not in the best interest of the American people, and that as president, it was his duty to focus on the job and do the people’s work.
“I am not supposed to be involved with the Justice Department. I am not supposed to be involved with the FBI. I’m not supposed to be doing the kind of things I would love to be doing. And I’m very frustrated by it.”
On several occasions, Trump has expressed in public what Nixon only said in private: that he could use his presidential powers over the Justice Department and FBI to influence the investigation. This revelation was part of Nixon’s downfall. But for Trump, it is a mantra that he has openly embraced.
“We have never used (our power). We haven’t used the (Federal) Bureau (of Investigation) and we haven’t used the Justice Department, but things are going to change now. And they’re going to change, and, and they’re going to get it right.”
Nixon maintained an extensive taping system at the White House. Once the tapes were released, the public learned about a darker and unfiltered side of Nixon that wasn’t seen in his public comments.
Contradicting his outward message of cooperation and innocence, Nixon spoke privately about influencing the Justice Department and FBI so they could put an end to the Watergate investigation.
“Why don’t I just fire Mueller? Well, I think it’s a disgrace, what’s going on. We’ll see what happens. But I think it’s really a sad situation when you look at what happened. And many people have said you should fire him.”
Trump fired FBI Director James Comey in May 2017, while he was overseeing the Russia investigation. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein soon appointed Mueller to take over the probe. Since then, Trump has openly mused about firing Mueller, Rosenstein, and then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Rosenstein is expected to step down in March and Sessions resigned in November at Trump’s request.
“I am not so goddamn sure that we are going to have to cave to Cox when he comes in, do you? It’s going to be awful rough… On Cox, we just may have to fire the son of a bitch. You know?”
Amid a dispute over the White House tapes in October 1973, Nixon dismissed special prosecutor Archibald Cox, who was overseeing the federal investigation into Watergate. In what quickly became known as the Saturday Night Massacre, this firing triggered the resignation of senior Justice Department officials.
Nixon later bowed to public pressure and appointed a new special prosecutor to replace Cox.
“So, you never know what’s out there. But I didn’t tape, and I don’t have any tape, and I didn’t tape.”
While Trump is not believed to have an elaborate recording system like Nixon did, he has suggested on a few occasions that there are tapes of his conversations. Most notably, Trump made this claim after Comey accused him of asking for a loyalty pledge. Trump later said there were no tapes.
“The matters of the tapes, the matters of the presidential conversations, those are matters in which the president has a responsibility to defend this office, which I shall continue to do.”
Investigators demanded to see the White House tapes once their existence was revealed in July 1973. Nixon resisted these efforts, talking his fight all the way to the Supreme Court, and said he had a constitutional responsibility to protect the presidency from prying investigators. Once the tapes came out, they were extremely damaging to Nixon, triggering his resignation.
“We are fighting the fake news. It's fake, phony, fake. A few days ago I called the fake news the enemy of the people. And they are. They are the enemy of the people.”
Throughout his career in business, and now in politics, Trump has been critical of the press. Like Nixon, Trump labeled the press an “enemy.” Trump criticizes the press almost every day, and has singled out specific outlets and reporters, particularly over coverage of the Russia investigation.
“The press is the enemy. The press is the enemy. The establishment is the enemy. The professors are the enemy. Professors are the enemy. Write that on the blackboard a hundred times and never forget it.”
Both publicly and privately, Nixon felt the media was out to get him. He attacked various news outlets and said their reporting about Watergate was dishonest. He complained that news reports on television spent too much time on the scandal, and privately railed against specific publications.
“We’re going to find the leakers. We’re going to find the leakers. They’re going to pay a big price for leaking.”
In addition to his vitriol against the press, Trump has made a point to criticize the intelligence community for what he views as an unprecedented level of leaks. (Trump also regularly expresses anger about palace-intrigue leaks from within the White House.) It has become a regular refrain.
“This is absurd. This stuff didn’t leak when Hoover was there. I’ve never known of a leak when Hoover was there. I could talk to him in this office about everything. And the reason is that — it wasn’t because they loved him, but they feared him.”
In addition to his anger against the press, Nixon also seethed about leaks of private information. He felt that the FBI could not be trusted and that it was filled with leakers who were trying to undermine him.
He felt that leaks coming out of the FBI had reached unparalleled heights during his second term, which followed the death of longtime FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who died during the 1972 campaign.
Sam Fossum and Em Steck contributed to this report.