Media commentaries have been making comparisons between investigations into connections between the Trump campaign and the Russian government to the investigations of Watergate during the presidency of Richard Nixon. In fact, the Nixon Presidential Library even objected to likening the firing of then FBI Director James Comey to Nixon’s infamous “Saturday Night Massacre,” with the tweet, “FUN FACT: President Nixon never fired the Director of the FBI.”
These comparisons between Nixon and Trump are not unwarranted; there are some striking similarities. Both investigations involve examining attempts at obtaining damaging information on Democratic presidential candidates during an election. And while Nixon didn’t fire the head of the FBI, both Nixon and Trump fired prominent investigators looking into their campaigns. While both were not initially the focus of investigations, Nixon became so after one of the Watergate burglars recanted his testimony and, according to a recent round of leaks to the Washington Post, it appears Trump is currently being investigated by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III for obstruction of justice.
Trump even suggested he recorded conversations with Comey after he was fired—a bizarre move not only because it appears to have been an empty threat but also because of how insanely Nixonian it looked at a time. Trump then tweeted last week that he did not have any recordings of conversations between himself and Comey.
First, both started their terms (Nixon’s second and Trump’s first) at drastically different places. Nixon won reelection with the largest popular majority in American history, whereas Trump lost the popular vote. According to Gallup polls, Nixon started his second term with 67 percent approval rating. Trump started his with just 45 percent approval. In fact, according to Gallup polls, Americans who approve of Trump have never been the majority, only twice achieving a plurality of just one percentage point. So Nixon lost the approval of Democrats and independents that Trump never had.
The investigation into the Trump campaign’s connections to Russian hacking, however, is not yet having the same effect on his approval rating as Nixon’s investigation had on his. But that is in part because the nature of the similarities is very different. Specifically, Nixon’s actions appeared nefarious to Americans across party lines, whereas Trump’s are less concrete and therefore haven't impacted how his party views him.
Nixon’s presidency suffered significant downturns in public opinion as his culpability in the Watergate Hotel break in became more concrete, whereas Trump’s involvement in any improper acquisition of information on his opponent is not at all conclusive. Nixon’s two biggest drops in approval occurred before he was found guilty by the Senate: at the start of Senate investigations and after the “Saturday Night Massacre.” By the start of the Senate Watergate Committee in May of 1973, his approval rating dropped to 44 percent. His approval rating after the “Saturday Night Massacre” was 27 percent. Neither definitively proved that Nixon had been part of the break-in, but the investigation began because one of the participants said Nixon had been involved. No one involved in hacking the DNC has said that Trump played any role in the cyber espionage, or even knew it was taking place.
Firing James Comey was also far less damning than firing special prosecutor Archibald Cox. Even though Trump stated publically that he fired Comey because of the “Russia thing,” many have argued that he was not attempting to obstruct justice, but rather was frustrated with Comey’s public statements. Nixon, on the other hand, fired Cox when he would not stop asking for a recording of a conversation Nixon had that would later prove his knowledge of the plans to break into the Watergate Hotel.
Trump’s approval ratings cannot drop to Nixon’s lows without losing the confidence of many in his own party. In fact, there’s even skepticism amongst many republicans (though not a majority) as to whether these investigations should even take place. Last month, a Monmouth University poll found that 73 percent of Americans think the “the Russia investigation [should] continue,” however only 50 percent of Republicans polled responded that it should continue compared to 90 percent of Democrats. These findings are similar to those of the Council survey last December (only 46% of Republicans favored a congressional investigation into Russian actions in the 2016 election).
Trump’s current approval rating is 40 percent, only five percentage points lower than when he took office. By the time Nixon resigned, his approval rating was 24 percent, having dropped 43 percentage points from the start of his second term. It will be interesting to see how his approval ratings change as the investigation continues, however right now it appears it’s having little effect.
FUN FACT: The Council’s first survey was conducted just months after Nixon resigned.