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Cover ups, lies and law-breaking: Trump, Nixon and Clinton may have all made same mistake

For Richard Nixon, it was not the Watergate break-in, it was covering it up. For Bill Clinton, it was not the sex with a White House intern, it was lying about it.
And now, for Donald Trump, it is not — for the moment, at least — about colluding with Russia to influence the 2016 election, but with possibly breaking campaign finance law to influence it.
For all the talk of attacks on American democracy by a pro-Trump Russian government, the president’s most pressing trouble stems from pre-election hush payments to women with whom they say he once had adulterous sexual trysts.
It’s a political lesson that seems to go unlearned: A president is often tripped up not by the big things but the little ones, and not so much by high crimes as common failings — especially mendacity.
Nixon was never conclusively linked to the attempt by his re-election campaign to break into the Democratic National Party headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington — a “third rate burglary,’’ as his press secretary put it.
But he participated in the attempt to cover it up, and was en route to impeachment in 1974 when he resigned.
Clinton may have survived the fact that he had sex in the White House with Monica Lewinsky. He lied about it, however, and was impeached by the House of Representatives in 1998 on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice.
He was found not guilty by the Senate. But he will never live down his denials, especially the one on Jan. 26, 1998, with his wife Hillary at his side, when he told the nation “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.’’
And before a grand jury, when asked about the veracity of his previous claim that “there is not a sexual relationship…’’ he famously said, “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.’’
Trump’s mantra for the past year has been “no collusion’’ between his presidential campaign and Russia. But that was before his former fixer and lawyer Michael Cohen, pleaded guilty this week and implicated his former boss in the payoffs.
Now, Trump seems to have had his eye on the wrong threat to his presidency.
What’s the motive?
The question, in each case, is why.
Why did Nixon, facing a badly divided Democratic Party, not go ahead and admit what had happened at the Watergate and throw those who actually planned and executed the burglary under the bus?
Why did Clinton, whose sexual relationship with the 22-year-old Lewinsky was consensual (however unseemly and inappropriate), not just confess his sin and throw himself on the mercy of an electorate that probably would have forgiven him?
Why did Trump, who once said he “could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters’’ not simply admit the liaisons months ago and move on? Especially since nothing in his personal biography suggested he was a paragon of virtue in the first place.
There are no certainties, just possibilities.
Nixon and his paranoia
Robert North Roberts, a political scientist and author of Ethics in U.S. Government, thinks Nixon’s infamous paranoia led him to order the Watergate cover up. He lacked confidence in his standing with voters, believed everyone was out to get him and so didn’t consider honesty a viable policy.
But Boston College historian Patrick Maney thinks Nixon actually had good reason to orchestrate the cover up. The president had approved the creation of the secret Plumbers unit (originally designed to stop leaks such as those of the Pentagon Papers) that attempted the break in.
And even if Nixon didn’t know about the Watergate job – the historical verdict is still out on that one – he did know about other, equally nefarious operations that might have come to light if the break-in did.
Clinton and his image
Roberts and Maney (a Clinton biographer) suspect Clinton was so personally embarrassed by the Lewinsky affair that, no matter how limited its political damage, he felt he had to cover it up. Also, he’d been able to skate through a similar scandal involving a woman named Jennifer Flowers during the 1992 presidential campaign.
But the lie cost him. Some Americans would have forgiven Clinton the horn dog; but they would never forgive the dissembling “Slick Willie,’’ who said he smoked pot but didn’t inhale. A man derided by his critics as politically calculating had instead reinforced a most negative political image.
Trump and his past
In an interview with Fox News to be broadcast Thursday, Trump reversed his earlier denials and said he made the payoffs to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal.
Roberts thinks Trump may have done so because he was worried about alienating his evangelical Christian supporters.
Many evangelicals supported Trump, a profane, twice-divorced former casino operator, only because they so hated the liberalism that Hillary Clinton personified, and because they believed Trump would nominate conservative Supreme Court justices. Trump might not have wanted to push his luck with such voters on the personal morality front.
Trump might also have been worried about the reaction of his wife, Melania, who’d stood by him during the campaign after the release of a videotape on which he admitted to sexually harassing women.
Maney suspects Trump simply thought he could get away with paying the hush money. Given his background as a real estate developer and reality TV star, and the boisterous 2016 campaign, buying the silence of a few women — even if it involved breaking election finance law — might have seemed no big deal.
And, compared to a potential charge of conspiring with a hostile foreign oligopoly to undermine U.S. democracy, it probably isn’t.

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