What else do Watergate and Trump’s alleged crimes have in common? Wayward lawyers.

August 18, 2023 9:31 am

Why are the people at the center of Watergate and Trump fiascos so often lawyers? Photo of former President Richard Nixon via National Archives.

A disturbing feature of the multiplicity of criminal charges against former President Donald Trump — especially the latest federal and Georgia state proceedings alleging a conspiracy to overthrow the 2020 election — is the centrality of lawyers in the morass.

Five of the half-dozen unindicted co-conspirators in the federal case are attorneys, and the unidentified sixth may be one, too. In the Georgia case, attorneys are at the core of the gaggle of 18 co-conspirators with the ex-president. 

The integral role that lawyers allegedly played in the wrongdoing emanating from the Trump White House harkens back to the other seismic presidential scandal in recent history, President Nixon’s Watergate affair.

While the facts and circumstances of the Trump and Nixon scandals differ, they share the common features of attempts to subvert democratic norms and elections — orchestrated largely by lawyers. Although Trump — unlike Nixon — is not a lawyer, he has spent more time in litigation and courtrooms lately than many attorneys. Trump and Nixon were both the architects of the attacks on democracy, carried out principally by attorneys acting at their direction or on their behalf.

The Watergate cast is known from books and movies:

  • John Dean, the whistleblower who turned his contrition into a lucrative writing and and television commentator career;
  • John Ehrlichman, the defiant Nixon advisor who was, strangely enough, also the initiator of several liberal domestic policies;
  • Gordon Liddy, the break-in mastermind who emerged from prison as the progenitor of right-wing talk radio;
  • Donald  Segretti, the dirty trickster;
  • Attorney General John Mitchell, who headed the Nixon’s re-election organization, the Committee to Re-elect the President, which came to be aptly known as CREEP;
  • Clark MacGregor, the former Minnesota congressman from the Twin Cities suburbs, one of many Minnesotans involved in Watergate, who took over Mitchell’s role after he resigned following the Watergate break-in;
  • and Vice President Spiro Agnew, who was involved in his own bribery side-hustle. 

Lawyers, all.

For Trump the spear carriers of the claimed conspiracy have been lawyers like “America’s Mayor” — the disgraced Rudy Giuliani — and a gaggle of other counselor clowns who had lots of election fraud theories but never produced an iota of evidence. 

Not to forget Michael Cohen, Trump’s fixer, who was at the heart of the prior alleged “hush money” criminality. 

Still other lawyers have been implicated — intentionally or as dupes — in the concealment connivances of classified documents at Mar-a -Lago.

In short, the fingerprints of lawyers are all over the accusations of criminality against the former president. Although he is constitutionally-entitled to the presumption of innocence in courtrooms, a presumption of ethical and moral propriety does not attach to the machinations of his various lawyers.

After Watergate, the legal craft was rightfully held in disrepute for the illegitimate behavior of those Nixonian attorneys. 

Taken to task for the aberrant actions, the profession implemented a number of new ethical protocols to avert similar misconduct in the future. 

Law schools, which all of the alleged Trump co-conspirators attended after Watergate, instituted rigorous training and periodic examinations on ethical issues to assure that wrongdoing like that witnessed in Watergate would never happen again. 

The law schools here in Minnesota were at the forefront of robust ethical training for wannabee attorneys.   

But the Trump co-conspirators must have skipped those classes at whatever law schools they attended or had surrogates take the tests for them, like the imposter who is said to have taken Trump’s college entrance exam. 

But to borrow from that legal sage Yogi Berra, it’s deja vu all over again. 

The lawyers at the core of the Trump cabal seemed to have learned nothing at all from Watergate and those law school lessons it spurred, except to try to do it better, and don’t be detected putting masking tape on a break-in door.

So, the legal profession will emerge from this latest White House crisis with more scars, accompanied by heart-felt pledges of: Never again. 

But it’s doubtful that its members with dysfunctional ethical compasses will do any better next time an opportunity develops to exercise levers of power — or to maintain them, either.

It was a century ago, the summer of 1923, that another epic White House scandal — known as Teapot Dome — broke out following the death of President Warren G. Harding, no finely-tuned  ethical maven himself.   

At the center of that contretemps: Attorney General Harry Daugherty, the nation’s top lawyer.

As a passage from the Pete Seeger song “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” goes: 

“When will they ever learn?”

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Marshall H. Tanick
Marshall H. Tanick

Marshall H. Tanick is a Twin Cities employment law attorney with the law firm of Meyer Njus Tanick.