Trump Can't Just Erase History the Way Nixon Tried to DoRoundup
tags: Richard Nixon, Watergate, presidential history, Donald Trump
Tim Naftali is a clinical associate professor of history at NYU. He was the first director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum.
A major presidential scandal isn’t complete without missing evidence, though Donald Trump seems to have been the first president to swallow his own words, literally. The former president had a habit of tearing drafts and signed documents into small pieces to be thrown away—or flushing them down a toilet. And there have even been reports that, on occasion, he consumed them.
Now a seven-hour gap has appeared in Trump’s official daily White House diary, part of the documentation that the congressional January 6 committee requested for its investigation into all aspects of the country’s 2021 insurrection. The diary has no evidence of Trump making the calls that others have admitted receiving from him during the height of the violence in the Capitol. Nor does it document any meetings during that time, when the president was thought to be under pressure from aides to calm the situation on the Hill.
The comparisons to Richard Nixon were immediate and inevitable—but they missed a key difference: What happened in those seven hours should ultimately be knowable, at least at some level. The Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe tweeted that the gap in the record made “the infamous 18-minute gap in Nixon’s tapes look like nothing in comparison.” While that brazen presidential manipulation of the historical record ultimately didn’t help Nixon stave off the collapse of his presidency—indeed it likely backfired by creating skepticism toward the president among elite Republicans after its revelation—the gap in a crucial White House tape to this day remains stubbornly difficult to fill in. By contrast, the newly reported Trumpian gap may actually be easier to fill in, and therefore less of a threat to the historical record than Nixon’s.
In November 1973, Judge John J. Sirica revealed that a subpoenaed recording handed over to the Watergate grand jury had an 18-and-a-half-minute stretch where the conversation had been replaced by a hum or buzz. Although Nixon created an ocean of taped words—approximately 3,700 hours of conversation during his time in office—this gap in the record held unusual significance.
A year earlier, on June 17, 1972, five members of a secret espionage team supervised and paid by Nixon’s Committee to Re-elect the President had been arrested inside the Democratic National Committee Headquarters in D.C.’s prestigious Watergate Office Complex. Nixon, who was at the time visiting Grand Cay in the Bahamas and then his compound at Key Biscayne, returned to Washington on June 19, 1972, at 8 p.m. The recording in question was of a meeting the next day, starting at 11:26 a.m. and lasting nearly an hour and 20 minutes, with his chief of staff, H. R. “Bob” Haldeman, in his hideaway office in the Old Executive Office Building. Haldeman and Nixon had had a nearly hour-long conversation on Air Force One, but this was the first conversation after the Watergate break-in that took place in a room with a taping system.