Kevin Ellis: It’s true; nothing like this has ever happened before

This commentary is by Kevin Ellis, a communications consultant based in Montpelier. He is a member of the board of the Vermont Journalism Trust, the parent organization of VTDigger.

On Oct. 20, 1973, NBC anchorman John Chancellor came on TV and said the following:

“The country tonight is in the midst of what could be the most serious constitutional crisis in its history. … The president has set himself against his own attorney general and the Department of Justice. Nothing like this has happened before.”

Back then — 50 years ago — there were just three TV networks, all anchored by men of similar education and origin. Each night, America would tune in at about 6 p.m. and be delivered basically the same news no matter the channel. 

And on Oct. 20, 1973, all three channels, Chancellor and the entire country focused their attention on the Watergate scandal, in which White House aides and others engaged in a series of crimes to sabotage the political process for their advantage. 

For more in-depth reporting on Watergate, read Garrett Graff’s scintillating history of the scandal titled “Watergate: A New History.’’ But lucky for us, the bullet points are just as jaw-dropping as the details.

It started when President Richard Nixon, infuriated by sensitive secrets leaking to the press, ordered his staff to plug all leaks from the White House. 

A special unit, known as the Plumbers, was formed. This group, along with other henchmen, engaged in a long series of crimes, including breaking into political offices, dirty tricks against rival election campaigns, using the IRS against their enemies, and urging the CIA to spy on innocent Americans. 

It all came to a head when the Plumbers were eventually, some would say inevitably, caught attempting to steal political secrets from the Watergate Hotel.

Nixon’s top aides tried to cover it up. They paid hush money to criminals, laundered campaign contributions for illicit purposes and obstructed the FBI’s investigation into their crimes. And President Nixon knew about the whole thing. 

Eventually, the American courts brought Nixon and his crimes to justice. Dozens of White House aides went to prison and Nixon resigned in the face of impeachment. 

John Chancellor was right. Nothing like this had ever happened before.

Now jump to the current hearings by a House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. The scene feels sadly familiar. The country has been treated to a long list of crimes and misdeeds by a president. Only this time Donald Trump is sticking to his guns, stubbornly continuing to allege that the presidential election was stolen via fraud. 

Over the course of the hearings, the committee has clearly demonstrated that Trump is, and was, lying and that his supporters are lying as well. 

The latest evidence against Trump was presented by those running the Justice Department after the November election. These officials related the constant pressure and intimidation they faced from Trump as he demanded they follow the plan and overturn the election. And when he met resistance, Trump was prepared to fire top officials at the Justice Department until he found someone who would go along with his plan.

“Just say the election was corrupt and leave the rest to me and the Republican congressmen,’’ Trump told them.

Thanks to people like Jeffrey Rosen, Richard Donoghue, Cassidy Hutchinson and many others, Trump’s efforts failed and the system held its ground. The only reason the Justice Department succeeded in resisting Trump is because its officials threatened to resign en masse if Trump continued with his Big Lie. 

Trump and his enablers have been revealed as liars. They egged on the Insurrection. And when that didn’t work, according to the committee, they angled for pardons, hoping the American system they’d taken advantage of would save them.

All this leads us to the stark difference between Trump and Nixon. Unlike Trump, Nixon had a loyalty to his country and to the Constitution. Bedeviled by demons all his life, Nixon committed crimes to battle his enemies. But at a certain point, when Republican Party patriots told him it was time to go, he went, exiting the White House and flying off in his helicopter. 

Trump has no such loyalty. He lost the election. Top officials told him he lost the election. It’s been proven those who say the election was stolen are lying. Trump’s loyalty is only to himself and he’s proven that he will stop at nothing to get his way.

Democracy survives today in part because a small number of Republicans in state governments, the Justice Department and the White House stood up for the truth when it mattered most. 

The Jan. 6 committee hearings will continue. The constitutional crisis will continue in its slow evolution. Let’s hope we have it within us to watch and learn — and defend democracy. 

Today, John Chancellor’s words about a constitutional crisis apply even more so than they did in 1973. 

Nothing like this has ever happened before.

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