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Are there parallels between the Nixon-era scandal and Trump's indictments?


The Watergate scandal led to President Richard Nixon's resignation in 1974. It set a standard for presidential wrongdoing. But ex-President Donald Trump's alleged criminality now appears set to far exceed that standard, should the four indictments currently brought against him ultimately win out in court. Our colleague Steve Inskeep spoke earlier about all this with Jill Wine-Banks. She served as an assistant special prosecutor in the Watergate investigation.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: I want to ask a question that I think you have been asked 47,000 times before, but I think it is a reasonable place to start. How do the accusations against Trump in trying to overturn an election compare to Watergate?

JILL WINE-BANKS: There's no comparison in my mind. The actions of Donald Trump leading up to January 6 and continuing to this day to me are much more dangerous to democracy than anything Richard Nixon did. Richard Nixon was guilty. He was a crook. He should have been indicted. He shouldn't have been pardoned. But what he did is child's play compared to what happened. I believe his pardon enabled what happened. But I never feared for democracy the way I do now.

INSKEEP: Let's remember what it was that Nixon did. Aides and associates of Nixon conducted a burglary of the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington, D.C., and the investigation of that led to a lot of other political so-called dirty tricks. Did Nixon at some level accept that - democratic system - he needed to listen to the will of the people and deal with reality?

WINE-BANKS: He did. He knew shame, and he was told that he would be convicted in the Senate on the charges of impeachment that had been voted if he didn't resign, and he resigned. He never acknowledged officially and, in fact, probably denied in the David Frost interview that he was guilty because he said it's not illegal if you're the president. But he did respond to the will of the people. It was clear that he had lost the support of America and of his own party. This was a time of bipartisanship. It was a time of facts. And everybody accepted the facts, including him, which was that he had been found to have plenty of evidence against him showing his guilt. And he resigned.

INSKEEP: As you investigated the president - and again, this is a sitting president who had been elected and then reelected - did the public support you?

WINE-BANKS: We had huge public support, and we never had the kind of lack of facts that exists now. So we always had more support than I think some people in America now give to the special prosecutor.

INSKEEP: Did you also face fierce criticism or even threats?

WINE-BANKS: Richard Nixon used the words witch hunt, and he did do some of that, but no threats. I never felt that there would be a mob attack on the office or on the Department of Justice or on the Capitol building. I never felt in personal danger.

INSKEEP: What have you thought about in recent times as election officials, investigators and others have been smeared on social media and sometimes have faced threats or worse?

WINE-BANKS: I am disgusted and appalled and saddened because I know how much these people work at getting the truth and go on the law and the facts. There is no motivation behind them that is anything other than discovering the truth. And crimes are reported and investigated, and either information is found or isn't. And the evidence laid out in current indictments makes it very clear that they have strong cases that will go to trial. And I believe a jury, even with MAGA cult members on it, would convict him.

INSKEEP: You believe that a jury would convict Trump even if there is a really strong Trump supporter on the jury?

WINE-BANKS: I think so. And I take my encouragement from the Paul Manafort trial in which there was a MAGA juror who spoke to the press afterwards and said it was clear that he did all the things that were alleged and I had to vote to convict him on all counts. And I believe jurors take the instructions from the judge very seriously and that they will pay attention to the evidence and will say guilty, unlike what happened in the impeachment, where they had to say not guilty, even though they knew he was guilty. What they meant was we're not willing to impeach him even though he did those things, which is a different conclusion.

INSKEEP: It sounds like you have faith that the system is going to work here.

WINE-BANKS: I do. I have seen it work before, and I think it will again.

INSKEEP: Jill Wine-Banks, thanks for taking the time.

WINE-BANKS: Thank you for talking. It was a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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