Nixon Image Courtesy of Richard Nixon Library & Archives

Second Term Blues and the Nixon Comparison

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review Editor

(Originally posted May 20, 2013) It was a trifecta of bad news for some, and a windfall for others. No, I am not referring to Saturday’s loss of potential Triple Crown winner Orb at the Preakness, nor am I referring to that $590 million winning Powerball ticket purchased at a Publix grocery store in Zephyrhills, near Tampa—more money, according to NBC News, than would be necessary to fund the entire city of Zephyrhills for ten years.

No, the trifecta was the grim news for the White House and President Obama, and the good news was that Republicans in Washington—for the first time in a long time—felt that they had a right and a duty to reclaim the moral high ground.

For the Obama administration, there had not been a ten day period quite this rough, ever. The procession of unpleasantness started with renewed investigations into the nature of the attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, an issue still broiling thanks in part to the emergence of emails sent and received in the days and hours before—and shortly after—the attacks, correspondence which seems to indicate both confusion and turf fighting over how to react, and what should be the administration’s response. (And, briefly, there was the accusation that some of the emails may have been edited or “scrubbed” to purge them of incriminating correspondence, or, alternately highlighted to stress exculpatory passages, but those initial reports now seem flawed; ABC News reporter Jonathan Karl has now acknowledged that his sources may have skewed or exaggerated the claims of email alterations by the Obama administration).

Then, only a day or two later, the White House took an entire 24-hour news cycle of serious heat for allowing a few select reporters—after delaying a scheduled press conference for over an hour—into a secret off-the-record briefing to reveal some of those very emails and other materials related to the violence in Benghazi.

Washington reporters, especially those assigned to the White House, are not a group given to easy forgiveness when it comes to playing favorites, and outrage was both loud and sustained, most notably by the reporters on the outside looking in. The fallout was noisy, and it may have been the most challenging few days for White House press spokesman Jim Carney since his arrival on his current job.

But, as if that wasn’t enough to make it a busy news week, what happened next still resonates through the press corps and the larger media community.

It was revealed that the Justice Department had subpoenaed reams of phone records for scores of telephone lines in several major offices of the Associated Press—including Washington, New York and Hartford. Widely viewed as an unprecedented federal intrusion in a free press, at least since the days of Richard Nixon, top Obama Justice Department officials said that the investigations in the AP phone records and specific phone lines were part of an ongoing inquiry into security leaks between the FBI, overseas sources and reporters. Further, those subpoenas were issued only as a last step in an investigative process which had yielded few, if any, results. Someone had been talking to reporters about Yemen, Benghazi, Afghanistan and other sensitive security matters—and the Justice Department wanted to know who they were, and from where those calls had been made or received. A few of the subpoenaed records were for telephone records of reporters’ homes.

Appearing on CBS’s Sunday morning show Face the Nation, Associated Press CEO Gary Pruitt expressed outrage, and not the kind of whiny complaints issued by those White House reporters left off the exclusive briefing list—but the kind which starts with the word “unconstitutional.” Pruitt said that the feds—in any guise or form and using any badge—have no business spying on reporters or news organizations, period.

Justice Department officials say the leaks were a clear violation of national security and may have placed CIA agents, U.S. soldiers and foreign personnel at grave risk, especially if the leaks were related to potential terror plots by Yemeni nationals. Though the Justice Department has not acknowledged it, some observers think that the information in question may have been related to a potential terrorist act designed to mark the anniversary of the death of Osama bin Laden, which was on May 2.

The AP’s Pruitt said bluntly and angrily that he was considering legal action against the government. FBI, Homeland Security and Justice Department officials essentially closed ranks around the “mosaic” theory of operational intelligence: the leaking of information, even in small quantities, can assist outside forces and potential terrorists in assembling the puzzle pieces for their own nefarious schemes, thus putting all overseas assets at risk. The arguments back and forth harkened back to the days of the Pentagon Papers and the high stakes legal battle fought between the New York Times and the Nixon administration (see our review from last week: Fighting for the Press: The Inside Story of the Pentagon Papers; James C. Goodale).

Though a few Republicans, such as Mitch McConnell (R-KY) sided with the Obama administration on this one, citing the need for better security and the risk faced by U.S. agents overseas, others in the GOP saw the investigations into the AP as little more than intimidation by the Obama administration, and questioned why—considering what they see as resistance and obtuse stonewalling on Benghazi—the Justice Department would waste resources and divert itself with what may be an unconstitutional penetration into the workings of reporters.

One Republican friend summed it up in an email to me on Saturday: the government can exert all these resources into phone calls by reporters and their sources regarding a Yemeni plot that never happened, but they can’t come clean on who knew what, and when, on the matter of those deadly attacks in Libya that killed our embassy personnel? Even as the White House scrambled to control the negative spin, some Republicans in Washington were asking the same question.

Still, the worst was yet to come for the White House. Midweek it was revealed that the Internal Revenue Service had been deliberately targeting conservative political organizations and right-tilting not-for-profits for intense, often harsh, scrutiny, an unprecedented move by the IRS and a clear violation of its charter as the agency charged with enforcing tax collections. The outrage on this issue was deafening. President Obama, making clear that he disapproved of the IRS tactics, sought as quickly as possible to control the narrative—but events by that point were moving too quickly for anyone to track. The President found himself in about as awkward a spot as he has experienced since his arrival in Washington, and within days he was forced defensively to ask for the resignation of the top IRS officer. Many of the groups targeted by the IRS were variants on the Tea Party, and some of the groups given the closest scrutiny say that the tactics bordered on harassment. Numerous Tea Party components had in the past complained of heavy-handed IRS activity, but the complaints had gone largely unnoticed in the media until last week’s disclosures of the tax agency scrutiny by what the IRS was calling “rogue operations.”

On Monday the White House admitted that some administration personnel knew in late April that a Treasury Department audit had shown that political groups with the words like “Tea” and “Patriot” had been singled out as early as 2010 for the kind of intense scrutiny that would typically delay receipt of the requested tax status—but, that those White House officials had not informed the President. Press spokesman Jay Carney explained this act of internal side-stepping as a reasonable action since the Treasury Department’s inquiry was active and ongoing. Why bother the President with such a small matter, and one still being investigated? Obama, he said, had learned of the IRS scrutiny of conservative groups only after it became front page news.

The President maintained his cool through the week but his frustrations were apparent. “If, in fact, IRS personnel engaged in the kind of practices that have been reported, and were intentionally targeting conservative groups, then that is outrageous, and there is no place for it, and they have to be held fully accountable.” Florida’s Marco Rubio said that others in positions of responsibility at the IRS should resign or lose their jobs. Senior Democrat Harry Reid said that he was “very troubled by the IRS’s possible breach of the public’s trust…targeting any group based on its political stance is completely inappropriate.”

Veteran reporter and author Bob Woodward said that although the actions of the Obama administration were clearly not on the epic scale of Watergate, there were certainly large numbers of individuals in the White House and in top levels of government behaving in Nixonian fashion.

Comparisons of Richard Nixon and Barack Obama, still a wild stretch perhaps in many peoples’ minds—and certainly unthinkable only a year ago—have now been floated so frequently that one is tempted to dust off old paperback copies of All The President’s Men and The Final Days to connect the historical dots. But former New York Times attorney James C. Goodale, writing in his new book Fighting for the Press, suggested in his closing chapters (some thought rather provocatively) that the Obama administration might be deliberately marching down the same path once tread routinely by Nixon and his inner circle—that of a government more interested in squelching dissent, reigning in negative reporting, quashing leaks, and using the blunt power of federal agencies to punish political adversaries.

Goodale theorizes that in order to co-opt the GOP position of a world descending into foreign policy risk and terrorist mayhem, Obama became an eleventh hour hawk—the killing of Bin Laden being the crowning achievement in this transformation—and in this migration from consensus builder to unilateralist, President Obama had little choice but to harden his positions on national security and secret intelligence. Obama became the very neo-con hawk he had once campaigned against. Now, members of the Washington press corps feel the intense chill that such a political transformation can yield.

In the meantime, the White House will surely survive this cycle of storms, just as they have weathered hard times in the past. The only question seems to be one of damage control. Midterm elections are a year away, and the political balance may rest on the outcome of events set in motion this past week.