In this Jan. 31, 1973, file photo, President Richard Nixon speaks at a White House news conference in Washington, D.C.
Photo by AP

Trump eyes a page from Nixon’s Watergate playbook

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) raised an important point yesterday during an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper, noting how easy it would be for Donald Trump and the White House to resolve its ongoing scandal.

Referring to the questions about the American president’s alleged pressure on his Ukrainian counterpart, Schiff asked, “[W]hy doesn’t the president simply release the transcript of that call? And I don’t know whether the whistleblower complaint is on this allegation, but if it is, and even if it isn’t, why doesn’t the president just say, release the whistleblower complaint?”

Those need not be rhetorical questions. If the Republican were telling the truth – the call was innocuous, and the whistleblower complaint is laughable – it’d be easy to put the controversy to rest. Trump could release an unedited version of the transcript and provide Congress with the whistleblower complaint. So far, the president and his team are refusing to do either one.

In fact, Jake Tapper asked Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin why the administration wouldn’t simply provide the relevant lawmakers with the whistleblower complaint filed with the intelligence community’s inspector general. “I think would be a terrible precedent,” Mnuchin replied.

Since when does following federal law set a “terrible precedent”?

Trump did, however, say something interesting about disclosure yesterday. NBC News reported:

Speaking to reporters later on Sunday in Texas, Trump said he might provide a copy of the transcript to a “respected source,” adding “everyone will say” the conversation between him and Ukraine’s president was perfectly fine.

I’m skeptical the president will ever follow through, but it was his use of the phrase “respected source” that stood out for me – because in this case, Trump appears to be borrowing a page directly from Richard Nixon’s Watergate playbook.

In 1973, Nixon had no interest in giving up the White House audio recording – to the public, to the Congress, or to the special counsel investigating the scandal. The then-president came up with an alternative plan that became known as the “Stennis Compromise.”

Under the plan, the Republican White House would allow Sen. John Stennis, a conservative Democrat from Mississippi, to listen to Nixon’s tapes, at which point the senator would prepare a summary for everyone about what he’d heard. The senator could serve as a “respected source,” in lieu of actual transparency.

The fact that Stennis was famously hard of hearing added an unfortunate twist to the ridiculous proposal.

Not surprisingly, no one outside the West Wing took the “compromise” offer seriously, and Archibald Cox promptly rejected the idea. Nixon fired Cox the next day as part of the Saturday Night Massacre.

If Trump is serious about finding a “respected source” of his own to review the relevant materials, he should expect a similar reaction.

Postscript: The Stennis Compromise was offered on October 19, 1973. Depending on how the next month plays out, I wonder how close Trump will get to making a related offer on the anniversary of the event.