Donald Trump Might Be Taking His Richard Nixon Cosplay A Little Too Seriously
A re-creation of *this* would be fine, but only if it's not in a second term.
Donald Trump loves plagiarizing from Richard Nixon almost as much as his wife loves to put on her Michelle Obama suit. From his campaign talk of the "silent majority" to his "Madman strategy" in foreign policy (although at least Nixon insisted it was an act), plus the whole firing people he doesn't want investigating him thing. Stupid Watergate? Sure, that's him!
Yesterday's news that Trump's attorney Michael Cohen received $200,000 from AT&T, which was being sued by the Justice Department to prevent its merger with Time-Warner, also brings to mind one of Nixon's little misadentures: that time when the Nixon administration settled an antitrust lawsuit against ITT not long after the telecoms conglomerate came through with a nice $400,000 donation to rescue the financially strapped 1972 Republican convention in San Diego. If you remember the 1972 GOP convention as having been held in Miami Beach, that's because after the scandal broke, the Republicans hurriedly moved it, three months before it opened, to the whole other side of the continent.
As investigative reporter (and official Nixon Enemies List member) Jack Anderson recalled in 1996 (when the GOP finally did hold a convention in San Diego), Richard Nixon really wanted to hold his 1972 renomination in San Diego because the city had always been so good to him during his California political career. Unfortunately, neither the city nor its business establishment were as enthusiastic about that as Nixon was, and with the convention only a year away, the bid committee was still $400,000 short. At the last minute, a contribution for that amount came in from ITT and San Diego was awarded the convention, although as Anderson points out, the identity of the corporate savior wasn't known until he broke the story.
As it turned out, ITT had been stuck in a big messy antitrust lawsuit brought by Nixon's Justice Department, which was cracking down on a wave of giant mergers and acquisitions. Anderson explains what happened:
The department issued a public warning against any merger among the top 200 firms. Scarcely had this policy been proclaimed than ITT, then the ninth largest industrial firm, authorized acquisition of 22 domestic and 11 foreign corporations. This resulted in the biggest antitrust case in history.
On the eve of the 1972 election campaign, the Justice Department suddenly announced it had dropped the ITT suits and settled out of court. The political policymakers never bothered to explain this stunning development. They gambled on the news media's limited resources, short attention span, difficulty explaining complicated matters and inability to function when information is cut off.
Leakers inside ITT got evidence to Anderson that the settlement wasn't merely a coincidence of timing: A memo from ITT's head lobbyist, Dita Beard, in which she explicitly tied the antitrust settlement to the company's campaign contribution. In a closing that had obviously not been obeyed by the memo's recipient, Beard had written "Please destroy this, huh?" Anderson's researcher Brit Hume, who had not yet become the evil rightwing fuckknuckle he is today, got Beard to confirm she'd written the memo. Incidentally, according to Mark Feldstein, author of the 2010 book Poisoning the Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson, and the Rise of Washington’s Scandal Culture, Dita Beard was a hell of a character, the sort of player we wish we could find somewhere in this current bunch of clowns:
She was this hard-drinking, foul-mouthed, chain-smoking dealmaker in Washington at a time when very few women had any power. She did not dress or act the ladylike part. She would walk around disheveled and drink like a fish and curse like a sailor.
And she was pretty frank, and that’s what got her in trouble by writing the memo in the first place and admitting it to Hume in the second place. And then refusing to recant until it was too late in the game when it was obvious that she was being cornered, which she was.
Sadly, ITT paid off Beard with a nice West Virginia farm to retire to, and she never wrote the big tell-all book that would have answered all the remaining questions about the Nixon/ITT scandal.
In 1997, the National Archives released a tape from the Nixon White House that appeared to show Nixon knew all about the quid pro quo. During a May 13, 1971, Oval Office conversation, Nixon told his Best Flunkies H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman about a sweet "deal" in the works between ITT and deputy attorney general Richard Kleindienst:
"Kleindienst has the ITT thing settled," Nixon declared [...] "He cut a deal with ITT. We give them Hartford, which they badly need, and they give us Grinnell and one other merger which they don't need and which they're kind of sorry they got into, apparently."
Kleindienst was the man in charge of the dispute because Attorney General John N. Mitchell had disqualified himself. At stake were ITT's acquisitions of the Hartford Fire Insurance Co., the Grinnell Corp., and the Canteen Corp., the latest and among the largest of a series of purchases ITT had made since 1963.
Haldeman was apparently very interested in the news that ITT didn't actually want some of the companies it had been litigating to keep, and appreciated the low cunning of how the deal appeared to have bargained them away. The three of them sound like a bunch of two-bit gangsters, which certainly doesn't remind us of anyone today:
"We saved them," Haldeman exclaimed. "Because they didn't want -- "
Nixon cut him off. "Now this is very very hush hush and it has to be engineered very delicately and it'll take six months to do properly," the president said. "But -- "
This time Haldeman interrupted: "Does ITT have any money?"
"Geneen?" Nixon responded, referring to ITT president Harold S. Geneen.
"Geneen, yes," Haldeman said.
"Oh God yes," Nixon said. "Does he ever! That's part of this ballgame. . . . But it should be later. It should not be right now."
Ehrlichman picked up Nixon's message. "Ho-o-old on," Ehrlichman said in drawn-out tones, evidently directed at Haldeman.
"As a matter of fact," Nixon said, "we should use the go-between that Kleindienst is using, who's a member of Geneen's board."
As it happens, this conversation took place the day after Geneen had been asked by then-Rep. Bob Wilson to bail out the bid for the convention in San Diego. And as it also happened, ITT Sheraton was also in the middle of building a hotel in San Diego.
Wilson announced June 3, 1971, that the city had a pledge of $400,000 from "San Diego interests," which were not further identified until the next month. Was Nixon unaware on May 13 of this approach to Geneen? Or was he thinking of asking ITT to ante up again?
So, do AT&T's payments to Michael Cohen have any parallels to the Nixon/ITT deal, apart from involving an antitrust suit, hundreds of thousands of dollars given to someone with connections to a president, and two companies that used to mostly do telephones and telegraphs? AT&T says it had merely hired Cohen "to provide insights into understanding the new administration," and that Cohen hadn't actually done any work for the $200,000 he'd been paid, which seems rather lazy of him.
While AT&T also disputes the timing of the payments to Cohen that Michael Avenatti listed yesterday, saying they began and ended much earlier than Avenatti claimed, there's no doubt that Donald Trump opposed the AT&T-Time Warner merger from the get-go, and we don't yet know what Cohen did with the money he didn't earn. Unlike Nixon, it doesn't appear that Trump became any more disposed to make a deal with AT&T, but that doesn't necessarily mean the payments weren't an attempt to buy influence -- we just don't know yet.
We probably shouldn't hold out for the hope that anyone at AT&T outlined a possible deal in a memo and closed it with "Please destroy this, huh?" Your corporate crimers are a lot more careful about that sort of thing these days, at least outside of Trump Tower.
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