I’m Susan Glasser. This is The Global POLITICO and our guest this week is Elizabeth Drew — author, writer, a keen observer of Washington. We’ve already talked about her Washington Journal, which has had an unlikely but perhaps not entirely surprising resurrection this year, many decades after it was first written with a very different purpose in mind, which was to chronicle in real time what it felt like during the unraveling and what ended up being the end of the Nixon presidency.
She’s enjoying a spate of media attention in a very different context: the context of the Trump administration. She’s been prominently featured in a New York Magazine cover story that features a photoshopped Donald Trump in full Nixonian “V pose” on the cover and a very interesting and perceptive Frank Rich essay. She’s been featured with her picture in the New York Times and a very interesting piece by the historian Jon Meacham, resurrecting some of the choice bits in Washington Journal. She’s been on podcasts, proving you’re never too much of a veteran of Washington to adopt a new platform and a new media way of getting out, and she’s still writing fantastic, perceptive pieces in the New York Review of Books about the Trump presidency, as well as POLITICO Magazine, I might add. Elizabeth, thank you again for having us here.
We’re here in your beautiful Georgetown home, which actually has a Watergate connection, right? Wasn’t one of Nixon’s top advisors in—
Drew: Haldeman. Bob Haldeman lived in the house next to mine and I was like, “How did he tell his boss that he lived in Georgetown?” That’s enemy territory. You figured all of the Nixon people were in Chevy Chase or Virginia, but Haldeman was right there. Not when I was here.
Glasser: Well, Washington is a different place than it was in 1973 and 1974 as Watergate unfolded and I think that’s really the subject of our conversation today. How is Washington, do you think, most different today than it was in the Nixon era?
Drew: I think if I had said then—now 42 years ago when Nixon resigned—I think if I had said then that Washington is going to get meaner and more partisan, people would have said, “I can’t believe that. That’s not going to happen.” It was a very different kind of politics then. Bipartisanship was not the oddity. It was really the norm. That’s why the Nixon near-impeachment — as you know, Susan, he left office before it was sure that the House was going to vote to impeach him and then the Senate, which does the trial part of it, was going to convict him and Republicans convinced him of that and said, “You have no support.” So he got the clue that he better leave.
But he would have said, “Washington can’t be meaner than it is now.” But the reason that it worked is that it was a bipartisan approach in the House Judiciary Committee and they deliberately said, “We’re not going to let the left”—which sort of started the impeachment talk – “We’re not going to let them dominate this and we’re not going to let them put political questions in.” By political, it would mean like the war in Cambodia, the bombing of Cambodia or carrying on the Vietnam War longer arguably than it ever should have been. So those kinds of questions were ruled out and it came from the center of the committee. We don’t have a center anymore now and we certainly don’t have a Republican Party like that one. Try to name three Republican moderates in the House, even in the Senate. Even one or two.
Glasser: That’s what’s so valuable, I think, and why people have turned to reading your Washington Journal of 1973 and 1974. Again, in this very different political climate because, in fact, you lay out how the institutions of Washington, in effect, responded to this extraordinary series of abuses that really challenged the system. They had to make up a lot of processes as they went along. They had to fall back upon the political system as it existed in that moment. It’s almost like an x-ray in time where it shows you the strengths and weaknesses. And one of the big ones was clearly in Congress, that they were able to pull together a relatively bipartisan group of people to figure out what that process was.
Tell us how and why you wrote the book and whether you ever imagined that it would be valuable as a document four decades in?
Drew: I didn’t. This began as a journal I was writing for the New Yorker. I was writing for them and I had I just begun a it seems like a few months before and Mr. William Shawn, justly a legendary editor; I saw him after the Labor Day weekend of 1973. I had been visiting people around New York and he was this incredibly genius man with this little voice. A short little man with his little voice, big round eyes. He just saw everything and he said, “Well, what are you thinking about writing, Mrs. Drew?” Now, everybody was Mr. and Mrs.
Glasser: I love that. Mr. Shawn, Mrs. Drew.
Drew: Well, it was lovely in its way, but then after a while—this is not quite on point, but after a while—he called me up on a Saturday. He tended to do that and said—clearly, he had planned this. He said, “Would it be all right if I called you Elizabeth?” And I said, “Well, I would be honored, Mr. Shawn.” And he said, “And you could call me Bill.” There was something about Bill that was very hard to get out so I had to walk around the house saying, “Bill, Bill, Bill” until I got it. Anyways, he was still Mr. Shawn then and I had—I may be a witch. I just had this instinct. I said, “I think that we might change vice presidents and presidents within a year.”
Now, this was a wild thought in the fall of 1973. I just smelled it. Vice President Agnew; he’s a forgotten figure, but he was already in some trouble just for sitting in his office, taking cash payoffs from a Maryland contractor. He had been governor of Maryland. So he was in big trouble but the raid on the Watergate offices of the DNC; Democratic National Committee, and I want to come back to that, if we can—had occurred and it didn’t seem right. It seemed that there were some strange goings on there and I just had this instinct. So we were talking about how to write about it and I’ve experimented this a little bit with The Atlantic but I had left The Atlantic for a while and I suggested that I try to do it as a journal of the period.
We didn’t know how long it would go on or we certainly didn’t know what would happen and I still remember the Saturday, the president, he had demanded that—I’m sorry; the independent prosecutor, he was called then. Archibald Cox had demanded that Nixon—the then-special prosecutor, Archibald Cox, had demanded the tapes. It had been found out that they had the taping system in the Oval Office and Nixon was determined not to turn them over. So that was that particular crisis.
Glasser: The Saturday Night Massacre?
Drew: That was right, but it was that Saturday and we knew that there was going to be a collision and Cox had a press conference where he got all folksy and “aw shucks.” But he was playing Jimmy Stewart a little bit, I think. And Shawn called me up and said, “Well, Elizabeth, don’t you think this might be it?” And I said, “Yes, I think this might be it, and we better keep going then.” So we had those conversations. But the idea was to do a journal of the period. I ran all over the place; to hearings on the Hill, meetings on the Hill, the courts, the White House. You could talk to people in the Nixon White House through this whole thing.
That was a much more open White House than many that have been since. And I had a great, great mentor. I was very lucky to have William Shawn as the editor and my great mentor was a man named John Gardner, who had been secretary of what was then Health, Education, and Welfare. He left that over the Vietnam War but he didn’t make a fuss about it because he was what was known as a—he was a Republican. He was a Rockefeller Republican and he didn’t want it to look political so nobody knew publicly that that’s why he started Common Cause. Anyway, we had lunch and I told him about the assignment and he said, “Talk slowly, Elizabeth. Write it so that 40 years from now, people can say, “So that’s what it was like.” Now, I know nothing that I did with that in mind.
But what happened was we reissued the book a little over two years ago now in 2014, timed to the date that Nixon left office, and it did all right. It did fine but Donald Trump has done wonders for that book.
Glasser: Well, that’s right and you mentioned the Saturday Night Massacre. For us right now, it seems like this current bout of Watergate analogies and people looking back to books like yours and trying to study the history really took off in May with the firing of James Comey. I guess that was late April but that was sort of the—if not the Saturday Night Massacre, that clearly in this very young Trump presidency was probably the moment when heads really snapped and people took much more seriously the possibility that we would be enmeshed in almost a permanent machinery of investigations and that the use of the I-word, the impeachment word, suddenly became something more acceptable. Do you agree with that? That that was a changed moment in how we looked at Trump?
Before then, people talked about Watergate. They asked you about it. You did some interviews on it but there was a little bit of an embarrassment. Like, “Oh, are we being a little too frenzied here by making these Watergate comparisons?” Since the Comey firing, people seem a lot more unabashed.
Drew: Well, yes, but people were saying to me and I had some friends who would say, “Is this what Watergate was like? Do you think this is Watergate?” And my view is always and still would be: No, because each one has its own characteristics. I’m very glad that so far no one has come up with a name for this one with the suffix “-gate.” Bill Safire, who had been a speechwriter, actually for Agnew and also for President Nixon—when he became a columnist, he started attaching the suffix “-gate” to everything in order to belittle the term and so it’s a kind of lazy formulation that people have.
But I’ve been dreading that this would be called “Russiagate” and so on, but so far, we’ve escaped that and it’s a good thing. But Susan, I want to explain something. There is one very strong similarity between the two periods. Because this gets down to, “Well, what was Watergate?” And I felt throughout it was a very unfashionable thought. A lot of people just treat it as a detective story and a lot of people still think it was a detective story that these odd people broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters. They got caught because of a night watchman, caught the tape on the door. They were indicted. The cover up began. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, they did incredible reporting.
They were just dogged and they kept at it and they broke the case of the cover up, but Watergate was much bigger than just that invasion of the DNC headquarters. To me, the worst thing that the so-called burglars—plumbers, rather. They were called plumbers because they were plumbing leaks. [LAUGHS] But they have the name “Plumbers” on their door in the Executive Office Building. They had an office there. They broke into the office of the psychiatrist of Daniel Ellsberg, who had leaked the Pentagon Papers. In some ways, Watergate was as much about the Pentagon Papers as anything else. Now, just think about it: these bums breaking into somebody’s psychiatrist’s office to try to get his files, fortunately, were so incompetent. They messed up everything they did. They were real stumblebums. There were no files in that office although they supposedly cased it.
But that was really more troubling than the break-in to the Watergate, and it was a whole array of abuse of power, where they used the instruments of government against Nixon’s perceived enemies — and he was very good at perceiving enemies. We don’t have that now but Watergate was not a simple detective story. I always thought it was a constitutional crisis. And we still have that element of it. It’s: Can you hold a president accountable for the acts of his subordinates? We’re going to get to that question at some point in this. I don’t know when. I’m getting ahead of the story but the most important article of impeachment against Nixon was Article II, which held that a president could be held accountable for the acts of his subordinates, even if he really didn’t know anything about it.
That they created an atmosphere where these things can happen and if it ever got to impeachment and I don’t know if it will or won’t. People insist it won’t. I don’t know. It could under certain circumstances. This is a very important question. We were scared then in a way that we aren’t now. So it was quite different.
Glasser: That’s right and I think re-reading it and I did pick up the book this year as many people have and read it again with fresh eyes and certainly trying to think about Washington of 2017 and Washington of 1974. What’s the same and what’s different, right? Some things about Washington really don’t change because it’s a city that’s sort of an insider’s town, right? It’s a one-horse town, it’s a company town, power is the currency here and the platforms may change or the mediums but the core institutions are kind of the same. So people who are familiar with Congress today will find echoes in the Congress then, although there have been some important changes. But I found that it was very valuable as this Trump thing has started to unfold to go back and read your account of especially how they’re dealing with it on Capitol Hill and in the political world.
And that the Woodward-Bernstein saga that we’re more familiar with, that’s a great movie. You want to watch All the President’s Men? It’s a great movie. I’ve rewatched it this spring and I bet a lot of our listeners have, too.
Drew: Did you see me? I’m in it.
Glasser: Tell that story.
Drew: Well, I did hear about this. At that point, I didn’t know Allen Pakula, who was making the movie. I knew he was here and somebody told me that he was including a snippet of an interview that I gave. I had a half-hour interview program.
Glasser: On PBS.
Drew: On PBS for two-and-a-half years. And I had interviewed Richard Kleindienst, who was then the attorney general. And he was going on and on and on about what a great investigation they had run and this many FBI inquiries and blah, blah, blah. And I just said to him, “I like the short questions.” I just said, “Well, did you know they said they were shredding documents at the CREEP, which was the Committee to Reelect the President, appropriately named.” And he said, “No.” And I’ve been told that the movie was running like four hours long and Alan was cutting like mad but he insisted on having that in there. I didn’t know Bob and Carl then but they both called me up because there were other parts of the interview got them off the hook on something that they were kind of tense about. And then we became friends then.
Glasser: But you did look very fab and very 1970s in a chic way in that—
Drew: Oh, that bouffant hairdo is really quite amusing. People still call me up laughing about that. You have to look fast because it comes and goes quite quickly.
Glasser: But I know the scene.
Drew: That’s my movie career, my entire movie career.
Glasser: If you’re going to be in one movie, All the President’s Men is probably a pretty good movie to be in, but the reason I brought it up, though, is because in a way, our memories of Watergate had been reduced to this detective story and what I found in trying to think about how Washington would respond to—we could tell from early on the almost permanent crisis of the Trump presidency, even if we don’t yet know where the story is going. I found your book to be in some ways, more valuable because it shows it unfolding in real time and you take some—
Drew: That was the idea.
Glasser: And number one, right, which is that it’s not inevitable. We don’t know where it’s going to end up. Number two, Congress might be filled with bumbling people. It might have a cumbersome or not very good process. But in the end, it’s going to fall like a stinking mess in their lap and show all of the institution’s weaknesses and hopefully, some hidden strengths will be revealed. You spend a lot of time up on the Hill, which I found to be valuable. And then number three, the difficulty of wrestling with the politics of Watergate at any given moment. I found that very analogous to the Trump situation. People constantly stating, “The American people aren’t interested in Watergate. The American people aren’t interested in the Russia story.”
Drew: May I just interrupt? Whenever you hear a politician saying that it’s because they don’t want the subject discussed that you’re bringing up and politicians, there are certain permanent things. They don’t really like to deal with very hard questions. And the miracle, really, the miracle of Watergate was how this House Judiciary Committee just had it starting then, by Peter Rodino, an unknown congressman from New Jersey. Of course, the Nixon White House put out the rumors, totally untrue, that he was mobbed up and so on. And he stepped up to this in a way that nobody could have expected and they made some very wise decisions, he and his top advisers, which were, as I said earlier, to make this bipartisan and come from the center or the public wouldn’t buy it. And so we didn’t have any revolutions because Nixon was forced to leave office. By the time that happened, it was widely accepted that he had to but the enormous difference between those politics and now is you had a very different Republican Party.
It was filled with moderate Republicans. They’re very hard to find now and so the whole situation was not as partisan as now. It was a Democratic Congress. Now, would a Republican Congress ever get into impeachment? A lot of people just insist no. I’m agnostic and I don’t really think I can guess the future, nor do I much care. I’d rather be surprised. So I don’t rule it out that it might be forced on them.
Glasser: We’re likely to be surprised given this news environment.
Drew: There’s almost a surprise a day. Let me point out another way in which Washington is very different from then is that we had two newspapers. There was no cable television. Certainly, no Twitter. I think it would have gone bad in a period like that because the rumors would get going and you could just go crazy trying to separate what was really important from the chatter. And so it was a lot harder to cover in its way. For all of its complexity, it was a simpler story and the story is: Can you hold a president accountable?
Glasser: Well, that’s right and you focus in this journal very much on these essential questions. Because you don’t have Twitter and you’re not sitting here trying to grapple with a 24-hours news story, you went up to Capitol Hill and you reported. You had a very good reporting technique of visiting certain key members of Congress who you felt would be decisive in the ultimate outcome and going back to see them over time, going to have lunch with them. Here’s your key Republican moderate that you went to. Here’s your key person on the Judiciary Committee. And so you were physically going in person and doing a lot of reporting. I think it forced you to focus on some more elemental issues. What’s the bottom line? What are the politics of Congress?
What can the load bear as far as the Republican members? What are they looking for, and these basic questions of accountability? You wrote a lot about the Federalist Papers and what the Founding Fathers had to say about impeachment and where its origins in British jurisprudence would be relevant and not relevant to deciding questions about the American presidency. You talk about the constitutional issues.
Drew: It was a marvelously educational period. We had not had an impeachment in this country since right after the Civil War when one process was begun against Andrew Johnson, who had succeeded Lincoln, and Johnson a very controversial figure and I think it can be easily said that that impeachment process was really political. People wanted to use something to get Johnson and he just escaped conviction in the Senate by one vote. But that was a century before, at least. And so we didn’t know what impeachment was. That was one of the things Mr. Shawn and I were talking about.
Glasser: The Bill never took?
Drew: It did, but I don’t still talk about me and my editor Bill. We hadn’t had an impeachment. We didn’t know what it was. There was one book about impeachment. It was a run on the stores. It was right after the Saturday Night Massacre. We really went back to fundamentals on what the founders meant by the words they put in the Constitution. They said a president can be impeached for bribery. Bribery, treason, and other high crimes and misdemeanors.
Glasser: And misdemeanors.
Drew: So what do they mean by “high crime”? There was a lot of discussion about that and it was decided—and it’s very important to remember this now. That there are some things that are not literally crimes. Crimes on the books. That is what our special counsel is going to be looking at but there are other kinds of offenses; really offenses against the Constitution that are not literally crimes, but they are impeachable offenses. We call them political questions because these were crimes against the polity and you need that category. This is nothing that the special counsel can get to but I don’t know if we’ll get there or not but the question is: Is it abuse of the power of the presidency or a failure to, as the Constitution directs, take care that the laws be faithfully executed?
Glasser: That’s right, this issue of accountability of the president for the actions of—in Nixon’s case, his staff. In Trump’s case, it may well be not only his staff but his family that comes into play. That was a big subject of debate and wrangling in the House Judiciary Committee as they considered the articles of impeachment.
Drew: Well, but it didn’t come off as wrangling. It was a very high-minded discussion. Now, Nixon had on that committee—as I said, there were a number of moderates. There were also some very strong conservatives and one or two stuck with him until the very end. So it wasn’t a wrangle. It was a sober discussion. The excellent thing about that period was that these politicians rose to it.
They behaved in ways that you wouldn’t have expected. There was one member of the House committee—I can’t say who, and my God, we sort of thought he was James Madison because he gave such thoughtful speeches and we attributed these very high powers to them. And then this congressman and I had dinner after it was over to clear up some points that I was curious about. And he started telling me about how the Judiciary Committee is a great place to be because they can take all these trips and they can take their girlfriends and who is a swinger and I was so disillusioned.
Glasser: This was the ‘70s, after all.
Drew: This was something that the politician rose to. I don’t know if they’re capable of it again, but they really did and it was a fascinating discussion, period. Of course, when they put impeachment in the Constitution, there was an impeachment going on in England and so they picked up a lot of the ideas from them. But then, they felt that it was terribly important that you have this category of actions that are not, strictly speaking, in the criminal code and that’s all, the special counsel, whoever he is, can do. But there are these other crimes against the Constitution, failures to execute the laws faithfully. Failures to protect the country.
Now, there are impeachable offenses that we talk about and I can try to think of what they would be and one could possibly be we have a president who did nothing about the fact that a hostile government did mess with our election system. And the current president doesn’t really want to acknowledge that. When he and Putin met in Hamburg, Germany, not all that long ago, they were both anxious to put the whole Russia question behind them. It served both of their purposes. But that’s not the complete story and I don’t know if we’re going to get the complete examination of it. We don’t know how far this is going to go, how long it’s going to take. It could take quite a while. There’s just no telling.
Glasser: Let’s talk Trump now that we’re sort of deep into it. You have made a compelling case at various points about the differences in their personality and background between President Nixon and President Trump. But you are also a keen-eyed observer of what’s been going on in the last six months here in Washington with President Trump as things look a little bit different now, I think than they did on January 20. What do we know now or how does it feel now that is different than it was at the very beginning? There were anxieties, certainly, about what kind of president Trump would be after the campaign he ran, given his background. But how do you see it? How is it different?
Drew: Different from when it began here?
Glasser: Exactly, what have we learned about Trump or how serious the allegations are around him that we didn’t know before?
Drew: Well, the main thing is what didn’t happen during the campaign and leading up to his inaugural. I think his inaugural address certainly set the point. This was not a man who was going to change. People would say, “Oh, well, when he gets to the presidency, you’ll see the majesty of the office. He will rise to the event.” No, he’s a 70- to a 71-year-old man who is used to having his way.
He ran a family business and he took the family business to the White House, I’m sure to the everlasting regret of some of the family for having gone. He had no idea that he couldn’t just get his way. He had no board of his company. It was just him and his kids and he didn’t have to answer to anyone. He can’t stand the idea that there are these institutions and forces getting in his way. And so in that sense, we weren’t sure about how he would behave but the inaugural speech should have told us. It was a very combative speech and it was really inappropriate. And then, right away, he started in on, “Well, my crowd was bigger than Obama’s crowd.” He’s still competing with Barack Obama, who drives him crazy.
Glasser: But as a politician, we knew him pretty well in that thin-skinned way. But the scandal surrounding him and the investigation in particular of the Russian meddling in the 2016 election clearly was at a different place than you or I might have expected. Back in February, you told somebody who asked you about the Watergate comparison, “Whoa, let’s be a little bit careful. We’re not in anything like that now.” Are we in something that’s more like that now?
Drew: Something that’s more like it, but I really think that—as much as I would like people to read my book, that they kind of leave it alone in the sense that Watergate was what it was. This is different and as I said, I’m so happy there’s been no something -gate affixed to it. Yes, we just talked about Russia or the Russia scandal; this is, in many ways, more complicated than Watergate was. They’re going to get into people’s financial arrangements. Mr. Trump, Mr. Kushner’s, and so on. It’s very complicated stories and these tentacles or tendrils keep turning up. It changed in that he didn’t change and we began to see earlier than I think we would have expected, the consequences of this. It’s moved rather swiftly.
But one of the talking points that the White House or the president’s allies have been using is while this investigation has been going on for months and months and months and they haven’t found anything, so there’s nothing there. Wait a minute. Mr. Comey was fired in May so Mr. Mueller just came in then. We’re talking about the middle of May. He spent a lot of time staffing up and look at it from his situation: when you think you know what you’re looking for and then something like Don Junior’s email chain coming out; well, then he has to look at that.
So it’s a very sprawling problem, set of issues and it’s a very sprawling kind of investigation. You have at least three committees on the Hill and the House and Senate doing their own investigation and you’ve got the special counsel, who is more important, in a way, because he can bring indictments if he wants to. If he does, then they’re turned over to the House because there’s a big argument whether you can indict a sitting president. Nixon was never indicted when he was there.
Glasser: Well, listen, you mentioned Don Junior’s email. People within about 20 seconds were calling it the “smoking gun” email, and of course, “smoking gun” is a reference to a crucial tape that was revealed and that many people argue was sort of the true end for Nixon and the presidency, which came to an end.
Drew: And you know what? I hate that because when that piece of tape came out in August of 1974, the House Judiciary Committee had already voted three articles of impeachment against Nixon. And the first was obstruction of justice. I think we already have an obstruction of justice, certainly as an impeachable offense. You need less proof.
Glasser: And that would be the firing of James Comey?
Drew: Well, it would be a pattern of things; of the president trying to stop the investigation, whether it was firing Comey, which he said, it was this Russia thing that caused him to do it; attempting to get other heads of intelligence agencies to say, well, he sees no collusion. There’s nothing here. And people keep trying to artificially end it. But it’s not going to work that way and it keeps sprawling.
Glasser: So the smoking gun analogy to you misstates the fact that the process was already so far in motion and the politics weren’t going to shift at that point.
Drew: And there was no question that Nixon was going to be impeached and probably convicted, which was why he left. One of the reasons was a very practical one. If he had been run out of office by these processes, he wouldn’t have had the various pensions, money for staff. He had quite an arrangement made for his departure and that’s how he got his memoirs written. He had a whole staff.
Glasser: Let me ask you though, about Don Junior’s email the other day. Did it strike you with the force of revelation? Do you believe that’s a significant development to have in writing from someone who says they’re acting on behalf of the Russian government and that the Russian government is supporting Donald Trump’s campaign with information?
Drew: Well, we’re back to the smoking gun question, which you wisely asked. So the House Judiciary Committee had already voted three articles of impeachment and then what happened was all of a sudden, a tape turned up that hadn’t been turned over before and you could see why. That was evidence of Nixon trying to get rid of the investigation by having one of his aides tell the director of the CIA to call the head of the FBI and say, “Stay away from this if you’re dealing with national security.” That was taped and it was so obvious.
But what I didn’t like about the smoking gun thing is you had a room full of smoke and we have that now. So there’s got to be a fire in there somewhere and if it had gone on track, Nixon would have been put through a process. This short-circuited the process, the discovery of this tape, and a lot of people think, “Well, that’s why he was forced to resign.” No, he would have been anyway by a real process that was going on.
Glasser: Well, I think that’s an important analogy. When you look at the last six months, what are other important things that you’ve been bringing into your monitoring of these Trump events? You and I were together actually on the evening that James Comey was fired and it just so happened that we were both at a book party in that sort of Washington way and people there had no questions about this being a significant escalation and a significant moment in the Trump presidency.
Drew: Well, the firing of an FBI director is a pretty big thing to do and it just happened just before this party began and I can still remember. I arrived. It happened about 5:00, something like that. And I arrived and there have to be some moments when you don’t have the television on. That’s harder and harder to get those and you told me what had happened. I didn’t even know. So people were doing “Saturday Night Massacre” because it’s something they could relate to even if they aren’t sure what it was that happened. But firing someone who is investigating you is a pretty big thing for a president to do and in that sense, there was an analogy. And it was an incredibly stupid thing for him to do. I have a kind of stupid theory about this whole thing, Susan.
It is constitutional and it is very, very serious but I think Trump and his staff, as you know—they’re all at war with each other all the time. I guess I didn’t expect the White House would be such in shambles as this one has been.
Glasser: Although you pointed out that even the Nixon White House at times seemed like the Court of the Borgias to you. That’s sort of analogous or maybe these people aren’t as elaborate in their machinations.
Drew: It wasn’t a constant war among the people and the factions there the way the Trump presidency has been. It felt like that then, but it wasn’t anything like it is now. I’m sort of at the point where if I see a story that says, “Trump May Shake Up Staff,” I just don’t read it because we get that about every other day and he either will or he won’t and I’m content to wait and see.
Glasser: And he hasn’t fired any of them yet…
Drew: Well, there’s a little problem of getting people who want to work at this White House. He’s not overrun with applicants. The same thing with the agencies. Now, your general beat is foreign policy and I wouldn’t pretend to be an expert on that but I can certainly see, again, that the president’s attitude toward government is such that, “Well, you don’t need all of these people in the State Department.” And is Mr. Tillerson really the secretary of state or has Mr. Kushner been playing that role? It’s a kind of miserable situation for the foreign policy people. As you well know, we don’t have assistant secretaries for the various regions. There’s hardly an ambassador that has been chosen.
And it’s true of other agencies, but on foreign policy, you need expertise desperately and a lot of the experts have finally given up or they’ve quit and they don’t know how long they’re going to have this secretary of state. So it’s a mess. I didn’t think it would be this sloppy and this messy. There’s a part of Trump that I’m sure Steve Bannon appeals to, which is—he’s sort of anti-government. It’s a fancy phrase for it that’s ridiculous. But, “We don’t need to fill these jobs. We can do it.” And I think they really thought they could run this whole thing from the White House and they’re finding out it doesn’t work that way and it doesn’t work very well.
Glasser: Well, is that your, in a nutshell, your stupid theory of the case? Let’s go back to that.
Drew: My stupid theory of the case is that they’ve done such dumb things since he was inaugurated and the dumbest of all was that historic night when he fired the FBI director. Now, Nixon was a much smarter man than Trump is. Nixon read books. Nixon thought. Nixon thought about policy. You could have a coherent conversation with Richard Nixon. He didn’t do it easily or casually. But he was very smart. But they both made the same mistake, which was firing your prosecutor. That was really stupid. So my stupid theory is since they’ve done stupid things since they took office, they undoubtedly did stupid things while they were running for office.
And the first obvious evidence of that is the email chain that affects Don Junior. He was one of the ones arguing, as was Mr. Kushner, arguing for firing Comey, which any second grader could say, “You’re going to have a problem.” It’s like the kids firing their teacher. You don’t do that.
Glasser: You don’t need a high-priced lawyer, I think it’s fair to say, to give you that advice. You made the excellent point that this is The Global POLITICO and generally speaking, we’re trying to look at the intersection between Washington and the world, and the reason that we’re talking about Watergate and the Trump investigations is because arguably what’s going on in Washington is the number one geopolitical story. It’s the number one, and so I feel that you have to talk about American domestic politics if you’re really going to talk about foreign policy.
But that being said, one of the reasons I wanted to talk to you and I think it’s a good note to end our conversation on, was this debate that I’ve increasingly found myself enmeshed in with other people, which is: what does Washington in 2017 most resemble? Is it really Watergate? Are we living through sort of a weird echo of that kind of an ‘abuse of power by the president’ scandal or does it resemble really more the unraveling of the liberal international order in the way that unfolded in slower motion over the 1920s and into the 1930s as the world went into crisis after economic depression and back towards world war?
Now, that sounds like really scary stuff and honestly, what I’ve been saying to people is, “I really hope it’s not the 1920s. I hope it’s not the 1930s. Watergate can even seem like a best-case scenario.” Do you feel like we’re also having an international crisis?
Drew: There’s no question about that and I said to you earlier because we were afraid during Watergate. We knew that the president was using the instruments of government against anybody he thought was his enemy. He confused political opponents with enemies and we would joke about it sort of nervously. Well, do you think our conversation is being tapped? There’s a car with somebody in it parked outside your house all day and you wonder, “What is that person doing?” Now, we’re scared in a different way.
I don’t know about you, but I think it probably was true. We worry when the president goes abroad. There’s no accounting for what he’s going to say and do. Think about it: he came out from a two-hour and 15-minute conversation with Putin with the bright idea that Russia and the United States would have a joint anti-cyber war arrangement. Putin must have been laughing hysterically afterward that he got Trump to agree to that. And within a day, Trump dropped it when people said, “That’s the stupidest.” I think it was Lindsey Graham who said, “If it isn’t the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard, it’s really quite close to it.” And did you know there were no notes taken in this meeting? I’m assuming that a certain amount of time was taken up by—Trump is a very talkative guy. Him talking again about “I had the best Electoral College numbers.” Which is not true and he’s so insistent on, “I won. I won. I won.” Putin probably had to listen to that for quite some time.
So he is a crisis. That’s what we fear. Because he’s so unfamiliar with what government is, is supposed to be domestically or internationally. He doesn’t really quite know what to do. So when he goes abroad, we worry, and we didn’t used to worry about something like that.
Glasser: No, if anything, Nixon used his foreign trips as a way of shoring up his flagging domestic support and in fact, it was just not even a month before the end of his presidency that he was on a world tour and going to Moscow and going to Saudi Arabia in ways that were not condemned by foreign policy experts but actually were seen as part of his relatively shrewd international portfolio.
Drew: It didn’t do him any good, and I think the Trump White House keeps thinking, “Well, when he takes this trip, the country is going to see how marvelously he handled it.” Well, from what we know, he didn’t handle the ones we know about very well at all and we’re sort of fearful about what’s he going to say next and what’s he going to commit us to. So Trump is a running crisis. That’s the crisis is the president and the presidency.
Glasser: That’s why there’s no -gate attached to it.
Drew: Thank heavens.
Glasser: Elizabeth, we don’t know and that is part of sort of the agony of waking up every morning here in 2017. We know we’re in the middle of a story that is consequential, that is even a crisis at various moments. But we don’t know how the movie ends yet and you summed that up in your most recent piece for the New York Review of Books. You said, “We don’t know, but what is knowable is that an increasingly agitated Donald Trump’s hold on the presidency is beginning to slip.” What do you think? Do you have a crystal ball for us? Can you help us know where the movie ends?
Drew: No, and I shouldn’t. We shouldn’t. This cannot be a rush to judgment. It’s a huge thing to try to decide about the viability of a president. That’s an awesome thing if you think about it and if anything is going to be done about whether he remains president, it has to be done slowly, carefully, with some bipartisanship. I don’t know if we can get that in this day and age. So the only thing I’ll predict is this is going to go on for quite a while and having said that, there’s probably going to be a resignation 10 minutes from now.
Glasser: Elizabeth Drew, thank you so much. This is a very special episode of The Global POLITICO from here in your beautiful dining room in Georgetown. We’re so grateful to you for sharing your time with us and of course, we’re grateful to all of our listeners at The Global POLITICO. You can email me anytime at SGlasser@POLITICO.com. I hope you’ll subscribe to us on iTunes, rate us, and of course, join me in thanking Elizabeth Drew for being this week’s guest on The Global POLITICO.
Drew: Well, thank you, Susan. I really enjoyed talking to you. There was one thing I wanted to insert. Maybe let me say it and you see if you can work it in. You described Washington as we see it, which is the political Washington. As I pointed out in the first edition in the Watergate series, there are people here who are dentists, they sell shoes, who lead perfectly normal lives and so it’s not just one vast pool of—I was going to say cesspool but of people—
Drew: Swamp? Well, that’s Trump’s word for it. Who do nothing all day but talk about what’s going on. The fact is actually one o the experiences now is to be in the dental chair and the dentist starts talking about what’s going on and I would really rather not talk about it when I go to the dentist. It’s very hard to get away from it. You go to a restaurant and people on either side of you, the tables on either side of you are hearing, “Trump, impeach.”
Glasser: By the way, that’s around the world. Do you know I’ve been doing a lot of traveling over the last few months? I have sat down next to people in restaurants in London, random British businessmen and heard them talking about Mar-A-Lago this and Trump that. I’ve had that experience in Berlin, by the way, listening to people at the next table talking about Trump. And it’s one of those—not just Washington, but global phenomenon right now. I wonder if that was true during Watergate.
Drew: We didn’t think of it that much that way during Watergate. Remember, Watergate happened—the break in that made the story happened during Nixon’s reelection campaign so Watergate really didn’t occur until the first two years of his second term, which makes it very different from now where everything is brand new and we’re still finding out a lot about this president and we just don’t know what’s going to happen when. Which is fine with me. I’m content to just see it play out.
Glasser: Excellent point. We’ll definitely put that in. That was perfect.
Drew: Thank you.