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"Nixon was a lot smarter than Trump": Elizabeth Drew debunks Watergate, Russia parallel

Posted July 28

There has been no shortage of ink spilled over the similarities between Richard Nixon's Watergate scandal and the Russia investigation that's dogged Donald Trump's young presidency.

But beyond the fact that both presidents fired people with the power to prosecute them -- then, Archibald Cox; now, James Comey -- are the comparisons accurate?

Even though "the analogy to Nixon is all too good," Trump is very different from Nixon, Elizabeth Drew told Brian Stelter in this week's Reliable Sources podcast.

"Nixon was a lot smarter than Trump, he just knew more," Drew said.

Drew chronicled Nixon's demise during Watergate when she worked as a correspondent for the New Yorker. Now she writes for the New York Review of Books about the new president, who much like Nixon made "a huge mistake" in firing the person investigating him, she said.

Unlike Trump, a government and foreign policy neophyte, Nixon was a career politician who served in both the House and the Senate, and served as vice president to Dwight Eisenhower for eight years.

"Nixon was a much more informed and intelligent man," Drew told Stelter. "He was interested in issues, you could have a coherent conversation with [him]. He was a thinking person and he was interested in policy and foreign policy. I don't know what Trump is interested in other than maintaining power and trying to roll back what he can of what president Obama did."

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Nixon, who resigned in disgrace in August 1974, over two years after the Watergate break-in, was a fine foreign policy strategist. Among Nixon's accomplishments, Drew cites Nixon's Rapprochement with China in 1972 as a "gigantic step," as was his visit a few months later to the Soviet Union, which led to the ratification of arms control treaties. Nixon "was a student of foreign policy, he was fascinated by it," Drew said.

Trump, on the other hand, "came in totally unprepared for the job, frankly he doesn't seem very interested in governing," she added.

Trump's lack of experience worries Drew and "just about everybody I know," she told Stelter.

The fact that Trump "is rejecting advice from people he has around him," and his general preference for unscripted, off-the-cuff behavior, is concerning for her. Trump's impromptu conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin at this month's G20 meeting is particularly troubling to Drew, especially since his staff was not around.

"This President is not skilled enough, experienced enough, informed enough to take that on," she said.

Drew said her critique of Trump is not a matter of being in favor or against the President -- it's about the role of journalism in a democracy.

"I'm watching him, I'm worried about him," she said. "It is our job to look at the people in power, trying to understand what they are doing, how they are doing it, what they should be held accountable for."

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Trump beats Nixon at one thing: "He's kept us busier and more glued to the news than anyone in memory," Drew said. While she thinks the media is doing "a pretty good job" covering all the updates coming from Washington on a daily basis, there is one area in which journalists could step up their game.

"I think there can be, should be more organized deliberate attention to what is going on in the regulatory agencies. He doesn't need any legislation to try to do great many things that can be very consequential," Drew said. "That's where the action is. He's not getting anything through the Congress, which is a very, very big story."

What is comparable between Watergate and the current political moment? Drew thinks the common thread is the questions journalists should try to answer, such as: "What is this all about?"

"The heart of the story then and now is, can you hold a president accountable." Drew said.

So far, she thinks the press is succeeding at that. "Not everybody likes what they are doing, but there's a lot of competitive, tough, non-biased coverage, as there should be of any presidency."

Listen to the full podcast with Drew and Stelter here, and subscribe on iTunes.

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