In early 1974, fresh out of journalism school, I walked into the offices of the newly created Federal Energy Office in Washington and asked for a job.
Within days I was back — a freshly minted writer-editor in the public affairs office of an agency launched in response to an oil embargo imposed on the United States by major oil-exporting nations. William Simon, the deputy treasury secretary, was deployed as energy czar.
Today these names and dates may not mean much to most people, but they marked troubled times. With the Watergate scandal coming to a boil, an embattled President Richard Nixon was hiding out in the White House after declaring in November 1973 that he was “not a crook.” On Feb. 6, 1974, the House of Representatives voted 410 to 4 to authorize its Judiciary Committee to begin a formal impeachment inquiry.
Meanwhile, on March 14, the White House announced the resignation of Treasury Secretary George Shultz, and Nixon aides let it be known that Simon would be returning to the Treasury Department to replace him.
But more than a month passed before the White House officially announced Simon’s new appointment. During that period, Simon aides regularly called the White House chief of staff, Alexander Haig, a retired general, to ask when the formal announcement of Simon’s new job would be made.
It soon became clear that Nixon was hanging onto the presidency by his fingernails, incapacitated by the fear he might be forced out of office for wrongdoing. Let’s wait another day until we can nail down the president’s thinking on this, Haig repeatedly advised.
By the time the Simon announcement was issued, on April 17, it came in the form of a press release rather than a pronouncement by the president himself.
We are talking here about the tiniest wrinkle of history, but it may help us understand our own time. We would later read that Nixon was isolated inside the White House, drinking heavily, unable to sleep, brooding about his conduct and fate. In the final weeks before his resignation on Aug. 9, 1974, I’d moved on, to my first job as a journalist. But the president’s aides and family were quietly telling their closest friends and associates about a weeping president wandering the White House corridors late at night, giving speeches to the portraits on the walls. Nixon was crippled and Haig was pretty much running the country.
But Nixon was not yet out the door. Aides worried he might invoke his powers as commander in chief to surround the White House with tanks in a last-ditch effort to hold onto power. Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger looked into whether troops might at some point have to physically remove the president from the White House.
Haig worried that Nixon would attempt suicide — at one point the president lamented that while military men in his situation would have easy access to sidearms, “I don’t have a pistol.” On the evening of Aug. 7, Nixon asked Henry Kissinger, his secretary of state, to join him in the White House residence. Nixon wept over the inevitability of his coming resignation, got down on his knees and asked Kissinger to join him in a prayer for peace, both for himself and for his country.
This flashback to 1974 is what anyone worried about international peace and security and a healthy American democracy may want to keep in mind as Donald Trump’s presidency descends deeper into chaos and the House of Representatives pursues allegations that he is unfit to be the head of state and should be voted out of office.
We stand by helpless as a president seems to lose his grip on reality, showing signs of becoming more unhinged, and his supporters and staff look on in stunned silence. Some individuals in Trump’s entourage may still believe they have no choice but to publicly proclaim their faith in his ability to function as a clear-thinking human being and in his legal right to remain in charge. But we can be certain by this point that many of those around him are having serious thoughts about how long he can — and should — go on.
How close is he to melting down? Here is how, on Oct. 7, he defended his approval on Twitter of the withdrawal of US troops from Syria’s border, a shocking move that cleared the way for Turkey to obliterate Kurdish fighters who have played a crucial role in countering the Islamic State in the area:
“As I have stated strongly before, and just to reiterate, if Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey.”
How to begin to appraise this sentence?
From the start of his presidency, in January 2017, Trump has based his foreign policy on domestic considerations and more narrowly on his path to re-election in 2020. Rather than take a granular approach to international problems and challenges, he has focused on a superficial imagined view of what he thinks is going on in the world. His ego is there to back him up, even when his top advisers withdraw.
As a result, be it Iran, China, Russia, Ukraine, North Korea, Saudi Arabia or Israel, American foreign policy is now irrationally distorted. Decisions are based on ignorance and lies. Close allies are betrayed while treacherous thugs are embraced.
The situation, it seems, can go in either of two directions, and both are fraught.
Under one possible scenario, the more that Trump becomes bogged down in his defense against impeachment, the less he, like Nixon before him, will be mentally and physically capable of pursuing his alarming policies. This could ironically end up being a plus for the international community — unless, of course, the situations his policies are intended to address require wise and timely responses to avoid severely adverse outcomes.
Under the other scenario, the threat of losing the presidency could drive a deranged and distracted Trump to crazier extremes. The nuttier his responses, the more dangerous the world becomes — for Americans and for the rest of the world.
Trump defenders are mistaken when they argue that the drive to oust Trump from the White House is a veiled attempt to pre-empt the 2020 presidential election. Rather, ousting Trump would be a vital first step in restoring America’s international standing. And the sooner the better.