Nixon tried to rig an election, too. But unlike Trump, at least he tried to hide it

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On June 23 1972, President Richard Nixon sat down for a conversation with H.R. Haldeman, his chief of staff and one of the most powerful people in government.

They discussed the investigation into the break-in at the Democratic National Committee offices in the Watergate complex. The probe was less than a week old, but it was already making the White House nervous.

“Their investigation is now leading into some productive areas,” Haldeman told Nixon.

Thanks to a stunning new book by Garrett Graff — “Watergate, A New History” — we are reminded what those “productive areas” could be: Nixon’s long history of dark interference with the electoral process.

That interference included an attempt to sabotage the 1968 Paris peace talks, shaking down businesses for campaign contributions, using wiretaps and surveillance on political enemies, and even breaking into the office of a private psychiatrist.

A full Watergate investigation might reveal those efforts, and others. It had to be stopped.

Haldeman’s idea? Order the CIA to tell the FBI to stay out of the case. “All right,” Nixon agreed, sealing his fate: When this taped conversation emerged a little more than two years later, it was the smoking gun that confirmed his role in the Watergate cover-up and forced his resignation.

To listen to the conversation today is to be reminded of the banality of criminal behavior. Nixon and Haldeman could just have easily discussed what to order for lunch.

But it also snaps the mind back to the present day, as a different congressional committee ponders a different kind of lawless behavior, from a different president.

Watergate’s 50th anniversary has prompted an intense debate over who more threatened American democracy: Nixon, or Donald Trump? Reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who broke some (but not all) of the Watergate story, think it’s Trump: “the first seditious president in our history,” they write.

Others say we shouldn’t forget Nixon’s crookedness, or the crimes of those around him.

It’s a close call. Better, perhaps, to think of Trump and Nixon as two sides of the same coin: Both embraced illegal behavior to win, and to stay in office. Where they differed is their approach to lawlessness. While Nixon tried to hide it, Trump advertised it.

Graff’s book astonishes us, again, with the gritty details of the Nixon-endorsed cover-up: bags of cash, weapons locked in White House safes, middle-of-the-night phone calls from secret pay phones on darkened street corners.

Cash taped to ankles. Payoffs to Watergate burglars. It was sordid, crime-novel stuff, all designed to disguise various White House crimes, all stonewalled by Nixon and his men.

On the other hand, the Jan. 6 committee shows Trump isn’t hiding anything. Here he is, openly calling Georgia officials to pressure them to overturn the election results (“Fellas, I need 11,000 votes,” Trump says on a taped phone call. “Give me a break.”)

There he is, pressuring state legislators to break the law and certify him. Now he’s calling Vice President Mike Pence a vulgarity for refusing to stop the Electoral College count in Congress.

Somewhere, Nixon is smiling.

Trump revels in his law-breaking — indeed, some believe that’s the source of his remaining appeal to some voters. “When the president does it, that means it is not illegal,” Nixon later told interviewer David Frost, a proposition that shocked the nation but Trump seems to have adopted as true.

“You’ve got to fight like hell,” Trump told the Jan. 6 rioters. And they did.

Richard Nixon assaulted self-government 50 years ago. When the immediate Watergate saga came to a close in 1974, the nation breathed a sigh of relief: That was close. Let’s make sure it never happens again.

It did happen again, though. It’s happening now, in plain sight.