Now that special counsel Robert Mueller has filed his long-awaited report, one of the most important questions in the country is how President Donald Trump's supporters will react if the report reveals serious wrongdoing by Trump.
The prospect of a sitting president being implicated in federal crimes is not unprecedented: To gain a historical perspective on how Trump and his closest allies—both in government and in the electorate—might react if the Mueller report proves damning, one only needs to look as far back as 1974.
Richard Nixon's presidency eventually collapsed under the weight of the Watergate scandal, and he resigned in August of 1974. But for the first half of that year, Nixon and his supporters launched a scorched-earth attack against those who accused the president of orchestrating the scandal. Their strategy can be broken down into two main components: First, Nixon and his allies minimized the crimes and accused the press of trying to overturn the results of the 1972 election; second, they fanned the flames on conspiracy theories, and tried to blame the federal bureaucracy—what some today call "the Deep State"—of trying to take out the president.
Minimizing the Scandal and Calling Fake News
As Bob Woodward and Richard Bernstein pushed forward on their now-famous investigation of Nixon's role in the Watergate break-in, not everyone in the United States thought of the journalists' work as a necessary check on power by a free press. Instead, Nixon and many of his proponents in the conservative media accused the "liberal media" of spreading false claims against Nixon in an attempt to overturn his landslide victory in the 1972 election.
In July of 1974, the New York Times ran a story under the headline "Mr. Nixon's Supporters Don't Take It Quietly." The story described how Nixon blamed the news media for greatly exaggerating the scandal and accused journalists of being motivated by antipathy toward him:
The Watergate scandal, Mr. Nixon said, has been "the broadest but the thinnest scandal in American history" and "would have been a blip" if not for those in the news media "who hate my guts with a passion ... I can see in the eyes of them, not only their hatred but their frustration...."
Nixon's allies in the White House also launched a smear campaign against journalists who were, as we now know, publishing true accusations against the president. In the same article, the Times describes how White House speech writer Patrick Buchanan had "stepped up his attacks on the press," accusing "big media" of overblowing its negative coverage of Nixon and catering to "the far left."
The term "fake news" wasn't in broad circulation in 1974, but many American conservatives spent the year accusing the liberal media of launching a huge and orchestrated attack against Nixon. Senator Jesse Helms (R-North Carolina) appeared on conservative talk radio and attacked the "New York Times–Washington Post syndicate, which controls to a large degree what the American people will read and learn."
Nicole Hemmer, a professor of presidential studies at the University of Virginia, collected some of these attack lines in an article for Vox in 2017. For "a generation of mainstream journalists," according to Hemmer, "the [Watergate] scandal would confirm the power of the press to serve as a check on corruption, no matter how powerful the perpetrator." But conservatives, Hemmer wrote, "saw the press as trying to undo the decisive results of the 1972 election."
Blaming the Deep State
When the Watergate break-in first occurred, Nixon and his advisers talked openly about ways that they could divert attention from the White House's role in the scandal by blaming the robbery on the Central Intelligence Agency. Because some of the operatives Nixon had break into the Democratic National Committee's headquarters in the Watergate hotel had, at one time, worked for the CIA, the Nixon team saw the opportunity to implicate the organization. In June of 2017, David Greenberg, a professor of history and media studies at Rutger University, wrote for Politico about how Nixon fanned the flames on the conspiracy theory, which quickly gained traction among his supporters in the electorate. Nixon, he wrote, "deliberately used the CIA links to invent a cover story and a cover-up."
Greenberg goes on to explain how Nixon and conservative figureheads around the country began building a case that the CIA, the federal bureaucracy, and even the Pentagon were behind a conspiracy to take down the president. Like "fake news," the term "Deep State" wasn't in use in 1974, but the creation of these conspiracy theories mirrors the kind of accusations some lobby against the government today.
Nixon Eventually Resigned, Before He Could Be Impeached
In August of 1974, Nixon addressed the nation and announced that he would resign. His speech, however, did not involve an explicit admission of guilt. He claimed he was resigning because he lacked a strong "base" in Congress with which to fight the accusations against him.
"To continue to fight through the months ahead for my personal vindication would almost totally absorb the time and attention of both the president and the Congress in a period when our entire focus should be on the great issues of peace abroad and prosperity without inflation at home," he said.
Though Nixon predicted his own "personal vindication," he also, notably, did not use the speech as an opportunity to contest the claims against him. Instead, he offered conciliation, declaring, "I leave with no bitterness toward those who have opposed me, because all of us, in the final analysis, have been concerned with the good of the country, however our judgments might differ."
Nixon's vice president Gerald Ford, after being sworn in as president, would go on to pardon Nixon of all wrongdoing.
What Does This Mean for Today?
We don't yet know if Mueller's report accuses Trump of breaking any laws. But whatever the outcome of the report, Trump and his allies have already engaged in many of the techniques Nixon used to combat the Watergate allegations. Trump consistently calls the investigation a "witch hunt" and frequently lobs accusations of "fake news" against media organizations that cover it. (According to the New York Times, as of February of 2019, Trump had publicly attacked the Mueller investigation more than 1,100 times.)
Earlier this month, Jane Mayer, an investigative reporter for The New Yorker, completed an investigation into the role of Fox News in supporting the president. In her exposé, Mayer writes that the television network has been "priming its viewers to respond with extraordinary anger should the country's law-enforcement authorities close in on the President." According to Media Matters, Sean Hannity—one of Fox's most popular on-air personalities—attacked the Mueller investigation 487 times in just the first year after Mueller was appointed. In 81 of those instances, Hannity used the term "witch hunt"; in 186 of them, he accuses the law enforcement officials who created the probe of breaking the law.
As early as the end of 2017, commentators on Fox, including Jesse Waters, began to use the word "coup" to describe the Mueller investigation, implicating the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the same way Nixon and his cronies implicated the CIA. Hannity, as well as popular conservative commentators Mark Levin and Alan Dershowitz, have also used the word "coup" to describe the investigation.