The August winds of scandals and coups

Donald Trump’s scandal-plagued administration was, like that of Richard Nixon’s, buffeted by the political winds of August.

August normally sees Washington emptied of politicos and press, but, as in August 1974, is known to quickly advance political scandals at breakneck speed. In Nixon’s case, three audio-taped conversations proving Nixon’s obstruction of justice after the May 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate complex, released pursuant to a unanimous decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, led to Nixon’s resignation from office.

This August has seen a guilty verdict of Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort; a guilty plea from Trump’s former personal attorney; and immunity deals cut with American Media, Inc. (AMI) publisher David Pecker, AMI’s chief content officer, Dylan Howard; and Roger Stone’s assistant, Andrew Miller. August also revealed that White House Counsel Don McGahn gave at least thirty hours of testimony to Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller. Taken together, these watershed events led to serious considerations of Trump’s impeachment or resignation from office.

On August 2, 1974, this editor was a Navy midshipman returning home from summer training in Corpus Christi, Texas, and Norfolk, Virginia, via a stopover in Washington. A Marine Lieutenant Colonel friend of mine, who was then stationed at the Pentagon, picked me up at National Airport. I was somewhat surprised to see him wearing a business suit. In those days, Pentagon personnel wore civilian clothes to work because of the constant anti-war protests around the Pentagon.

My Marine friend worked for the Joint Staff, specifically for the Marine Corps commandant and, thus, was privy to high-level classified correspondence between the White House and Joint Chiefs. The colonel, who I will only refer to as Gene, was visibly shaken and not much shook someone like him. Gene had already served two tours in Vietnam, his first as one of the initial military “advisers.”

While driving to Gene’s home in Falls Church, Virginia, he told me that something occurred that day that shocked the hell out of him. Once home, Gene proceeded to open a bottle of top-shelf Scotch whisky and poured both of us a fairly stiff drink. Gene then told me about his very unusual day at the Pentagon. Gene’s wife, preparing dinner, intermittently poked her head into the study to hear what her husband had to report. It soon became clear that the particular Friday in question was Gene’s most surreal day experienced during his entire military service.

The JCS had received, earlier that day, a Top Secret message from Nixon’s chief of staff, Al Haig and Defense Secretary James Schlesinger. The message, which was an order, stated that no military instructions emanating from the commander-in-chief were to be followed unless they carried Haig’s and Schlesinger’s co-authorization. Essentially, the president of the United States was being circumvented by his chief of staff, working in concert with the defense secretary.

I had taken graduate-level political science classes with Gene at the University of Mississippi and I knew him as a fairly liberal Democrat, whose family tree of Florida ranchers helped settle the state. Although Gene was no fan of Nixon, he was alarmed at the gist of the joint Haig-Schlesinger order.

It turns out that there was a good reason for Haig, the JCS, and Schlesinger to check Nixon’s moves. The historical record shows that Nixon was reportedly drinking heavily; popping pain pills called phenytoin, also known as Dilantin; and telling some close aides he was contemplating suicide to avoid an embarrassing impeachment, leading to a certain Senate conviction and removal from office. But what worried the military the most was Nixon’s stated desire to “solve” the Middle East problem once and for all. The JCS and Haig recalled how Nixon ordered defense condition 2 (DEFCON 2) on October 24, 1973. Nixon is said to have ordered the alert, a hair-trigger away from all-out war, to send a message to the Soviets, who were believed to be readying a military intervention to confront Israeli troops advancing on Egyptian forces in the Sinai. Others believed that DEFCON 2 was ordered by Nixon to distract public attention from the “Saturday Night Massacre” a few days before. Nixon fired Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox, which promoted the resignations of the attorney general and deputy attorney general.

Nixon’s bizarre behavior in the weeks prior to his August 8 resignation speech prompted the military chain of command to put a check on any Nixon order that might include launching strikes in the Middle East or moving U.S. troops to surround the White House, Congress, or both.

If Nixon truly wanted to launch a coup and bring troops into Washington to enforce it, he had a problem. Just like Gene, most of the military stationed in the Washington area held administrative or ceremonial billets. Nixon would have to order troops and armored vehicles from Fort A. P. Hill in Virginia, 72 miles south of Washington, or from Fort Bragg in North Carolina. Both were far enough from the nation’s capital to provide ample warning of any sudden troops movements.

On August 22, 1974, thirteen days after Nixon left the White House, The Washington Post ran a rather cryptic report on Nixon’s final days in office. The report stated that the JCS and Schlesinger “kept a close watch to make certain that no orders were given to military units outside the normal chain of command.” The story further stated that the extreme measures by the Pentagon were “based on hypothetical situations that could arise during a period when President Nixon’s hold on the presidency was not clear . . . Specifically, there was concern that an order could go to a military unit outside the chain of command for some sort of action against Congress during the time between a House impeachment and a Senate trial on the impeachment charge.” Schlesinger added to the intrigue surrounding the report by issuing a “non-denial denial.” Schlesinger stated, “I did assure myself that there would be no question about the proper constitutional and legislated chain of command, and there never was any question.”

After The New York Times ran a story on August 24, 1974, with the headline, “Pentagon Kept Tight Rein In Last Days of Nixon Rule, President Gerald Ford was furious. Ford called JCS Chairman General George S. Brown to the White House and demanded an explanation for such disloyalty to his predecessor. Brown merely stated that the report was a “fabrication.” It was not. Ford was worried that further leaks would expose his prior deal with Nixon to grant the ex-president a full pardon in return for a seamless transfer of presidential power to Ford. In August 1974, Washington was only big enough for one coup, not two.

Now, we find ourselves in another August with a president showing worse signs of a mental collapse than did Nixon 44 years ago.

Previously published in the Wayne Madsen Report.

Copyright © 2018

Wayne Madsen is a Washington, DC-based investigative journalist and nationally-distributed columnist. He is the editor and publisher of the Wayne Madsen Report (subscription required).

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