Thomas Mallon published his historical fiction novel “Watergate” — dramatizing President Richard Nixon’s defining scandal — in 2012. Less controversial political times.
Mallon has made a career of writing novels starring presidents, including Ronald Reagan, and (currently) George W. Bush. But he sees no way to write convincingly about President Donald Trump, despite the amount of potential material.
The Trump administration has not been exactly stranger than fiction. But it’s certainly a strange world we live in, in which Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, emerged from the White House foliage in the Tuesday night darkness to conduct information-less interviews about the firing of then-FBI Director James Comey.
Comey, of course, was not just any administration official. He was leading an investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and potential collusion between Trump campaign associates and Russian agents. For those not inclined to give Trump the benefit of the doubt, it dredged back up the specter of Watergate.
Was Comey's dismissal like the Saturday Night Massacre?
In that quaint little dust-up, Nixon was suspected of being involved in some campaign high jinks to advance his political cause via a break-in at the Watergate Hotel. Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor assigned to sort out the matter, wanted access to the tapes documenting conversations in the Oval Office. Nixon refused, and when the prosecutor wouldn’t let up, the president directed his attorney general to fire the prosecutor. The attorney general and his deputy resigned rather than carry out the order, in what became known as the Saturday Night Massacre.
Solicitor General Robert Bork ultimately fired Cox, but it didn’t end well for Nixon. Eventually, the Supreme Court forced Nixon to turn over the tapes, which provided evidence that the president had knowledge of a cover-up at the Watergate Hotel. Nixon resigned to avoid facing impeachment.
The connection between Watergate and Comey’s firing has been much drawn this week, though it’s unclear if the affairs will end in the same way.
To Mallon, who prepares for his presidential deep dives by reading primary and secondary sources, comparisons between Nixon and Trump themselves are “a blind alley.”
Comparing the two is like comparing “a dolphin to a paramecium,” says Mallon, citing Nixon’s canny and twisted grasp of government to what seems to be Trump’s flashes of political cunning, at best. Trump doesn’t always seem to know what he’s doing.
Another major difference: Nixon’s rationale was clear. The Saturday Night Massacre was an attempt to stop the persistent special prosecutor.
Trump is intent on weaving his own story
He has asked Americans to believe that Comey deserved the boot because of his treatment of Hillary Clinton, treatment which Trump himself loudly and repeatedly applauded during the campaign. Yet, Americans are also supposed to believe that Trump was concerned with Comey’s flubbing of facts in a recent congressional hearing, according to Trump spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders. At Wednesday’s daily White House briefing, Sanders also allowed that Trump had been considering letting Comey go since the inauguration.
Also Wednesday, The New York Times and The Washington Post reported that Comey had recently asked for more resources for the FBI’s Russia investigation. And that, according to unnamed officials, Trump had been fuming about Comey ’s Senate testimony regarding Russia before Congress last week.
Meanwhile, the White House apparently did not see any problems with going forward with previously scheduled meetings Wednesday with Russian officials including Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, whose contacts with Trump campaign associates have been probed. Or a meeting with Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s secretary of state, which seems almost too improbable to make up.
It may take some years to sort out the young Trump White House’s motives, deeds and misdeeds, and any associated fallout, let alone for any real historical fiction to take its shot at our present moment.
But fittingly this week also brought news of a very of-the-moment novel now in progress: a thriller co-written by former president Bill Clinton and James Patterson.