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You’ll read a lot about how the 50th anniversary of the Watergate break-in has dovetailed with public hearings by the House committee investigating the Capitol insurrection that kick off Thursday.
There is plenty to compare in two presidents accused of influencing elections nearly a half century apart.
Watch the final episodes of CNN’s documentary series, “Watergate: Blueprint for a Scandal,” on Sunday at 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. ET. They focus on the Watergate hearings in the Senate that helped bring down President Richard Nixon.
There are echoes of Nixon’s secret efforts to meddle in the 1972 election in Donald Trump’s very public effort to overturn the 2020 election.
But this is not a case of history repeating itself. Trump’s effort was arguably more brazen and more dangerous since it threatened the peaceful transfer of power for the first time since the Civil War, when Southern states seceded from the Union after Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 victory.
House hearings on the January 6 insurrection are made for TV – literally there is a TV producer helping tell the story – and designed to reengage the public on American democracy’s near-miss.
They’ll create a record of facts at a time when Democrats and Republicans can’t agree on what’s real. They’ll potentially tee up prosecutions by the Department of Justice for things recorded on video and already in the public record.
The Watergate hearings, on the other hand, broke ground and helped uncover the Watergate conspiracy.
Put on by a special Senate committee nearly a year after the break-in by White House-backed operatives at Democratic National Committee headquarters, the hearings captivated the nation’s attention.
Trump’s top aides have refused to cooperate with the House committee investigating January 6.
In contrast, at the Watergate hearings Nixon’s White House counsel, John Dean, turned on the President and told the world about a conspiracy plotted in the White House.
CNN’s documentary series tells the Watergate story from Dean’s perspective. His stunning testimony in June 1973 was a main element of the hearings. Watch an excerpt here.
The Watergate hearings also uncovered the existence of the now-infamous tapes of Nixon’s White House conversations that ultimately corroborated Dean’s testimony.
Nixon’s effort to keep those tapes out of the public led to the “Saturday Night Massacre” in October 1973, in which the two top Department of Justice officials resigned in protest.
While there is expected to be new information shared at the House hearings, the basic narrative is already known.
Many Americans have already heard the audio of Trump asking election officials in Georgia to “find” votes for him. They know that rioters were trying to disrupt the counting of Electoral College votes. They’ve already seen reports on the text messages from Republicans and Fox pundits to his chief of staff, Mark Meadows, begging for help that didn’t come from Trump on January 6.
RELATED: January 6 panel eyes Trump’s culpability as hearings begin
It may be top aides to former Vice President Mike Pence who provide compelling testimony at the House January 6 hearings this week. Pence, who was presiding over the counting of electoral votes on January 6, was targeted by rioters.
Nixon resigned because he lacked the power to beat impeachment. Republican senators told him he’d lost nearly all his support among Republicans in the Senate and would be pushed out in an impeachment trial if he didn’t resign.
“Mr. President, you have five votes. And one of them is not mine,” then-Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona told Nixon at the White House, according to The Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward in CNN’s documentary series.
Trump beat impeachment twice: while he was in office and just after he’d left. All but seven Senate Republicans – even many of those who criticized Trump after the insurrection, like Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky – would not vote to disqualify Trump from running for President again.
More than a year later, most Republicans have stopped criticizing Trump.
Trump wields more absolute power over Republicans than Nixon did, which is either a symptom of or a contributing factor to the paralyzing power of partisanship in today’s politics.
That may be the most important difference between the Watergate scandal and the January 6 investigation.
“What America and the world saw in 1974 was the most powerful man in the world lose his job,” historian Timothy Naftali, a professor at New York University and former director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, says in the CNN documentary series. “And for anyone who doubted the strength of the US Constitution, what they witnessed removed those doubts.”
Trump survived impeachment and didn’t resign. But he did lose his job when voters threw him out of office. The question today is whether his refusal to accept that loss will raise new doubts about the strength of the Constitution.
The journalist Carl Bernstein compared Nixon and Trump during an appearance on Sunday on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” along with Woodward. He said Trump’s bad actions make him “the first seditious President of the United States” and eclipse Nixon’s bad behavior, which was criminal.
But the root of their sins is the same.
“Both their crimes began with undermining the most basic element of democracy” Bernstein said, “free and fair elections.”