AP EXPLAINS: Trump tweets stir up ghosts of McCarthy, Nixon

In this March 9, 1950 file photo, Sen. Joseph McCarthy, R-Wis., gestures during a Senate subcommittee hearing on McCarthy's charges of communist infiltration of the U.S. State Department. President Donald Trump, tweeting over the weekend, invoked both McCarthyism and the Watergate scandal, two of the most-debated chapters of recent American political history. (AP Photo/Herbert K. White)

NEW YORK (AP) — President Donald Trump, tweeting over the weekend, invoked both McCarthyism and the Watergate scandal, two of the most-debated chapters of recent American political history. Here’s a bit of background on what took place during those periods:


President Trump and some defenders have likened special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into possible ties between his campaign and Russian officials as “McCarthyism.” McCarthyism is named for the late Sen. Joseph McCarthy, a Republican from Wisconsin first elected to the Senate in 1946. It was the dawn of the Cold War and blacklists of suspected Communists would soon be in place in Hollywood and beyond — even before McCarthy’s rise.

But in the early 1950s, McCarthy became for many the face of the so-called “Red Scare.” In hearings and other public statements, he used threats, innuendo and outright lies to raise anti-Communism to deranged heights. The merest suggestion that someone was “soft” on communism could end careers and ruin lives.

McCarthy power waned in the mid-1950s. President Dwight Eisenhower was among those appalled by McCarthy’s suggestion that the U.S. Army was infiltrated with Communists. Joseph Welch, the Army’s chief counsel, seemed to capture the public’s growing disgust with the senator when during the so-called Army-McCarthy hearings he exclaimed: “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”

McCarthy eventually fell into disgrace, and he died in 1957. But suspected communists remained blacklisted and otherwise shunned for years after.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, Russia’s leadership is associated more with nationalism than communism. President Vladimir Putin is now often praised by Trump supporters and attacked by the president’s critics.

Trump, meanwhile, is just one degree removed from McCarthy himself: He was mentored in the 1970s and ’80s by Roy Cohn, McCarthy’s top aide, who became a longtime political power broker. Cohn died in 1986.


Revelations over the weekend by The New York Times that White House Counsel Donald McGahn had spoken extensively with Mueller’s office led Trump to compare him, favorably, to Watergate figure John Dean. In a Sunday tweet, Trump attacked the Times for “implying” that McGahn was a “John Dean type ‘RAT.'”

“But I allowed him and all others to testify — I didn’t have to. I have nothing to hide,” Trump wrote.

Dean was the White House counsel under President Richard Nixon until he, Attorney General Richard Kleindienst and top White House officials H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman departed in April 1973 as Nixon attempted to stem the growing Watergate scandal. In June 1972, burglars had attempted to break into the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters at Washington’s Watergate complex. They were captured and ultimately revealed — due to the reporting of The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein — to have extensive ties to Nixon’s re-election campaign.

Nixon won a second term in a landslide, but questions remained about his involvement with the break-in, which White House Press Secretary Ron Zeigler had dismissed as a “third-rate burglary,” and any attempted cover-up.

Dean’s televised testimony in the summer of 1973 captivated the country as he meticulously described wrongdoing in the administration, his own included, and famously warned that there was a “cancer” growing close to the presidency. His testimony helped turn public opinion against Nixon, who resigned in August 1974. Dean himself pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and served four months in prison.

He has since defended some Republican presidents — he wrote a book in praise of the much-derided Warren G. Harding — and become a sharp critic of others. In 2004, he published “Worse Than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush.”

In response to Trump’s tweet, Dean told Axios: “I am actually honored to be on his enemies list as I was on Nixon’s when I made it there. This is a president I hold in such low esteem I would be fretting if he said something nice.”

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