If only to dispel the impression that he is channeling US president Richard Nixon and turning the DAP mess into his own Watergate, President Benigno Aquino 3rd should be wary of invoking “executive privilege” in preventing Budget Secretary Butch Abad from facing the Senate and answering questions about the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) and the illegal expenditure of P140-billion of the people’s money.
Nixon’s use of executive privilege did not save his presidency; in the end he had to allow his White House legal counsel John Dean to testify in the Senate; his chief of staff H. R. Haldeman and presidential assistant John Ehrlichman were hauled to court and convicted on charges of obstruction of justice. Nixon was ordered by no less than the US Supreme Court to surrender his White House tapes to the special committee formed to investigate Watergate.
In the end, Nixon, facing certain impeachment in the House and conviction in the Senate, opted to resign from the presidency. He would instead strive to win vindication in the following decade by writing his memoirs and other books.
Aquino will make the trajectory toward resignation more certain by sticking stubbornly to a policy of executive secrecy and executive privilege.
No administration omerta (conspiracy of silence) on DAP can save the DAP and the Aquino presidency.
Senate President Franklin Drilon, no matter how much he tries, will not be able to stop the Senate from calling Abad back to the witness chair. His lawyering for Abad, in the earlier Senate moro-moro, will not work this time. Conscience and the weight of his office (third in line to succeed to the presidency in case of vacancy) will finally weigh on him.
In what follows, I discuss the eerie Nixon parallel and its important lessons for Philippine presidential politics.
Eerily replicating NIxon
Whether by design or instinct, Aquino is replicating many of Nixon’s missteps in Watergate, in his own handling of the DAP scandal.
There’s a new word, “channeling,” that more vividly describes how Nixon is being reincarnated by Aquino. It comes from New Age beliefs that denote the process whereby a person becomes a conduit for a deceased person, who imparts information about a previous life.
Aquino began the channeling on October 30 last year when he went on national television to publicly declare that he was “not a thief” in an attempt to head off the growing corruption scandal surrounding DAP, PDAF, and the President’s Social Fund (PSF).
Specifically, Aquino declared: “The issue here is theft. I did not steal….I have never stolen. I am not a thief. I am the one who goes after thieves.”
Aquino’s declaration, perhaps on the advice of his speechwriter, consciously echoed Nixon’s declaration, “I am not a crook,” at a news conference on November 17, 1973.
In an hour-long televised question-and-answer session with 400 Associated Press managing editors, President Nixon vigorously defended his record in the Watergate case and said he had never profited from his public service.
His exact words were: “I have earned every cent. And in all of my years of public life I have never obstructed justice…People have got to know whether or not their President is a crook. Well, I’m not a crook. I’ve earned everything I’ve got.”
From executive privilege to resignation
The following chronology of events shows how Nixon’s initial decision to invoke executive privilege progressively deteriorated to an ever-losing position, and eventually to his resignation from the US presidency.
February 27, 1973: Nixon tells White House counsel John Dean, he intends to use executive privilege to keep aides, Haldeman and Ehrlichman, from testifying before the Senate.
March 2, 1973: Nixon invokes executive privilege in preventing John Dean from testifying at the confirmation hearings of FBI director L. Patrick Gray. “No president could ever agree to allow the counsel to the president to go down and testify before a committee,” Nixon says.
May 22, 1973: Nixon says, No executive privilege claims will be made in regard to the Watergate investigations. President Nixon promises that he will not use the claim of executive privilege to impede testimony or the presentation of evidence: “Executive privilege will not be invoked as to any testimony concerning possible criminal conduct or discussions of possible criminal conduct, in the matters presently under investigation, including the Watergate affair, and the alleged cover-up.” It is with this understanding that former White House counsel John Dean would testify before the Senate Watergate Committee the following month.
July 7, 1973: Nixon invokes executive privilege in refusing to testify or provide documents.
July 23-26, 1973: Documents, tapes subpoenaed by Watergate investigators; Nixon refuses to comply.
Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox and the Senate Watergate Committee demand that President Nixon hand over a selection of presidential documents and the secret White House tapes. Nixon refuses to hand over any of the requested material. He invokes executive privilege.
August 9, 1973: Watergate Committee files suit against Nixon for refusing to comply with subpoena.
August 15, 1973: Nixon delivers second Watergate Address to Nation. He says that the Senate investigation has focused more on trying to “implicate the president personally in the illegal activities that took place,” and reminds listeners that he has already taken “full responsibility” for the “abuses [that]occurred during my administration.” But in light of the increasing evidence being revealed about the Watergate conspiracy, Nixon’s speech is later proven to be a compilation of lies, half-truths, justifications, and evasions.
Nixon concludes his address, saying that it is time to put Watergate behind us, to abandon this “continued, backward-looking obsession with Watergate. The time has come for the rest of us to get on with the urgent business of our nation.”
August 29, 1973: Judge Sirica orders Nixon to hand over tapes. Nixon refuses, but he will lose in court.
July 24, 1974. The issue of access to the tapes has gone to the Supreme Court. On July 24, 1974 the Court rules unanimously that claims of executive privilege over the tapes were void. It orders the president to release them to the special prosecutor. On July 30, 1974, President Nixon complied with the order and released the subpoenaed tapes.
August 5, 1974. The White House released a previously unknown audio tape from June 23, 1972. Recorded only a few days after the break-in, it documented the initial stages of the coverup: it revealed Nixon and Haldeman meeting in the Oval Office and formulating a plan to block investigations by having the CIA falsely claim to the FBI that national security was involved.
The release of the “smoking gun” tape destroyed Nixon politically. The 10 congressmen who voted against all three articles of impeachment in the House Judiciary Committee announced they would all support impeachment when the vote was taken in the full House.
August 7, 1974. Senators Barry Goldwater and Hugh Scott and Congressman John Jacob Rhodes met with Nixon in the Oval Office and told him that his support in Congress had all but disappeared. Realizing that he had no chance of staying in office, Nixon decided to resign. In a nationally televised address from the Oval Office on the evening of August 8, 1974, the president announced his resignation:
August 9, 1974. President Nixon and his family leave the White House.
Abad in the Senate
Will Aquino follow the footsteps of Richard Nixon?
Will Miriam’s Question Hour with Abad take place? Or will the administration head it off by making her an offer she cannot refuse?
Will the senators who do not carry the stench of DAP with them join Santiago in questioning Abad?
As I write this piece, there’s still no official word that Senator Santiago has already filed her resolution for the Senate to call Abad to appear in the chamber for a Question Hour session.
The truth is it is Abad and Aquino who will be presented a summons that they cannot refuse. President Nixon tried everything to prevent his men from testifying in the Senate to no avail. Most of the aides wound up in court and in jail. The White House counsel had to testify anyway. And the subpoenaed tapes and documents had to be turned over.
The promise of this session with Abad is that Abad will be interrogated by senators who are without the stench of DAP hovering over them, and who are not beholden to Abad. Senators will not be embarrassed to ask him tough questions about the DAP.
There will be a sea change and a breath of fresh air, when Trillanes, Cayetano and Pimentel go to the sidelines when this session takes place.
The media will be there in full force. The gallery will be full.
Some readers will like the parallels and lessons I have drawn with the presidency of Richard Nixon.
Some will relish them hoping that this Filipino political drama will end in a similar way: with the resignation of a failed president.