Trump headed out on his trip shortly after Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s first indictments and guilty plea, and the administration expressed some concern about that. “He worries about his ability to negotiate with various entities and how much he’s hamstrung by this,” a senior White House official told CNN, adding that Trump felt he’d be in a better position once the investigation was resolved.
Unfortunately for Trump, that could be months or years down the line. How will that affect his ability to conduct foreign policy? The record of previous presidents facing probes like Mueller’s shows that in fact they have turned to global affairs as a forum where they can make a difference and get things done even as domestic politics becomes a gridlocked nightmare for them. But they’ve relied on having a competent and carefully compartmentalized staff, and even so, the presence of an investigation can reduce what an administration can achieve.
“You can get work done, and you can make progress,” says David Gergen, who worked in the Nixon White House during Watergate and then in the Clinton White House during the early days of the Whitewater probe. “Investigations can weaken the White House, but you have to convince everybody else to keep working. I think it’s extremely important that everybody keep their bearings, that they’re not panicked, they’re not lashing out.”
Nixon and Clinton were not alone in facing special-prosecutor investigations—Ronald Reagan did as well, for Iran-Contra. But that case is perhaps less useful as an analogue. For one, it concerned the conduct of foreign affairs, circumscribing the president from global moves in a different way. For another, although Reagan achieved few major things after the start of the Iran-Contra affair, he was also deep in his second term, a point at which presidents often achieve little anyway.
Both Nixon and Clinton viewed foreign affairs as a place where they could make a difference—both in the world and in their political standing—even as they lost traction domestically. Congress and the political press were consumed with their scandals, but overseas, the executive branch could work largely on its own.
“You have to convince everybody else to keep working. I think it’s extremely important that everybody keep their bearings, that they’re not panicked.”
Speaking to the Miller Center at the University of Virginia in 2005, Clinton’s national-security adviser, Sandy Berger, recalled a feeling of solidarity during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
“The president received a lot of support from foreign leaders during this period. They were somewhat mystified,” Berger said. “I think most foreign leaders are the subject of attack for some reason or another. Maybe there was a certain identification with the siege that Clinton was under and feeling that they, not necessarily for a similar kind of transgression, but that they had felt the brunt of an angry press and an angry Congress and could understand what Clinton was going through.”
Every political advantage brings a corresponding political weakness, and both Nixon and Clinton encountered the downside of turning abroad: Critics accused them of trying to use global affairs to distract from their political troubles. In October 1973, four days after the “Saturday Night Massacre,” and two weeks after Vice President Spiro Agnew’s resignation, Nixon ordered a global military alert, ostensibly in response to Soviet military movements, though critics viewed it as an attempt at distraction.