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Nixon administration veterans and members of his foundation had little to say when approached by the Guardian

If Donald Trump could count on anyone for sympathy as his impeachment troubles mount, youd think it would be loyalists of the last Republican president to be charged with abusing the power of the Oval Office for political ends. Yet, in the two weeks since the House of Representatives started formally investigating the president, veterans of the Nixon administration have been notable only for their silence.

In fact, they have been about as willing to answer questions about impeachment now as they were when they were being dragged before House and Senate investigative committees at the height of the Watergate scandal.

The main keeper of the 37th presidents flame, the Richard Nixon Foundation, offered not one word for or against Trump when approached. A post-presidential chief of staff told the Guardian he was pretty much focused elsewhere. A former domestic policy aide who served on Nixons legal defense team refused to speak on the record even though he writes regular, highly opinionated pieces for conservative outlets that touch on impeachment, whistleblowers, special prosecutors and more.

An outspoken former Nixon speechwriter, Bruce Herschensohn, declared in an email: I believe in saving the possibility of impeachment for impeachable offenses as defined by the U.S. Founders and authors of the U.S. Constitution.

When asked, however, whether the allegation against Trump, subverting national security policy to search for dirt on his enemies, might constitute just such an impeachable offense, Herschensohn went silent.

Such skittishness is more bad news for Trump, since the Republican party as a whole is showing reluctance to speak up in his defense and, on the issue of withdrawing support from Kurds in Syria, a willingness to be openly critical.

The Nixon crowd can generally be counted on to be good Republican partisans, not least because the foundation, among others, relies on the party base to make donations, buy tickets to events, and otherwise contribute to the furtherance of Nixons memory. Recent invitees to foundation events in Yorba Linda, California, where Nixon was born, include the Fox News hosts Jeanine Pirro and Bret Baier, the former House speaker Newt Gingrich, and Trumps first supreme court appointee, Neil Gorsuch.

Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, is joined by the House intelligence committee chairman, Adam Schiff, at a news conference as House Democrats move ahead in the impeachment inquiry on 2 October. Photograph: J Scott Applewhite/AP

The Trump presidency, though, poses a number of challenges to the Nixonian worldview. Nixon, unlike Trump, was a firm believer in international alliances and treaties, and for all his willingness to lean on the FBI and the IRS to do his political bidding domestically he never at least as president sought to extract political favors from overseas allies or client states.

Some of that ambivalence was expressed by Bob Bostock, a post-presidential Nixon staffer who put together a sympathetic account of the Watergate scandal for display at the Nixon Presidential Library in the days when it was still controlled by loyalists. (The library was taken over by the National Archives in 2007 and the display subsequently replaced.)

I dont believe for a second that Nixon committed an impeachable offense, Bostock said. I dont think President Clinton committed an impeachable offense. Andrew Johnson certainly didnt. With respect to Trump its way too early.

Bostock, a lifelong Republican, complained about the bitter partisan atmosphere in Washington and said he suspected impeachment was just another form of cross-party political warfare. But he also acknowledged that goading foreign countries into interfering in US elections was not acceptable. Whether Trump had done such a thing remains an open question, he said.

While it seems likely that other Nixonians share conflicted views, the reluctance of many to air them publicly points to a problem they have with the whole notion of presidential abuse of power. For 45 years they have refused to accept that Nixon was guilty of this particular article of impeachment (the other two were obstruction of justice and contempt of Congress), which puts them in an awkward spot with Trump because the Ukraine scandal turns entirely on use or misuse of power.

As Timothy Naftali, the first National Archives-appointed director of the Nixon library, now at New York University, put it: If the loyalists are to accept that this is a rerun of Nixon, that would imply they think Nixon himself was guilty of abuse of power. And for many Nixonians, thats a bridge too far.

The Russia investigation was much more comfortable territory, because they could draw parallels between James Comey, the whistle-blowing former FBI director, and John Dean, Nixons White House counsel who ended up testifying against him, and because they could issue general denunciations of special prosecutors past and present to whom they find it much easier to attach the abuse of power label.

The former chief White House counsel John Dean is sworn in before testifying about the Mueller report on Capitol Hill in June. Photograph: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

In their retelling, hotly contested by less partisan historians, Dean was the true architect of the Watergate cover-up and Nixon got trapped in Deans net only because he wanted to stand by his aides and supporters. Geoff Shepard, the former domestic policy aide to Nixon who would not talk on the record, recently cited a line from a mafioso to encapsulate his and his fellow loyalists thorough-going loathing for Dean: That guy would steal the silver dollars off his dead mothers eyes.

A more mainstream view of Dean would cast him as a whistleblower who, like many other whistleblowers before and since, inspires strong feelings of anger and betrayal in those he turned against. Perhaps revealingly, Shepard is yet to draw any comparison in his American Spectator column between Dean and the whistleblower who first alerted the justice department about Trumps 25 July phone call to Ukraines new president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy. Rather, in his latest dispatch, he blasts the media for jumping to conclusions and reaches deep into the Watergate files to question the legal validity of accusing Trump of a quid pro quo.

And he adds, as if to justify the awkward silence: As with such prior set-ups, it takes Trumps defenders a little while to get up to speed in response.

Naftali, the former director of the Nixon Library, said there were ways in which the Nixon loyalists could usefully put some distance between Trump and Nixon, because Nixon could end up looking pretty good by comparison. But, Naftali added, Shepard and others like him might have an overriding hesitation to side with anyone who criticizes a president in trouble.

They have a huge scar from experiences of the 1970s, Naftali said. Its very hard for them to agree with Trumps critics, because some of the spirit of what those critics are saying is also the spirit of what critics said about their man. The scenario is different, the players are different, but some of the issues are strikingly similar.

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