Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the reporters responsible for revealing Watergate to the public and ultimately bringing down Richard Nixon, have an op-ed column that notes far more similarities than I knew about between the Saturday Night Massacre and what I still think Trump is likely at some point to do with Robert Mueller.
To refresh your memory, the Saturday Night Massacre was when Nixon decided to fire the special prosecutor who was investigating the Watergate break-in, Archibald Cox. He ordered then-Attorney General Elliot Richardson to do so and Richardson refused and resigned. He replaced Richardson with Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus and ordered him to do it, but he also refused and resigned. He then ordered the #3 official at the DOJ at the time, Solicitor General Robert Bork, to do it, and finally found a man so lacking in a moral compass or a concern for the truth that he happily brought the axe down on Cox and the entire investigation.
First, let’s point out that Nixon’s chief of staff was also a retired general; Trump has John Kelly (for now) and Nixon had Alexander Haig. And both of them had only been in that position for a short period of time when it all came to a head and were really in a difficult spot dealing with a president who was unpredictable, self-serving, incapable of thinking in a clearly strategic manner, and prone to self-sabotage as a result.
Second, if Trump is going to do this, he’s going to have to get rid of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who is the one who named Mueller to be the Special Counsel because AG Jeff Sessions is formally recused. But he can only replace Rosenstein with someone who has already been confirmed by the Senate, and it can be to any position. That’s why there is so much speculation that if and when Trump decides to do that, he’ll fire Rosenstein and replace him with Scott Pruitt, not head of the EPA. Otherwise he would have to wait for the Senate to confirm Rosenstein’s replacement and that would almost defeat the purpose.
Well here’s something I did not know: Elliot Richardson was not originally the Attorney General, he was the Secretary of Defense. In April, 1973, Nixon asked him to change positions, hoping that he would protect him from the investigation, which was not yet under a special prosecutor but was going on in Congress. And it was Richardson who appointed Archibald Cox, his old Harvard Law professor, to be a special prosecutor to conduct the investigation.
A few months later, Cox subpoenaed those now-infamous White House tapes and that’s when Nixon’s regime really began to unravel. Nixon fought the subpoena in court but the Supreme Court ruled 9-0 that he had to turn them over. Haig began negotiating with Richardson to use transcripts of the tapes, created under the direct supervision of Nixon, instead of the tapes. Richardson wouldn’t go along with that. Nixon was absolutely adamant that if they did turn over even the small number of tapes that had been requested, Cox had to agree that they would not ask for any more, or any other material from the White House. Cox refused, Richardson backed him and that led directly to Nixon demanding that Cox be fired.
And like Trump, Nixon argued that anything that was bad for him was bad for the country. When Richardson was ordered to fire Cox, he went straight to the White House and demanded to see Nixon in person. Nixon tried to talk him into doing his bidding, Richardson flatly refused and said he was resigning. This conversation ensued:
“I’m sorry you feel that you have to act on your commitment to Cox and his independence,” the president said, “and not the larger public interest.”
There was a flash of anger. “Maybe,” Richardson replied hotly, “your perception and my perception of the public interest differ.”
Trump has made essentially the same argument, claiming that the very existence of the Russia investigation is hurting America abroad by making us a laughingstock. Like Richardson, I disagree — derisively, not respectfully. What hurts our image abroad is the fact that we actually elected this ridiculous buffoon in the first place.