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One of the most controversial episodes of the Watergate scandal, the so-called “Saturday Night Massacre” came on October 20, 1973, when embattled President Richard Nixon fired Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox and accepted the resignations of Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus.
The “massacre” stemmed from an inquiry into the notorious June 1972 break-in at the Watergate complex, in which five Nixon operatives were caught trying to bug the Democratic National Committee headquarters. Archibald Cox, a Harvard law professor and former U.S. solicitor general, was tapped to investigate the incident in May 1973. He soon clashed with the White House over Nixon’s refusal to release over 10 hours of secret Oval Office recordings, some of which implicated the president in the break-in.
On October 20, 1973, in an unprecedented show of executive power, Nixon ordered Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus to fire Cox, but both men refused and resigned their posts in protest. The role of attorney general then fell to Solicitor General Robert Bork, who reluctantly complied with Nixon’s request and dismissed Cox. Less than a half hour later, the White House dispatched FBI agents to close off the offices of the Special Prosecutor, Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General.
READ MORE: 7 Revealing Nixon Quotes From His Secret Tapes
Nixon’s attack on his own Justice Department came with grave consequences. More than 50,000 concerned citizens sent telegrams to Washington, and 21 members of Congress introduced resolutions calling for Nixon’s impeachment.
In the face of overwhelming protest, Nixon relented and appointed Leon Jaworski as the new Watergate prosecutor. Jaworski resumed the investigation and eventually secured the release of the Oval Office recordings in July 1974, when the Supreme Court ruled the tapes did not fall under executive privilege. Faced with the so-called “Smoking Gun” of his involvement in Watergate, Nixon resigned the presidency on August 8, 1974.
Is This Donald Trump’s Saturday Night Massacre?
On Tuesday, President Trump fired James Comey, the director of the FBI, whose agency is overseeing an investigation into possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russia. To discuss Trump’s decision, and whether it has Nixonian parallels, I spoke by phone with historian John A. Farrell, the author of the new book Richard Nixon: A Life. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed the details of the Saturday Night Massacre, Nixon’s mental state during the Watergate scandal, and the importance of bipartisanship to keeping the executive branch in check.
Isaac Chotiner: As a historian of Nixon, what do you make of the comparisons we have been hearing today to Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre?
John A. Farrell: There are two big differences. One is that Trump is Trump, and this could just be Trump being Trump. And the other is that the House and the Senate are controlled by the Republican Party, and so we may never find out what happened. The actions that the president and his staff have taken, their behavior, mirrors that of Nixon and his staff when they were frantically trying to cover up felonious behavior, including in the president’s case, obstruction of justice. But up to this point, we don’t have any clear proof or evidence that this is something more than just politics—that it is a matter of law. So it would seem to me that the logical thing to do to restore confidence in the integrity of the government would be to have a Select Committee with the Democrats having real influence, or having Attorney General Sessions appoint a special counsel, as he has the power to do, to investigate whether this is Trump being Trump or Nixonian.
Tell me a bit more about the specifics about how the Saturday Night Massacre went down.
One of the interesting things about the Saturday Night Massacre is that both Alexander Haig, the president’s chief of staff, and Elliot Richardson, the attorney general, thought they had reached an agreement. And in fact, the bones of one agreement were submitted to Howard Baker and Sam Ervin of the Watergate Committee and were OK’d by them. The idea was something along the lines of having a judge or a senator listen to the Watergate tapes and decide whether or not they were incriminating and whether to go forward with them.
Behind all of that, however, was this burning desire by the president to dismiss [special prosecutor] Archibald Cox, because Cox had gone into areas that ranged far beyond the Watergate break-in. He was going into Nixon’s business relations and looking at the use of funds on Nixon’s properties. He was going into the Republican Party’s use of campaign funds. Nixon was as outraged as subsequent presidents would be by the way independent counsels took their brief and expanded it to find any kind of a crime to justify their existence. So in some ways the grounds for a compromise seemed to be available, and in other ways Nixon’s behavior made a compromise impossible. .
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The Saturday Night Massacre
It’s post 5 in our series on the Watergate crisis, and here we come to the most shocking part of the entire event, which is the Saturday Night Massacre of October 20, 1973. We left off last time with the forced resignations and false confessions of Haldeman and Ehrlichman, and the firing of John Dean for deciding he would tell all he knew to the Senate Watergate Committee. Bear in mind that Dean knew that the original break-in had been carried out by CREEP and approved by former Attorney General John Mitchell, and he knew that the president had ordered evidence to be destroyed and people to be paid off to keep quiet, but he did not know that Nixon had tried to stop the FBI investigation. No one but Nixon, Haldeman, and Ehrlichman knew that. The only way anyone else could find that out was if they listened to the secret tape recordings Nixon made of all of his conversations, including the one we mentioned last time from June 23, 1972—six days after the break-in—in which Nixon told Haldeman to have the CIA director, Richard Helms, call the head of the FBI, Patrick Gray, and tell him to “stay the hell out of this” in the name of national security. Luckily, only a handful of men in Nixon’s administration knew about the tapes. Unluckily for Nixon, one of them told all he knew to the Senate Watergate Committee, on live national TV.
On Friday the 13th, July 1973, White House assistant Alexander Butterfield was asked if there was any type of recording system used in the White House. After some prodding, Butterfield said there was, and that it automatically recorded every word spoken in the Oval Office, Cabinet Room, and Nixon’s private office. Three days later, after the weekend break, Butterfield reiterated this claim. Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox subpoenaed Nixon for these tapes. He wanted to listen to them and see if they showed that the president ordered the break-in, had tried to cover it up, or just knew about it. Nixon refused, citing executive privilege and again saying that national security would be damaged if the tapes were made public. Cox said he would only make public information relating to Watergate if there was none, no part of the tapes would be made public. Nixon still refused and ordered Cox to rescind the subpoena, which Cox refused to do. On Friday, Nixon offered a compromise: he would allow Mississippi Senator John Stennis to listen to the tapes and write a summary of their contents. Cox refused. He did not trust Nixon to give Stennis access to tapes that would incriminate himself. The subpoena stood.
Now the events unfolded that would be called the Saturday Night Massacre, events which threatened the very basis of constitutional law in the U.S. It’s hard to believe that finding out that the president had tried to obstruct a criminal investigation to protect the criminals could be overshadowed by any other of his actions, but what Nixon ordered on Saturday, October 20, 1973 surpasses even that obstruction of justice in its seriousness.
That morning, Nixon told his chief of staff Alexander Haig to call his new Attorney General, Elliot Richardson, and tell him to fire Cox. Richardson had just been appointed as Attorney General by Nixon in April after the “resignation” of John Dean. A few days earlier, on Thursday, Richardson had met with Nixon and learned that he wanted Cox fired if he wouldn’t accept the Stennis compromise. Richardson told the president he felt sure Cox would accept it, but left the meeting already resolved to resign if Cox didn’t. He knew that Nixon would ask him to fire Cox because only Richardson could: as Attorney General, he had appointed Cox as special prosecutor, and only he could fire him. Richardson did not believe the refusal to accept the Stennis compromise was grounds to fire Cox, but Nixon did. After that Thursday meeting, he told Haig “No more tapes, no more documents, nothing more! I want an order from me to Elliot to Cox to that effect now.”
When Haig called Richardson at 7.00 on Friday night to tell him to fire Cox, Richardson refused, saying he would resign instead. As this was happening, Cox (unaware of this call) issued a statement to the press just in time for the evening deadline saying that the president was refusing to comply with a court order “in violation of the promises which the Attorney General made to the Senate” that the Watergate break-in would be investigated thoroughly. Cox’s statement was front-page on Saturday morning, and he was planning to hold a press conference at 1.00. Richardson phoned Cox to tell him what had happened. At the press conference, Cox reminded reporters that only the Attorney General could fire him. Meanwhile, Haig phoned Richardson again and ordered him to fire Cox Richardson refused. Knowing what would happen next, Richardson met with his Deputy Attorney General, William Ruckelshaus, and told him that he, Ruckelshaus, would be asked to fire Cox once Richardson’s resignation was made public. Ruckelshaus said he would not do it and that he, too, would resign.
Nixon summoned Richardson to his office and told him that if he didn’t fire Cox, Nixon couldn’t meet with the Soviet Premier to work out a solution to the crisis in the Middle East because Brezhnev wouldn’t respect a man who was being publicly defied by a subordinate. Again Richardson refused, and Nixon said “I’m sorry that you insist on putting your personal commitments ahead of the public interest.” Richardson resigned. As Richardson left, Haig was on the phone to Ruckelshaus, telling him to fire Cox. When he balked, Haig barked “Your commander in chief has given you an order! You have no alternative.” Undaunted, Ruckelshaus replied, “Except to resign”, which he did. Finally, Nixon sent a limousine to pick up Solicitor General Robert Bork from his home and bring him to the White House. There, Nixon told him to fire Cox. He had a letter of dismissal ready, waiting for Bork’s signature. Intimidated, Bork signed it. Nixon told him, “You’ve got guts.”
At 8.25 that evening, White House press secretary Ron Ziegler held a press conference announcing the resignations of Richardson and Ruckelshaus and the firing of Cox, saying “the office of the Watergate Special Prosecution Force has been abolished as of approximately 8 PM tonight.”
The nation was shocked. The way they experienced it, they woke up to read Cox’s claim that the president was refusing to obey a court order. Then they watched his press conference at 1.00 PM where he outlined his rightful claim for the tapes. Then they heard an 8.25 PM press conference saying that Cox, Richardson, and Ruckelshaus were all fired, and that the president had declared the Watergate investigation over. It was abundantly clear that Nixon had eliminated three men whom he was afraid of—what was he afraid of? What did he think they would discover if they had the tapes? And more importantly, would the president’s illegal, unconstitutional firing of the special prosecutor be allowed to stand? was the president above the law? Could he do whatever he wanted, no matter what? As commander in chief, if he committed a crime, did the American people “have no alternative” but to let him do it, and to quietly accept an imperial presidency?
The name “Saturday Night Massacre” may seem overdone—like the “Boston Massacre”, in which only five people died. But what was being massacred was the Constitution, separation of powers, and the rule of law that said that in the U.S. no one, no matter their position, is above the law. The coverage on the news that night reiterated this perception of danger:
John Chancellor, NBC News: Good evening. The country tonight is in the midst of what may be the most serious Constitutional crisis in its history. The President has fired the special Watergate prosecutor, Archibald Cox. Because of the President’s action, the attorney general has resigned. Elliott Richardson has quit, saying he cannot carry out Mr. Nixon’s instructions. Richardson’s deputy, William Ruckelshaus, has been fired.
Ruckelshaus refused, in a moment of Constitutional drama, to obey a presidential order to fire the special Watergate prosecutor. And half an hour after the special Watergate prosecutor had been fired, agents of the FBI, acting at the direction of the White House, sealed off the offices of the special prosecutor, the offices of the attorney general and the offices of the deputy attorney general.
All of this adds up to a totally unprecedented situation, a grave and profound crisis in which the President has set himself against his own attorney general and the Department of Justice. Nothing like this has ever happened before.
Nothing like this had ever happened before. Nixon had thrown down a gauntlet to the nation: you must accept my power to live above the law. I will not be questioned. How would the nation react?
The Saturday Night Massacre That Almost Was
One of the quieter storylines to come out of Washington over the past six months or so is that Donald Trump—a famously impetuous individual who has no qualms whatsoever about firing the people investigating him—somehow hadn't axed Robert Mueller, whose Russia probe has a non-zero chance at one day bringing down this presidency. From the outside, Trump's decision to leave the special counsel alone appeared to be an unusual display of self-restraint and institutional respect from a man otherwise unfamiliar with those character traits.
As it turns out, the president's inaction wasn't for lack of trying. According to the New York Times, Trump actually ordered White House counsel Don McGahn to fire Mueller in June, just a month after Mueller was appointed to his post by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, and just a few days after news began to trickle out that Mueller might be building an obstruction of justice case against the president. Trump reversed course only after McGahn said he would quit before he carried out the president's wishes.
Now, Don McGahn—who was in the White House for the terminations or attempted terminations of all the other law enforcement officials perceived by Trump as threats to his presidency—isn't some paradigm of great moral courage. Recall that it was McGahn who, acting on Trump's orders, carried out a very-ethically-dubious lobbying campaign to convince Attorney General Jeff Sessions not to recuse himself from heading the Russia investigation, only to be told by Sessions that, on the advice of career Justice Department officials, he had already decided to do so. McGahn has carried as much water for Donald Trump as anyone, and the Times pointedly notes that one of the main reasons he chose to take this brave stand was his fear that firing Mueller would "incite more questions about whether the White House was trying to obstruct" the inquiry.
His role in nixing a Saturday Night Massacre redux is still noteworthy, though, because it is one of the few instances during the Trump administration in which a traditional check on executive power actually made a difference.
Mr. McGahn disagreed with the president’s case and told senior White House officials that firing Mr. Mueller would have a catastrophic effect on Mr. Trump’s presidency. Mr. McGahn also told White House officials that Mr. Trump would not follow through on the dismissal on his own.
Robert Mueller's investigation has a specific, concrete set of tasks: to figure out what the hell happened in the months leading up to the 2016 election, and to learn what, if anything, Trump and company did to cover up their alleged involvement. Obviously, events that occur after his commission, like this one, can still be part of a cover-up. Given what he knows about his attempted termination, the special counsel will presumably have very some awkward questions to ask the president when their much-hyped face-to-face meeting finally happens.
The upshot of this June episode, though, is that Mueller kept his job, thus enabling him to continue his search for answers to these questions of great national interest ever since. If people in the administration are actually stopping Trump from interfering with the special counsel's mission, that's a good result for the country, even if some of the actors are perhaps motivated less by patriotism than by self-preservation. The remaining unanswered question is how many other unreported attempts to obstruct justice might have occurred in the White House since then—and how much longer his inner circle can hold the line should he try it again.
Ruckelshaus was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, on July 24, 1932, the son of Marion Doyle (née Covington) and John K. Ruckelshaus.  He was from a distinguished family with a long history of practicing law in Indianapolis and serving in Republican Party politics.  
He attended parochial schools until the age of 16, then finished high school in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, at the Portsmouth Abbey School. 
He began college at Princeton University before being drafted  and serving for two years in the United States Army, becoming a drill sergeant at Fort Lewis in Tacoma, Washington.  He left the Army in 1955, returning to and graduating from Princeton with an A.B. (cum laude) in history in 1957 after completing a senior thesis titled "American Attitudes toward the Spanish Civil War."  In 1960 he earned an LL.B. from Harvard Law School and joined the family law firm in Indianapolis. 
In 1960, Ruckelshaus married Ellen Urban, who died the following year from complications incurred after giving birth to their twin daughters.  In 1962 he remarried, to Jill Strickland, with whom he had three children. 
His brother was John C. Ruckelshaus and his nephew was John Ruckelshaus they also served in the Indiana General Assembly. 
After passing the Indiana bar exam, Ruckelshaus joined the family law firm of Ruckelshaus, Bobbitt, and O'Connor. 
In 1960, at age 28, he was appointed as Deputy Attorney General of Indiana, and served through 1965.   For two years he was assigned to the Indiana Board of Health. As counsel to the Indiana Stream Pollution Control Board, Ruckelshaus obtained court orders prohibiting industries and municipalities from heavily polluting the state's water supply he also helped draft the Indiana Air Pollution Control Act of 1961, the state's first attempt to reduce that problem.   After that assignment, he spent two years as Chief Counsel for the Attorney General's Office. 
In 1964, Ruckelshaus ran as a moderate Republican in the U.S. House election in Indiana's 11th district, losing in the primary to Don Tabbert, a candidate from the conservative wing of the party. He subsequently spent a year as minority attorney for the Indiana Senate.  
He won a seat in the Indiana House of Representatives in 1966, benefiting from an up year for Republicans overall.   He served in the House for one term, until 1968.   He became the first first-term legislator to serve as majority leader of the House.  
Ruckelshaus ran in the 1968 U.S. Senate election in Indiana, winning the Republican nomination, but losing the general election, 51%–48%,   to incumbent Birch Bayh.  
In 1969, President Richard Nixon appointed him as U.S. Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Division of the U.S. Department of Justice in Nixon's new administration. Ruckelshaus held the post until his appointment as the first administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970. 
Ruckelshaus became the US Environmental Protection Agency's first administrator when the agency was formed on December 2, 1970 by Nixon. Although many people were mentioned as possibilities for the new position, the choice of Ruckelshaus had been based upon the strong recommendation of US Attorney General John N. Mitchell. Ruckelhaus had been suggested in a Newsweek opinion column by a friend without his knowledge and was later approached Mitchell about the position. 
The burning of the Cuyahoga River had created a national outcry. The Justice Department under Mitchell filed a civil lawsuit against the Jones and Laughlin Steel Company "for discharging substantial quantities of cyanide into the Cuyahoga" at Ruckelshaus's request and sought an injunction "to halt the discharge of these deleterious materials into the river. "  
Also during his first tenure at the EPA, Ruckelshaus advocated for and enacted a ban on the insecticide DDT. 
Ruckelshaus laid the foundation for the EPA by hiring its leaders by defining its mission, deciding on priorities, and selecting an organizational structure. He also oversaw the implementation of the Clean Air Act of 1970.  
In April 1973, during the growing Watergate scandal, there was a major reshuffling of Nixon administration posts because of the resignations of White House Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman and Domestic Affairs Advisor John Ehrlichman. Ruckelshaus's record of success at EPA and Justice and his reputation for integrity led to his being appointed acting Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation to replace L. Patrick Gray III, "who had allowed Nixon aides to examine Watergate files and had even destroyed evidence in the case."  Later that year, Ruckelshaus was promoted to Deputy Attorney General.  
On October 20, 1973,  in the event known as the "Saturday Night Massacre," Attorney General Elliot Richardson and then Ruckelshaus resigned their positions, rather than obey orders from Nixon to fire the Watergate special prosecutor, Archibald Cox, who was investigating official misconduct by Nixon and his aides and sought "tape recordings that. would incriminate" Nixon.  After the resignations, the third in command at the Justice Department, US Solicitor General Robert Bork immediately effected the firing and the abolition of the special prosecutor's office, completing the "Massacre." However, 300,000 telegrams, release of the tapes, the reinstatement of a special prosecutor, and (ultimately) Nixon's resignation in August 1974 would occur over the next 10 months. 
After leaving the Justice Department, Ruckelshaus returned to the private sector as an attorney at the Washington law firm of Ruckelshaus, Beveridge, Fairbanks, and Diamond from 1973 to 1975. 
In 1975, Ruckelshaus moved to Seattle, Washington, where he accepted a position as senior vice-president for law and corporate affairs of the Tacoma-based Weyerhaeuser timber company.   Ruckelshaus remained in that position until 1983. 
Ruckelshaus was one of Gerald Ford's preferred candidates to be his vice presidential running mate in the 1976 election. Ford selected Bob Dole the two lost the election to Democrat Jimmy Carter and his running mate, Walter Mondale. 
In 1983, with the EPA in crisis due to mass resignations over the mishandling of the Superfund program,  President Ronald Reagan appointed Ruckelshaus to serve as EPA Administrator again. This time it was White House Chief of Staff James Baker who was Ruckelshaus's champion in asking him to return to the agency.  The White House acceded to Ruckhelshaus's request to allow him maximum autonomy in the choice of new appointees. 
Ruckelshaus's predecessor, Anne Gorsuch Burford (mother of future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch),  had depleted the EPA by asking Congress to cut the agency's budget, eliminating jobs and halting enforcement activities.   On his second day after taking over for Burford, Ruckelsaus fired four people on the agency's management team. 
Ruckelshaus attempted to win back public confidence in the EPA, a challenging task in the face of a skeptical press and a wary Congress, both of whom scrutinized all aspects of the agency's activities and some of whom interpreted a number of its actions in the worst possible light.  Nonetheless, Ruckelshaus filled the top-level staffing slots with persons of competence, turned the attention of the staff back to the agency's fundamental mission, and raised the esteem of the agency in the public mind.  
On November 28, 1984, Ruckelshaus announced that he would be retiring as EPA head, effective January 5, 1985, around the start of President Reagan's second term. He remained Administrator until February 7, 1985, when his successor, Lee M. Thomas, was confirmed. 
Of his two tenures at EPA, Ruckelshaus later reflected: 
I've had an awful lot of jobs in my lifetime, and in moving from one to another, have had the opportunity to think about what makes them worthwhile. I've concluded there are four important criteria: interest, excitement, challenge, and fulfillment. I've never worked anywhere where I could find all four to quite the same extent as at EPA. I can find interest, challenge, and excitement as [board chair of a company]. I do have an interesting job. But it is tough to find the same degree of fulfillment I found in the government. At EPA, you work for a cause that is beyond self-interest and larger than the goals people normally pursue. You're not there for the money, you're there for something beyond yourself. 
1980s and 1990s Edit
Ruckelshaus was at Perkins Coie, a Seattle-based law firm, from 1985 to 1988.  From 1983 to 1986, he served on the World Commission on Environment and Development set up by the United Nations. 
From 1988 to 1999, he served as chief executive officer of Browning-Ferris Industries of Houston, Texas, a major and expanding waste-removal firm.  During his tenure, Browning Ferris shifted from a focus on hazardous wastes to recycling. As the company expanded its operations into New York City, Ruckelshaus "helped investigators infiltrate a Mafia-dominated carting conspiracy, leading prosecutors to obtain indictments." 
After leaving Browning-Ferris, Ruckelshaus became a partner in the private investment firm, Madrona Venture Group. 
President Bill Clinton appointed Ruckelshaus as a member of the President's Council for Sustainable Development from 1993 to 1997,  and as U.S. special envoy in the implementation of the Pacific Salmon Treaty from 1997 to 1998.   He was also appointed Chairman of the Salmon Recovery Funding Board for the state of Washington. 
2000s and 2010s Edit
Ruckelshaus was appointed by President George W. Bush to serve on the United States Commission on Ocean Policy,  which submitted its Final Report to the President and Congress, An Ocean Blueprint for the 21st Century, in 2004. 
In June 2010, Ruckelshaus became co-chair of the Joint Ocean Commission Initiative. 
Ruckelshaus served as a director on boards of several corporations, including Isilon Systems, Monsanto, Cummins, Pharmacia, Solutia, Coinstar, Nordstrom, Pfizer, and Weyerhaeuser. 
He was Chair of the Advisory Board of The William D. Ruckelshaus Center  at the University of Washington and Washington State University, Chair Emeritus of the University of Wyoming's Ruckelshaus Institute for Environment and Natural Resources, Chairman Emeritus of the World Resources Institute,  and Chair of the Meridian Institute. He was a director of the Initiative for Global Development. 
In 2008, Ruckelshaus endorsed Barack Obama in the 2008 election for President of the United States.  In August 2016, Ruckelshaus and another former Republican-appointed EPA administrator, William K. Reilly, jointly endorsed Hillary Clinton for president in the 2016 election. 
In 2008, Ruckelshaus was appointed to the Washington State Puget Sound Partnership, an agency devoted to cleaning up Puget Sound.  In early 2012, Ruckelshaus was appointed co-chair of the Washington Blue Ribbon Panel on ocean acidification. 
In August 2018, Ruckelshaus drew parallels to the actions of President Donald Trump's administration relating to special prosecutor Robert Mueller and Ruckelshaus's own experiences during the Massacre and with President Nixon's "disrespect for the rule of law" in an opinion-editorial in The Washington Post. 
He died 5 months before 2 other Acting FBI Directors, James B. Adams and John E. Otto, and 6.5 months before FBI Director, William S. Sessions.
Presidential Medal of Freedom Edit
In November 2015, Ruckelshaus was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama during a ceremony at the White House.  
Ruckelshaus died at his home in Medina, Washington, on November 27, 2019, at age 87.  
What Is the Saturday Night Massacre? Decades Since Pivotal Watergate Event, History Could Repeat Itself Under Trump
It is 45 years since one of the most shocking days in American political history: The Saturday Night Massacre.
Today, with President Donald Trump, his campaign, family and friends under the microscope of special counsel Robert Mueller, will we witness history repeating itself?
Back in the early 1970s, with Republican President Richard Nixon in the White House, a huge crisis was brewing&mdashthe Watergate scandal.
Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox was overseeing an FBI investigation into a break-in at the Democratic National Committee's offices in Washington, D.C.'s Watergate Hotel in 1972.
It transpired that the group caught burgling the DNC were there to steal documents and wiretap the phones&mdashand they had links to Nixon's campaign.
Nixon denied publicly that he or his staff had anything to do with the break-in. It was a lie that would soon unravel thanks to tapes the president kept of every conversation he had in the Oval Office.
Cox repeatedly demanded access to Nixon's tapes. So Nixon sought to get rid of Cox.
On October 20, 1973, President Richard Nixon's Attorney General Elliot Richardson and his deputy William Ruckelshaus both resigned instead of carrying out his order to fire Cox.
Nixon then instructed his Solicitor General Robert Bork instead, who despite having reservations, fired Cox at the president's behest.
The day became known as the Saturday Night Massacre.
Eventually, Nixon was forced by the Supreme Court to hand over the tapes to federal investigators.
Those tapes incriminated Nixon, showing he was complicit in the Watergate break-in and subsequent attempts to cover up what went on by impeding the FBI investigation. Nixon resigned in disgrace in 1974.
Fast forward to 2018 and President Trump is under scrutiny from the Mueller investigation for obstruction of justice.
Mueller's team is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election, including suspicions of collusion between Trump's campaign and the Kremlin.
The president openly calls the investigation a political witch hunt against him and his allies. He wants the investigation to be scrapped, and branded Mueller "disgraced and discredited."
He is furious at his own Attorney General Jeff Sessions for recusing himself from oversight of the Russia investigation at the Department of Justice.
Sessions passed the responsibility down to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein because he was involved with Trump's campaign, making it a conflict of interest.
So far the investigation by Mueller&mdasha former FBI director&mdashhas led to dozens of indictments, guilty pleas, and convictions. Among those are the Trump campaign's former chairman Paul Manafort and the president's longtime personal attorney and fixer Michael Cohen.
Trump fired former FBI director James Comey, who was then in charge of the Russia investigation now led by Mueller, ostensibly for competence reasons.
Comey had been criticized for his handling of an investigation into the former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server for official business.
But Trump's critics accused him of firing Comey to disrupt the Russia investigation and argue it is evidence of his attempts to obstruct justice. It is just one part of the case building against Trump that he obstructed justice.
According to the think tank Brookings Institution, "it has become apparent that the president's pattern of potentially obstructive conduct is much more extensive than we knew.
"To take only a few examples, it has since been reported that President Trump: attempted to block Attorney General Sessions' recusing himself from the Russia investigation despite the AG's clear legal duty to do so asked Sessions to reverse his recusal decision demanded and obtained the resignation of Sessions for his failure to contain the Russia investigation (before ultimately rejecting it) twice ordered the firing of Special Counsel Robert Mueller dictated a false account for a key witness, his son Donald Trump Jr., of the June 9, 2016 Trump Tower meeting between campaign and Russian representatives publicly attacked special counsel Mueller and key witnesses to the obstruction case and has repeatedly disputed the underlying Russian attack and Vladimir Putin's role in it despite possessing evidence to the contrary."
Rosenstein, the man now overseeing the Mueller investigation, is also in the crosshairs of Trump and his Republican backers in Congress.
The deputy attorney general narrowly kept his job after a report in The New York Times alleged he spoke of wearing a wire around Trump and using the 25th amendment to force the president out of office.
Rosenstein denied the report and after a meeting with Trump was not fired.
Congressional Republicans unhappy with Rosenstein's handling of the Russia investigation are keen to impeach him or find some other way to force him out of the job.
They accuse him of evading scrutiny by Congress and lacking transparency in his release to them of heavily redacted documents relating to the probe.
All of this has the makings of our generation's very own Saturday Night Massacre should Trump choose the nuclear option on Mueller and try to force the justice department's hand.
But if he does, he risks an almighty backlash from Congress and the American public, and very possibly the same fate as Nixon&mdasha disgraced exit from the White House.
Impact and legacy [ edit | edit source ]
Nixon was compelled to allow Bork to appoint a new special prosecutor, Leon Jaworski to continue the investigation. There was a question whether Jaworski would limit the investigation to only the Watergate burglary itself or follow Cox's lead and also look at broader corrupt activities such as the "White House Plumbers." ⎙] As it turned out, Jaworski also looked at broader corrupt activities. ⎚]
While Nixon continued to refuse to turn over actual tapes, he agreed to release transcripts of a large number of them. Nixon cited the fact that any audio pertinent to national security information would have to be redacted from the released tapes. There was further controversy on December 7, when an 18 1/2 minute portion of one tape was found to have been erased. Nixon's personal secretary, Rose Mary Woods, said she had accidentally erased the tape by pushing the wrong foot pedal on her tape player while answering the phone. Later forensic analysis determined that the tape had been erased in several segments — at least five, and perhaps as many as nine. ⎛]
Nixon's presidency would later succumb to mounting pressure resulting from the Watergate scandal and its cover-up. In the face of a certain threat of removal from office through impeachment and conviction, Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974. The Independent Counsel Act of 1978 was a direct result of the Saturday Night Massacre.
Bork's role in the Saturday Night Massacre would later play a role in his rejection for a Supreme Court associate judgeship in 1987.
Commentary: The Saturday Night Massacre, honorable men and the right side of history
Four principled prosecutors resigned from the Roger Stone case on Feb. 11. They did so rather than be complicit in Donald Trump’s attempt to soften the sentence for Stone, his underling who was convicted of crimes in a case arising from the Mueller investigation into Russia’s 2016 election interference.
Even more than the past resignations on principle by others serving in the Trump administration, such as Defense Secretary James Mattis, these withdrawals, including one attorney who quit the Justice Department altogether, bring to mind the pivotal moment in Watergate, the “Saturday Night Massacre,” which commenced when Attorney General Elliot Richardson resigned rather than obey President Nixon’s order to fire Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox.
Both Cox and Richardson were from what, in that era, was known as the Eastern Establishment, men from the upper class who attended Ivy League schools and disproportionately occupied leadership roles in American business and politics. Cox was my law professor after his Watergate days. Decades before, Cox had been Richardson’s law professor.
Cox had short-cut steel gray hair, spoke precisely, and was the sort of man who could, and did, pull off wearing a bow tie. And he did not shy from telling stories about Watergate.
When Richardson became attorney general, the Watergate investigation was already in full swing. In Cox’s telling, he initially declined Richardson’s request to be the Watergate prosecutor, from concern he would be removed if the facts of the case took him closer to the presidency than Nixon liked. The deciding point for Cox was that Richardson provided his personal promise that Cox would only be removed for misconduct.
When the 1973 Senate hearings revealed the existence of a White House system for taping conversations, Cox sought White House tape recordings for his investigation, and got a federal court order for them. Nixon then ordered Richardson to fire Cox.
As Cox told the story: “Elliot said to me, ‘the president has asked me to remove you.’ And I said, ‘You gave me your word that wouldn’t happen.’ And he said, ‘Yes, but he is the president. Sooner or later he will have his way.’ I could tell that Elliot wanted me to let him off the hook by offering to resign, but I wasn’t going to do that. I looked at him and said, ‘Well, Elliot, I guess you know what you need to do.’”
After Richardson resigned rather than fire Cox, the assistant attorney general also resigned. Cox ultimately was fired, but the resignations, on principle, of a Cabinet officer and his second in command changed the political and public perception of Nixon.
Cox didn’t protest that his firing violated the terms of his recruitment. He didn’t claim that he was being victimized or being treated unfairly — Twitter-whining didn’t exist back then, and Cox didn’t do things that way. Cox instead appealed to his old friend on a personal level, reminding Richardson to do the right thing, to live up to his promise despite the cost.
Richardson was a lifelong Republican. Cox was a lifetime Democrat. Beyond party loyalty, both men held a greater allegiance to the country, to the law and to a high standard of personal honor.
Perhaps Cox’s appeal would have had less strength if it had come from someone Richardson knew less well, or who didn’t share a connection of social class and tradition. If Cox’s appointment had been merely a transaction, rather than the continuation of a long-standing relationship between honorable men, perhaps Nixon’s low behavior would have escaped being contrasted to Richardson’s integrity.
In our time, Donald Trump’s constant and flamboyant dishonesty stands in contrast to the quiet professionalism of the law enforcement and intelligence communities Trump has worked constantly to undermine and impugn. Again and again, Trump forces his supporters to choose between allegiance to him and allegiance to country, law and honor. Shamefully, elected Republicans other than Mitt Romney and Justin Amash have to date chosen the former.
Cox and Richardson demonstrated how to stand on the right side of history.
Historians hear echoes of Watergate's 1973 Saturday Night Massacre in Comey's firing
Nixon's decision to fire prosecutor in Watergate probe preceded impeachment.
Oct. 25, 1973: Robert Bork assumes responsibility as acting attorney general
-- The unexpected firing of a high-profile investigator looking into potential political malfeasance connected to the White House, followed by a visit by Henry Kissinger to the Oval Office. No, this is not October 1973.
President Trump's decision to fire James Comey as FBI director Tuesday instantly drew comparisons to President Richard Nixon and the 1970s Watergate scandal. Trump's move, to fire an official who reportedly asked just the day before for more money and resources to look into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, parallels a very specific moment in Nixon's presidency that became known as the Saturday Night Massacre, experts say.
Why Nixon had special prosecutor fired
In the fall of 1973, Archibald Cox was working as the special prosecutor for the Watergate investigation. As part of his investigation, he asked for access to the thousands of hours of recordings Nixon made in the White House and elsewhere.
"Cox had made it clear that he wanted those tapes to determine what Nixon knew and when he knew it, and Nixon in October had been resisting turning over the tapes," David Greenberg, a professor of history and journalism and media studies at Rutgers University in New Jersey, told ABC News. "So, finally, he decided to have Cox fired, hoping this would put an end to the demand for these tapes. Of course, it didn't quite work out that way."
Nixon gave the order to fire Cox on Saturday, Oct. 20, 1973. Nixon's Attorney General Elliot L. Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus resigned rather than carry out the order. Solicitor General Robert Bork was named acting attorney general and fired Cox.
"Bork agrees to fire Cox and then, also at the White House's orders, a couple days later says that the office of the special prosecutor will be abolished," Greenberg said. "But there's too much pushback from the public, from the press and from Congress, and within a matter of days, Congress is insisting on a new special prosecutor."
How Comey's and Cox's firings compare
More than four decades later, there are interesting similarities — and differences — between Trump's decision to fire Comey and Nixon's decision to fire Cox, according to Luke Nichter, an associate professor of history at Texas A&M University who has studied the 3,451 hours of Nixon tapes.
"The most important similarities are in the details — the fact that an unpopular Republican president has fired a top investigator who was looking into potential crimes or malfeasance that the president was involved," Nichter told ABC News.
Democrats have been quick to condemn Trump's decision to fire Comey. But Nichter said the immediate backlash Nixon faced for firing Cox was far worse than what Trump is facing, which could change as more becomes known about Trump's possible involvement.
"The firing of Cox . really put the foot on the gas pedal in terms of moving more aggressively toward impeachment hearings that ultimately ended Nixon's presidency less than a year later," Nichter said. "I think with Trump, we don't have similar kinds of bipartisan calls of concern."
"The Republicans in 1973 were really a different party," he said. "Although there were plenty of die-hard partisans, there were others who were statesmanlike and who turned on Nixon and broke with Nixon. These people demanded a special prosecutor and came out for impeachment. These weren't just the moderate Republicans. These were also conservative Republicans."
There are other important differences between the firings as well. Karen Greenberg, the director of the Center for National Security at Fordham Law School in New York, points to Richardson's decision to resign rather than carry out the order, while today's Attorney General Jeff Sessions supported Trump's move, although he is not supposed to be involved in the investigation because of his previously undisclosed meetings with the Russian ambassador to the U.S.
"At this point, abuse of power and obstruction of justice are the main issues, and it's important to point out that each one raises many other subsidiary issues," she said. "One in particular is how Sessions could be a part of this firing when supposedly he recused himself from any participation in the investigation into the election."
Additionally, in Nixon's firing of Cox — a special prosecutor who was selected with a fair amount of bipartisan support to investigate Watergate — Nixon was clearly interfering, Nichter said. Until more is known about what the FBI finds in terms of Trump and his team's ties to alleged Russian interference in the election, his motivation is less clear.
"With Comey, it's a little different, because we don't have all the facts yet," Nichter said. "We can have another big headline here today, tomorrow, the next day.
"Trump still has some degree of plausible deniability because we don't know all the facts regarding Russia and their involvement in the election. The veneer that Nixon could hide behind in the fall of 1973 when Cox was fired was much smaller and narrower. He had no plausible deniability."
But the backlash is far from over, analysts said.
"The optics are hard to overcome, especially given Trump's Twitter feed, the attacks on accusers and his meeting with Russian officials that excluded the U.S. press," Karen Greenberg said.
Meeting with Henry Kissinger
Kissinger, a secretary of state under Nixon, met with Trump today. Trump said the meeting focused on Russia, Syria and "various other matters," calling Kissinger a "friend for a long time."
Kissinger, now 93, was one of Nixon's closest advisers and met with him after the Saturday Night Massacre.
The Saturday Night Massacre actually sped up Nixon’s political demise
By October of 1973, Richard Nixon could feel special prosecutor Archibald Cox closing in. Cox had just asked Nixon to turn over recordings of Oval Office conversation — the infamous Watergate Tapes — and the president was desperate to save himself.
As Cox left his office at the end of the workday on Friday, the 19th of that month, a reporter rushed the Justice Department special prosecutor investigating the Watergate scandal to ask him if he would resign, given the extreme circumstances. Cox shot back: “No — hell no.”
In recent weeks, the already tense investigation had gone full nuclear with President Richard M. Nixon on one side and Cox and the Department of Justice on the other. Publicly, Nixon was saying he wanted the inquiry to go as deep as it needed to get to the bottom of the scandal. Privately, the president was doing all he could to stymie the probe, including attempting to conceal secret recordings he made in the Oval Office that implicated him in the misconduct.
Cox, a Harvard law professor and former U.S. solicitor general under presidents Kennedy and Johnson, had been brought to Washington by Attorney General Elliot L. Richardson in May to investigate the notorious June 17, 1972 break-in at the Watergate complex, where five Nixon operatives were caught trying to bug the Democratic National Committee headquarters.
Cox’s appointment to investigate “all offenses arising out of the 1972 election…involving the president, the White House staff or presidential appointments” required special approval of the House Judiciary Committee and only the attorney general had the authority to fire him.
For months, Cox inched closer to the “smoking gun” he was looking for and Nixon was growing increasingly agitated and backed into a corner.
After refusing to comply with the subpoena for the tapes, Nixon made his final offer that Friday: a proposal to have Senator John C. Stennis of Mississippi, who was famously hard of hearing, to review and summarize the tapes for the purpose of the investigation.
Immediately, Cox dismissed the so-called compromise and viewed the weekend as an opportunity for both sides to cool off.
Less than 24 hours later, at 2:20 p.m. on Saturday, Nixon ordered Attorney General Richardson to fire Cox. And when Richardson refused, Nixon forced his resignation. Nixon then ordered Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus to fire Cox, who also refused and resigned.
Nixon then ordered Solicitor General Robert Bork, who had been brought to the White House by limousine on Saturday to be sworn in as acting attorney general, to fire Cox. Bork quickly dashed off a two-paragraph letter terminating Cox as special prosecutor.
B ut the officeholders were not the only casualty on that evening, which became known as the Saturday Night Massacre. Nixon also ordered the FBI to seal the office of the special prosecutor and eliminated the office within the Department of Justice, a place where a White House spokesperson said the investigation would be “carried out with thoroughness and vigor.”
“It had been been clear in my mind for a couple of days that I wouldn’t do it,” Ruckelshaus later said of Cox’s dismissal. “And when it became clear to both Elliot [Richardson] and me that the President was going forward with his determination to fire Cox, we both sort of simultaneously said, ‘Who’s next?’ And it was clear then that Bork was the next in line.”
Ruckelshaus said that Bork “ultimately decided that the President had the power to fire Cox, and he had the right to ask him to be the instrument of that power. He had no personal scruples against firing Cox.”
But Ruckelshaus also said that Bork may not have fully understood the gravity of the tapes, noting, “He didn’t have any of that information, he didn’t have any of the flavor, the feel of what had been building up over several months, so his perception of what he was being asked to do was much different from mine and Elliot’s.”
“I think that as a matter of principle, Cox should not have been fired,” Richardson said, adding, “I thought Bork was simply taking the position that the President was entitled to have him fired” for not following White House orders.
Bork said as much the year of the Saturday Night Massacre. He said he “was thinking of resigning not out of moral considerations” but rather because he “did not want to be perceived as a man who did the President’s bidding to save my job.”
In some ways, Bork saw himself as the person who kept the Department of Justice together at a moment of turmoil.
“The President and Mr. Cox had gotten themselves, without my aid, into a position of confrontation,” said Bork. “There was never any question that Mr. Cox, one way or another, was going to be discharged. At that point you would have had massive resignations from the top levels of Justice.”
He added: “If that had happened, the Department of Justice would have lost its top leadership, all of it, and would I think have effectively been crippled.”
In his posthumously published memoirs, Bork wrote that Nixon promised him the next seat on the Supreme Court for following orders on firing Cox. Nixon was unable to carry out the promise because of his resignation, but Ronald Reagan nominated Bork for the Supreme Court in 1987. He was notoriously unable to pass the Senate confirmation hearing.
But Nixon’s attack on the Department of Justice seriously backfired. Around the country, citizens sent hundreds of thousands of letters and telegrams of protest to Washington. NBC News showed that for the first time, a plurality of U.S. citizens now supported impeachment of Nixon, with 44 percent in favor, 43 percent opposed and 13 percent undecided. With that imperative, 21 members of Congress introduced resolutions calling for Nixon’s impeachment.
Nixon attempted to quell dissent by lending his support to another independent prosecutor. In November, Bork appointed Leon Jaworski as the new Watergate prosecutor. Jaworski resumed Cox’s investigation and eventually secured the release of the Oval Office recordings in July 1974, when the Supreme Court ruled that the tapes did not fall under executive privilege. With too much evidence mounting against him, Nixon resigned the presidency on August 8, 1974.
On November 14, 1973, federal District Judge Gerhard A. Gesell ruled that the dismissal of Cox was illegal.
For Cox, the Saturday Night Massacre was about more than his job or an attempt by a president to cover up illegal activity — it was a critical moment where the United States could lose its rule of law, observing, “Whether we shall continue to be a government of laws and not of men is now for Congress and ultimately the American people.”