President Donald Trump’s firing of FBI Director James B. Comey is far from the first time a chief executive has removed a potential threat. But the move puts the 45th president in a class that includes several presidents who ran into choppy waters with lawmakers.
Presidential historians say it is too soon to predict whether Comey’s dismissal will contribute to lawmakers reprimanding Trump. In fact, several said it is possible the termination will have no negative effect on the president’s ability to enact an agenda that includes a health care overhaul, tax cut package, massive infrastructure rebuild, and a bolstering of the military, among other items.
Still, the move means Trump, not quite four months in office, finds himself closer to a president to whom he compares himself and another to whom his critics compare him.
The modern standard bearer is Richard Nixon, the president Trump’s critics often cite when pointing to his rhetoric and missteps. The 1973 “Saturday Night Massacre” went down when Nixon’s insistence that the prosecutor investigating the Watergate cover-up be fired and ended with the top two Justice Department officers quitting. Nixon eventually resigned in 1974 after the House Judiciary Committee reported articles of impeachment but before the full House could vote.
Then there’s Andrew Jackson, the seventh president, who was censured by the Senate in the late 1830s during the height of the “bank wars.” That reprimand was later expunged and the House never passed an impeachment measure. Trump often is compared to Jackson, and he visited the burial place of “Old Hickory” in March.
Scholars cited two other high-level firings that in some ways mirrored Comey’s in terms of historical significance.
Bill Clinton fired FBI Director William Sessions over ethics violations, the first time an FBI director was fired. Although Clinton was impeached by the House several years later, the Sessions firing was not a factor.
Comey’s firing also puts Trump in a class with Andrew Johnson, the 17th president, whose impeachment was the last before Clinton’s almost 131 years later. Johnson ran afoul of lawmakers over the 1867 Tenure of Office Act and his firing of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton.
Julia Azari, a political science professor at Marquette University, said it is too early to tell if Trump will suffer a similar fate as other presidents who removed what they viewed as a threatening or otherwise troublesome senior official in their respective administrations.
“There have been so many things over the course of the campaign and during his presidency to date that seemed to be a huge moment, but then they really weren’t,” Azari said. “There is a tendency to sometimes overstate these situations in terms of whether they are permeating public opinion, especially so soon after they occur. … I’m not seeing anything in the fundamental fabric of the administration or a shifting of the public mood that signals this will turn out to be a major event.”
Kevin Mattson, a history professor at Ohio University, said it is possible that even if Trump carries out similar actions against senior officials who, like Comey, are involved in investigations of his campaign and associates, “the level of partisanship in Washington could mean he never faces any congressional rebuke — Republicans already are going to their corner to defend this.”
Mattson, along with other experts, see parallels in the Comey termination and Nixon’s Justice Department purge. Such parallels were close to the surface Wednesday, when Nixon’s secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, met with Trump in the Oval Office.
Kissinger’s presence in the West Wing less than 24 hours after Trump fired his FBI chief was a poignant — if coincidental, as the White House claimed — reminder of one of the darkest times in the Watergate era.
“The president has removed the sitting FBI director in the midst of one of the most critical national security investigations in the history of our country — one that implicates senior officials in the Trump campaign and administration,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, a top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee. “This is nothing less than Nixonian.” That adjective “Nixonian” was repeated over and over.
In October 1973, the Justice Department’s special prosecutor investigating the Watergate break-in, Archibald Cox, took his quest for information from the Nixon White House to court. Nixon demanded Attorney General Elliot Richardson immediately fire Cox. Richardson refused, and instead resigned. Ditto for Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus.
Ultimately, Robert Bork, at the time the solicitor general, fired Cox.
The Saturday Night Massacre “released a firestorm of protest, with nearly a half million telegrams bombarding the White House in one week,” according to the White House Historical Association.
“Furthermore, when Speaker Carl Albert called the House of Representatives to order on the Tuesday morning after the firings, a score of them were waiting in line to introduce resolutions of impeachment of the president of the United States,” the association noted.
Azari said she would put Comey’s firing, given his role in the Russia probes, “somewhere in the middle” of presidential ousters of top officials, with Nixon’s “Massacre” on the high end and Clinton pushing out Sessions due to ethical concerns on the low end.
Martha Joynt Kumar, another presidential scholar, said whether Trump can shake his firing of the FBI director better than Nixon did with Cox and the others “remains to be seen,” noting that Nixon’s decision “did not turn out well” for his presidency.
She also said the current White House’s handling of the situation is telling.
“You have to think about the second-, third-, and fourth-stage effects that your decision will bring,” said Kumar, director of the White House Transition Project and a retired professor of political science at Towson University. “There doesn’t appear to have been that kind of thinking here.”
“A White House should want to be very careful and think everything through to ensure they reach their desired goal,” she added. “You want to ask: Is your action going to produce the results you actually want? It appears only President Trump knows what result he wanted.”
“What we do know is this is a continuation of his volatile first 100 days,” Kumar said. “Trump expected his second 100 days to be quieter. It is not turning out that way, however.”
Trump is dealing with some agitated Senate Republicans who are questioning the timing and circumstances of Comey’s dismissal, and Senate Democrats who are demanding Justice Department officials appoint a special prosecutor or independent counsel to take up the probe of possible ties between Russia and Trump’s campaign.
We know how things turned out for Nixon: He resigned on Aug. 8, 1974.
Bork’s role in the Saturday Night Massacre cast a pall that followed him all the way to his failed nomination to the Supreme Court in 1987. The hard feelings over the Bork nomination continue to haunt judicial nomination fights to this day.
Clinton, meanwhile, at the suggestion of then-Attorney General Janet Reno, terminated Sessions amid an investigation into ethics violations. A major difference in that instance and this one: Sessions was not at the time overseeing an investigation that might have encompassed the president.
“We cannot have a leadership vacuum at an agency as important to the United States as the FBI,” Clinton said at a White House news conference. “It is time that this difficult chapter in the agency’s history is brought to a close.”
Another difference: Trump did not hold a press conference Tuesday evening or on Wednesday. He did fire off a number of tweets defending his decision Wednesday morning, before speaking about it when reporters were allowed into the Oval Office meeting with Kissinger.
“[Comey] wasn’t doing a good job. Very simply,” Trump said. “He was not doing a good job,” a line parroted by the White House communications staff and greeted with various degrees of skepticism by wary lawmakers on Capitol Hill.