Every flurry of rumors that Donald Trump is poised to fire Robert Mueller prompts an automatic historical memory.
The obvious parallel is Richard Nixon sacking special prosecutor Archibald Cox in the midst of the Watergate investigation. Known as the Saturday Night Massacre, it marked a key step on the road to Nixon’s forced resignation.
The actual history of the 1973 Saturday Night Massacre and the weeks that followed serves as a reminder of the many twists in the road to Nixon’s political demise. While the rule of law ultimately prevailed, it was a closer call than many now remember.
The larger historical lessons begin with a stark warning to Trump not to interfere with a Justice Department investigation. But they also include the self-defeating naiveté of liberals who believe that Trump is fast on the way to impeachment and conviction.
Our saga began in May 1973 when incoming Attorney General Eliot Richardson announced that Cox — a bow-tie-wearing Harvard law professor — would serve as special prosecutor to investigate the Watergate scandals.
Before long Nixon grew nervous about Cox’s investigation. By July, Nixon was privately complaining to aides, “He is deliberately going into extraneous issues. He cannot be allowed to get away with this.” With Cox poking around in matters such as Nixon’s income taxes, the president railed against a “partisan political vendetta.”
(Any similarities between Trump and Nixon are, of course, purely coincidental.)
With Cox demanding access to 10 hours of potentially incriminating White House tapes in mid-October, Nixon tried to work out a compromise. Conservative Mississippi Democratic Sen. John Stennis, a former judge, would review White House-provided summaries of the tapes for accuracy before handing the limited material that he considered germane to the special prosecutor.
Cox publicly rejected Nixon’s proposal on Saturday, October 20. The president then met with Richardson in the Oval Office — and ordered the attorney general to fire Cox. Instead, Richardson resigned in protest as did William Ruckelshaus, the deputy attorney general.
Solicitor General Robert Bork (later a failed Ronald Reagan Supreme Court nominee) became acting attorney general and complied with Nixon’s wishes. Cox’s firing and the two resignations were announced by the White House on Saturday night. FBI agents sealed off Cox’s offices.
But Nixon was blindsided by what he later called “the ferocious intensity of the reaction.”
NBC anchor John Chancellor broke into prime-time Saturday night programming to ominously declare, “The country tonight is in the midst of what may be the most serious constitutional crisis in its history.” In a hastily written editorial for the Sunday paper, the New York Times thundered, “The nation is in the hands of a president overcome with dictatorial misconceptions of his constitutional authority.”
Capitol Hill was in an uproar. John Anderson, the third-ranking House Republican, predicted, “Impeachment resolutions are going to be raining down like hailstones.” Liberal Maryland Republican Sen. Charles Mathias said the firing of Cox raised “very serious questions.”
By Monday, October 22, Democratic House Speaker Carl Albert authorized the House Judiciary Committee, chaired by Peter Rodino, to begin examining whether there were grounds for Nixon’s impeachment. That inquiry lasted until late July with the committee voting 27-11 in favor of impeachment. Yet only six of the 17 Republicans on the committee voted to impeach Nixon.
Even after the Saturday Night Massacre, support for ousting Nixon was limited. Only 28 percent of the public in an October 26 Gallup Poll believed that “Nixon should be impeached and compelled to leave the presidency.”
But what is often airbrushed out of history is how long Nixon held the support of the bulk of the Republican Party. Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, the first African-American senator since Reconstruction, was one of the few prominent Republicans to call for Nixon’s resignation.
In contrast, both California Gov. Ronald Reagan and GOP national chairman George Bush stressed that Nixon was fully within his powers in dismissing Cox. The analogy they both trotted out was Harry Truman firing Gen. Douglas MacArthur for insubordination during the Korean War.
When Nixon quickly folded a losing hand and agreed to release the actual tapes, Republican critics backtracked. William Milliken, Michigan’s influential GOP governor, initially had “deplored” the firing of Cox. Now he called Nixon’s retreat “a welcome and affirmative step.”
But the president’s damage control efforts didn’t last long, even though Nixon appointed respected Texas attorney Leon Jaworski, a friend of Lyndon Johnson, to replace Cox as special prosecutor.
The problem was two of the tapes Nixon had promised to release were missing. More ominously a potential smoking-gun tape had a mysterious 18-and-a-half minute gap. To widespread amusement, Nixon’s long-time loyal secretary, Rose Mary Woods, claimed she had accidentally erased the tape by performing a stretch move that would have qualified her for a career as an acrobat.
Nixon’s approval rating didn’t have far to drop since it was already at a dismal 33 percent in late September according to Gallup. It wasn’t all Watergate since inflation was raging and an Arab oil boycott had triggered massive gasoline lines. By early November in the Gallup survey, Nixon’s popularity had declined to a subterranean 27 percent.
Yet Nixon, the only president ever to be forced out of office, still managed to hang on to the remnants of power for more than nine months after the Saturday Night Massacre. Only when the leaders of the Republican Party turned against him in August 1974 did Nixon bow to the inevitable.