The Saturday Night Massacre
James Comey’s Dismissal
For those of us old enough to remember the Watergate Scandal, the dismissal of FBI Director James Comey has a stark resemblance to Richard Nixon’s “Saturday Night Massacre” in October of 1973. In case your memory is hazy, or you weren’t around at that time, here’s a quick and dirty Wikipedia summary:
The Saturday Night Massacre refers to U.S. President Richard Nixon's orders to fire independent special prosecutor Archibald Cox, which led to the resignations of Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus on October 20, 1973, during the Watergate scandal.
To put it simply: a sitting President has fired the principal investigator who is leading an inquiry into the actions of that President and his campaign staff --- and their ties to Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential election. Based on the “recommendation” of Attorney General Jeffrey Beauregard Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, President Trump has fired the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, James Comey.
There is no doubt that Comey’s leadership of the Bureau has been erratic and, at times, bizarre, like his “October surprise” --- reopening, & then re-closing, the Clinton email investigation, for example. At that time, however, candidate Trump said “It took guts for Director Comey to make the move that he made in light of the kind of opposition he had where they’re trying to protect her from criminal prosecution. I was not his fan, but I’ll tell you what: What he did, he brought back his reputation. He brought it back.” (LA Times, Oct. 28, 2017) Now we discover that the reason for the President’s firing of Comey is for Comey’s handling of the Clinton email investigation! Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein (Attorney General Foghorn Leghorn has recused himself from the ongoing investigation because of his conversations with Russians back in September, 2016) in a separate letter (released at the same time as the President’s) stated: “I cannot defend the director’s handling of the conclusions of the investigation of Secretary Clinton’s emails and I do not understand his refusal to accept nearly universal judgment that he was mistaken.” (NY Times, May 10, 2017) So, more than six months after Comey’s re-opening of the Clinton email investigation, and four months after taking office, the Trump Administration suddenly decides it’s time for Comey to be dismissed?
Here’s where this situation resembles the Saturday Night Massacre and here’s where it doesn’t. It’s similar in that the person leading the investigation of the Trump campaign’s possible criminal connection to Russia, and Russian interference in the 2016 presidential investigation, has been abruptly dismissed by the President. Nixon, of course, fired Archibald Cox, the Watergate Special Prosecutor, when Cox’s investigation demanded taped conversations from the White House --- tapes that connected the President to the Watergate break-in. Rather than comply with the Special Prosecutor, Nixon fired Cox. This was one item contributing to an “obstruction of justice” bill of impeachment against Nixon in 1974 and this may be the strongest parallel to the Saturday Night Massacre. The dissimilarity here is that in Nixon’s case, he ordered his Attorney General to fire Cox. Eliot Richardson, the A.G., refused and was dismissed. The Deputy Attorney General, William Ruckelshaus, also refused to fire Cox and was also dismissed. In our current situation, the Attorney General and the Deputy Attorney General are both working for the president in removing the lead investigator --- a 180 degree difference.
Here’s the danger of what’s happening right now. The autocratic leaning Trump seems to believe he can summarily dismiss people who may “cause trouble” for his administration. Unlike Nixon’s administration, staffed with men of integrity like Eliot Richardson (read Geoffrey Kabaservice’s excellent book, The Guardians, for background on Richardson) Trump’s administration is filled with “yes-men” and lackeys like Sessions, Rosenstein, Spicer, Preibus, Kushner, et al.
Make no mistake about it: this is a threat to our democratic system of governance. If the Republicans in the Senate and House do not help mount a campaign for a Special Prosecutor to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election; if they defer to the autocratic impulses of the Toddler-in-Chief; if they acquiesce passively to his nominee to replace Comey, we are in danger of losing the basic checks and balances and separation of powers that undergird our system of government.
Even when Nixon, in his 1977 David Frost interview, said, “When the President does it, that means it is not illegal,” he was referring to national security decisions and not claiming the President was “above the law.” Trump does not seem to understand separation of powers or checks and balances and certainly has displayed an affinity for autocratic and dictatorial leaders. That he felt a need to say “While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation” in his termination letter to Comey reflects more than Trump’s usual narcissism --- it could well be a “tell” that, in fact, Trump knows that this investigation will reveal his Russian and other ties that are unethical or illegal ---surely something Trump does not want to see the light of day.