In 1973, former Attorney General Elliott Richardson was assigned a task; appoint a special prosecutor to oversee the investigation into the Watergate Scandal. Richardson turned to his former Harvard Law Professor, Archibald Cox. Appointing Cox as special prosecutor, as it turns out, was the beginning of the end for President Nixon.
Drunk on power, Nixon saw himself as untouchable, he felt as though he had the support of his party, and that he had loyal men working to clear his name. As he started to doubt that loyalty, it all came crashing down on October 23, 1973. On what later became known as the “Saturday Night Massacre,” the White House announced the dismissals, and resignations of special prosecutor Cox, Attorney General Richardson, and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus, abolishing the office of special prosecutor all together, and handing the investigation over to the Justice Department.
The entire ordeal unfolded because Nixon thought he was untouchable, he refused to turn over documents and tapes related to the investigation, and when challenged he demanded that Richardson fire Cox. When Richardson refused, Nixon pressured Richardson to resign. Upon the resignation of Elliott Richardson, William Ruckelshaus was promoted to acting Attorney General and given the same orders, when Ruckelshaus refused, Nixon forced him to resign. The law states that when there is no Attorney General, the Solicitor General – in this case Robert Bork – becomes the acting Attorney General. Unlike his predecessors, Bork followed Nixon’s orders and fired Archibald Cox. As if that wasn’t enough bad PR, the scene got even uglier when word got out that the FBI, at the request of the White House, had sealed off access to the offices of those that had been forced out.
Soon after the “Saturday Night Massacre” support for Nixon within Congress began to erode. The House Judiciary Committee announced they would move ahead with impeachment proceedings, and the Supreme Court ordered the White House to turn over all the tapes and documents they had in relation to Watergate.
Within 10 months of the entire ordeal Nixon resigned.
It is impossible to look at President Trump, and the way he has handled himself, and not draw comparisons to Nixon. Like Nixon, Trump is being investigated by a special counselor, Robert Mueller, who is looking into possible Russian involvement into the 2016 Presidential election. Like Nixon, Trump has demanded absolute loyalty from those he works with. Former FBI director James Comey has testified to this. Comey testified that Trump had demanded loyalty from him, then ordered him to drop an investigation into former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn’s ties to Russia. When he refused to comply, James Comey was fired. Like Nixon, Trump is frustrated with his Attorney General, publicly humiliating him on numerous occasions. President Trump probably sees the fact that Attorney General Jeff Sessions has recused himself from any investigation into Russia as a personal betrayal. After all, being named Attorney General was a reward to Sessions for his early support as he sought the presidency.
The recusal of Sessions has left Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in charge of the investigation into possible Russian meddling, and for over a month now, it has been widely reported that Trump wants to fire Mueller. The problem is, he doesn’t have that power, only the Attorney General does, and since Sessions has recused himself from this investigation, that means only Rosenstein has that power. What Trump can do, however, is pull a Nixon; request that Rosenstein fires Mueller or face the consequences, which would probably mean he would be fired.
In my mind it seems that Trumps public temper tantrum against Jeff Sessions is his way of acting out in frustration. Trump probably believes that if Sessions hadn’t recused himself, he would be willing to fire Mueller and put an end to this investigation. Instead he is stuck with a Deputy Attorney General that isn’t as loyal to Trump as Sessions had been.
Power corrupts. In both the Watergate scandal, and the Russia investigation, a paranoid President that demands absolute loyalty has gone out of his way to control an outcome. Sally Yates, Michael Flynn, Preet Bharara, Katie Walsh, James Comey, Michael Dubke, Walter Shaub, Sean Spicer, and Michael Short have all either been fired or resigned since Trump took office on January 20th. The Trump administration has gone out of their way to prove that loyalty is the only thing that matters. While it’s impossible to know what Trump’s legacy will ultimately be, it’s hard not to see that history may be repeating itself.