Out of Control

tags: Watergate, Robert Bork, Nixon, Trump, Saturday Night Massacre, Robert Mueller, Archibald Cox

Julian E. Zelizer  is a historian at Princeton University and a CNN political analyst. He is the author of The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society.

The news that President Trump tried to fire Robert Mueller is one more moment of shock and awe in this period of American history. The good news is that this was the political massacre that didn’t happen. According to The New York Times, White House Counsel Don McGahn II threatened to quit, and that was enough to kill the plan. The bad news is that Trump tried to do this once, and all evidence suggests he remains determined to kill this investigation in its tracks.

The reason that so many Americans react badly to the news about Trump is similar to what drove the outrage about President Richard Nixon’s famous Saturday Night Massacre, as the Washington Post reporter David Broder named it, in October of 1973. The path to that scandal started when Alexander Butterfield, a former aide to H.R. Haldeman, revealed to the Watergate congressional committee that the president had recorded secret Oval Office conversations. Archibald Cox, the Harvard professor who had been appointed as an independent special prosecutor in May to investigate Watergate, wanted those tapes. He wanted to know just what they revealed about the June 1972 break in to the Democratic National Headquarters. On October 12, a U.S. Court of Appeals ordered Nixon to comply. Nixon tried to broker an agreement with Cox to release a small portion of the tapes, but the negotiations broke down.

Nixon was livid when he heard that Cox was demanding that the White House release all the recordings. It was bad enough that the Ivy-League professor was being so aggressive with him, but now Cox seemed to be taking the investigation to a new level that could be extremely damaging. Nixon, who believed that his office gave him the power to do almost anything, ordered that Attorney General Eliot Richardson fire Cox. The problem was that Richardson refused. “Let it be on your head,” the president angrily told the attorney general when they met. Soon after, Nixon turned to the next person in command, Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus, who also refused to carry out the order. “I am, of course, sorry that my conscience will not permit me to carry out your instruction to discharge Archibald Cox,” he wrote in his resignation letter. It wasn’t until Solicitor General Robert Bork said yes that Nixon found someone to do what he wanted. “I am, as instructed by the President, discharging you, effective at once, from your position as Special Prosecutor, Watergate Special Prosecution Force,” Bork wrote in a letter. Cox’s staff of 38 lawyers and 50 staff was immediately dismantled.

The response was sheer outrage all over the country. “It was a terrifying night. It felt like we were in a banana republic,” the journalist Elizabeth Drew later recounted in an interview. The fact that the president took it upon himself to try to kill the investigation by getting rid of the investigator was evidence that Nixon was out of control. NBC Newscaster John Chancellor told his viewers: “The country tonight is in the midst of what may be the most serious constitutional crisis in its history.” “Nixon Forces Firing of Cox; Richardson, Ruckelshaus Quit,” read the headline of The Washington Post on Sunday October 21, 1973. In the middle of CBS chairman William Paley’s dinner party in New York City, the room “erupted in a maelstrom of hysteria,” Evan Thomas wrote, with guests uttering “Excitable phrases like ‘coup d’etat’” and “‘What’s next? Gas ovens?’”  “An impeachment stampede could well develop,” Alexander Haig warned Henry Kissinger. He was correct. Illinois Representative John Anderson predicted that “obviously, impeachment resolutions are going to be raining down like hailstones.” California Democrat B.F. Sisk, a conservative who said he was “absolutely aghast” by the news, called for a select committee to look into impeachment. “For many members who had been willing to give the president the benefit of the doubt,” Tip O’Neill later recalled, “this was the last straw.” After being fired, Cox delivered his own statement, which said: “Whether ours shall continue to be a government of laws and not of men is now for Congress and ultimately the American people.”

Nixon didn’t anticipate the ferocity of the response, but there it was. In face of the reaction, the president backed down by appointing a new special prosecutor, Leon Jaworski, and announcing that he would comply with a court order to release some of the tapes. ...

Read entire article at The Atlantic