The Justice Department Is Turning 150. Some Agency Veterans Say It Needs A FaceliftBreaking News
tags: Richard Nixon, attorney general, Department of Justice, William Barr
Echoes of Watergate
Longtime watchers in government and law said the environment today echoes the most chaotic period in the modern history of the Justice Department.
In May 1973, President Richard Nixon was staring down the Watergate investigation that would eventually lead to his downfall. Nixon was using the powers of the presidency to try to persecute his political enemies and then cover up the discovery of those actions.
As part of that effort, the president delivered a speech that evening that came to be known as his “no whitewash” address.
“Whatever may appear to have been the case before, whatever improper activities may yet be discovered in connection with this whole sordid affair, I want you to know beyond the shadow of a doubt, that during my term as president, justice will be pursued fairly, fully and impartially,” Nixon said.
He announced he had selected a new attorney general, Elliot Richardson, whom he called “a man of unimpeachable integrity and rigorously high principle.”
At his confirmation hearing to run the Justice Department, Richardson pledged to guarantee the independence of the Watergate probe. He named a special prosecutor. Five months later, after the White House moved to tamper with the prosecutor, Richardson quit. Justice Department employees gave him a standing ovation.
“At stake in the final analysis is the very integrity of the governmental processes I came to the Department of Justice to help restore,” he told workers assembled in the department’s Great Hall, in October 1973.
After that debacle, nearly 50 years ago, Republicans and Democrats came together to agree on some bright lines at Justice. One of them was an expectation that presidents wouldn’t use the Justice Department to go after their enemies — or reward their friends.
“There was this idea that we were all better off if there was a real independence between prosecutors and the president,” explained Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.
“That wasn’t a law. It was, however, a set of standards agreed to by Republican and Democratic presidents. Donald Trump has put those standards in the shredder.”