BRECKENRIDGE, Colorado — The storm clouds of scandal that had gathered over President Nixon in 1973 appeared to have reached a climax when Vice President Spiro Agnew abruptly resigned, pleading “nolo contendere” to taking bribes as a public servant in Maryland. Leading that investigation had been Deputy Attorney General William D. Ruckleshaus.
When Agnew resigned, Ruckleshaus, a former state senator from Indianapolis and the 1968 Republican U.S. Senate nominee, headed to Grand Rapids to launch a background check into the newly nominated vice president, U.S. Rep. Gerald Ford. In an interview with C-SPAN’s Brian Lamb, Ruckleshaus related that Attorney General Eliot Richardson told him, “We’ve got an even worse problem than the vice president.”
“That’s not possible,” Ruckleshaus reacted. Richardson responded, “Yes, it is. The White House seems determined to fire Archibald Cox.’” Cox was the Watergate special prosecutor investigating President Nixon. “And I remember saying, ‘Don’t worry about it. They’ll never do that. There would be too much of a public furor if they tried.’”
On Oct. 19, 1973, Cox had given an impassioned press conference, defending his investigation that began with the Watergate break-in of the Democratic National Committee and had become a direct threat to Nixon. “Whether ours shall continue to be a government of laws and not of men is now for Congress and ultimately the American people,” Cox said.
As the heat turned up in Washington, Ruckleshaus returned from Grand Rapids two days prior to the Cox news conference. The pressure from Nixon to fire Cox intensified as he was seeking the White House Oval Offices tapes.
Thus, the so-called “Saturday Night Massacre” was set. Nixon ordered Richardson to fire Cox on Oct. 20 and he refused. “He subsequently asked me, and I told him the same thing, that I had been thinking about this all week. I was aware the pressure was building, and I’d decided I didn’t want to do it,” Ruckleshaus explained. “In my judgment, Cox had done everything he was supposed to do as special prosecutor.” Richardson resigned and Ruckleshaus was fired.
The “Saturday Night Massacre” created the ultimate slippery slope for Nixon, who was ordered by the Supreme Court to turn over the Watergate tapes in July 1974. He resigned on Aug. 8, facing imminent impeachment.
The relevancy of this episode gained traction on Tuesday when President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey.
There were three investigations into Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and whether there was collusion with the Russian government to impact the outcome: The U.S. House, the U.S. Senate and the FBI. Only one of those — the FBI — could press criminal charges against the president, his inner circle, or campaign aides.
Trump’s rationale? In a memo from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, Comey refused “to accept the nearly universal judgment that he was mistaken” to go public in July with his reasons for recommending no criminal charges again Clinton and he had “usurped” the attorney general’s authority.
Trump, who was reportedly fuming about the Russia probe for the past two weeks, has now fired Comey, Manhattan District Attorney Preet Bharara, and Acting Attorney General Sally Yates, all with authority to investigate the president.
In this wake, NBC’s First Read points out: “Every time President Trump has faced the choice between advancing his own interests and upholding the country’s separation of powers, traditions and norms, he’s picked the former.” He won’t release his taxes. He wants to break up the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. He hasn’t divested business conflicts. He claims Obama wiretapped him. He calls the FBI investigation “phony” and “fake news.”
The riveting question is why didn’t Trump fire Comey in January when he took office? He would have had wide support, including here. Instead, this comes after Comey’s March 20 testimony confirming the FBI probe while refuting Trump’s claims of the Obama wiretaps.
As Jay Caruso, writing on the conservative blog RedState, observed, “The answers to both steamroll President Trump’s rantings and ravings about them on Twitter and in public.”
Conservative commentator Peter Wehner, observed, “A powerful, independent person Mr. Trump did not appoint and whose investigation he clearly feared has been summarily fired. He would not use power benevolently but unwisely, recklessly, and in ways that would undermine our democratic institutions and faith in our government.”
Comey impacted the 2016 election twice and in unprecedented form for an FBI director. He had lost confidence of both Republicans and Democrats. If Trump was to fire Comey, he should have done it on Jan. 20, because on March 20, we now realize that the president is possibly in the legal crosshairs.
Here are two reactions of note: The Russians have to be doing the Soviet equivalent of the high-fives for all of the resulting Yankee chaos. Asked about the Comey firing just hours before he was to meet with Trump on Wednesday in the Oval Office, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said, “Was he fired? You’re kidding? You’re kidding?”
Yes, America, they’re not laughing with us, but at us.
And C-SPAN’s Lamb asked Ruckleshaus if he ever worried the U.S. would fall apart back in 1973-74. “I never had any doubt that the system would hold. In a sense, the wheels … came off those individuals, they didn’t come off the country,” Ruckleshaus said. “The country held together very well.”
BRIAN HOWEY is publisher of the Howey Political Report, a weekly briefing on Indiana politics. Contact him at 317-506-0883 or at howeypol itics.com.