There was an abundance of memorable moments during the Watergate scandal, but none managed to condense as much drama into such a short space of time as the so-called ‘Saturday Night Massacre’, which occurred on October 20 1973. The reputation of Nixon’s administration had suffered additional embarrassment ten days earlier with the resignation of Vice President Spiro Agnew whilst he faced charges of tax evasion unrelated to Watergate; but when the President ordered the Attorney General Eliot Richardson to fire Archibald Cox, the man Richardson had appointed as an independent special prosecutor to investigate the June 1972 break-in at the Democratic Party offices in Washington’s Watergate building, the Attorney General refused to do so.
As part of his investigations, Cox had issued a subpoena to Nixon that ordered the surrender of taped conversations between the President and his aides recorded in the Oval Office; Nixon had refused in recognition of the threat Cox posed to his story of events. By ordering his Attorney General to dismiss Cox, the President assumed the problem would be solved; he hadn’t anticipated Eliot Richardson would refuse the order and then resign in protest. Nixon’s response was to demand Richardson’s deputy William Ruckelshaus do the deed instead; Ruckelshaus also refused and resigned.
Desperate to save face, Nixon initially claimed Ruckelshaus had been sacked and turned to Solicitor General Robert Bork to fire Cox; Bork did so after being sworn-in as acting Attorney General, though the whole unedifying affair served to finally turn public opinion against Nixon. An NBC poll a week after the Saturday Night Massacre showed a plurality of Americans supported the impeachment of the President for the first time, even though it took another nine months before the House Judiciary Committee approved its first article of impeachment; and Nixon resigned before the process could even begin.
What an excitable US TV news presenter referred to as the biggest constitutional crisis in the history of the nation as the Saturday Night Massacre unfolded has had echoes in the past couple of eventful weeks in Washington. The main difference between 2017 and 1973 is that Nixon’s credibility began to disintegrate when he had already served one full term in office and had retained power on the back of a landslide victory. As for the Donald, it’s only four months since he took the oath of office for the first time and there seems to have been enough constitutional crises to make Richard Nixon’s spell as President seem like an uneventful and rather dull period of American history.
The dismissal of FBI Director James Comey on May 9 certainly revived memories of the Saturday Night Massacre for those either old enough to remember it or those who have read about it since. Comey’s termination came in the wake of the FBI investigation into the Hillary Clinton email affair as well as the organisation’s conviction that Russia interfered in Trump’s election campaign. Subsequent revelations that Trump had shared classified information with the Russian Ambassador and Russian Foreign Minister during a recent visit to the White House have done little to dispel the lingering belief of Russian involvement in the Donald’s rise to power. Comey has claimed the President asked him to cease investigations into the short-lived National Security Adviser Michael T Flynn’s Russian connections, something Trump has naturally refuted.
Lyndon Johnson’s opinion of the FBI’s fearsome first Director J Edgar Hoover, that it was ‘better have him inside the tent pissing out than have him outside pissing in’, suggests simply sacking James Comey might not be the end of the affair for Trump. Despite the President’s intervention in Syria not exactly easing US relations with the Kremlin, the Russian issue won’t go away. The appointment of a special counsel in the shape of former FBI Director Robert Mueller to continue the investigation hasn’t necessarily met with Trump’s approval, with the President referring to the ongoing efforts to establish a direct connection between him and Russia as a witch-hunt. Mind you, Trump’s tiresome whinging about the media and how everyone is against him is only unprecedented on his side of the Atlantic; he’s more than matched over here by the most frothing-at-the-mouth Corbynistas and their incurable persecution complex.
Trump has already taken his ‘You’re fired’ catchphrase from ‘The Apprentice’ into his Presidency, sacking the likes of acting Attorney General Sally Yates for disputing his executive order to bar citizens of certain specified Muslim countries from entering the US; he also demoted and replaced acting Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director Daniel Ragsdale the same day he dismissed Yates. No explanation for this dismissal was given, though mere coincidence in what was labelled by some as the ‘Monday Night Massacre’ seems unlikely. In this context, his firing of James Comey makes perfect sense. Trump still sees himself as the head of a company and everyone else as his employees. Anybody challenging his authority has to go.
Watergate was a slow burner of a scandal that unravelled at a sedate pace worthy of a weighty novel; it confirmed suspicions of Nixon that his most committed critics had harboured for a long time and cast a cynical shadow across Washington that has never really gone away. What’s happening now isn’t quite the same. In contrast with Richard Nixon’s unattainable ambition to be loved, Donald Trump couldn’t care less; Nixon’s downfall had all the elements of a Greek Tragedy, whereas Trump entered the political arena looking for a fight and now he’s got one. As long as Russian rumours continue to circulate and talk of invoking the 25th Amendment if impeachment fails giving his opponents hope, the Donald’s capacity to govern is entirely in his own hands. We shall see.
© The Editor