Trump firing his attorney general is a reminder of Nixon’s impeachment, yet Trump’s administration is more competent.
Tuesday’s midterms have held the nation’s attention for month now, and rightly so. The midterms presented Democrats with a chance to congressionally check an out-of-control president and protect the investigation into that president’s contacts and possible cooperation with the Russian government in the year leading up to the election.
That investigation, led by former FBI Director and U.S. Attorney Robert S. Mueller III, has also been tasked with looking into whether President Trump has attempted to use the power of his office to impede any of the investigations concerning the executive branch. Only a day after the midterms, that crisis reemerged.
It is unlikely that anyone forgot about the Russia investigation, since it is on pace to become the largest scandal in American political history. Still, the resignation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions jolted all of us digesting the midterm results back into the world of what I really do not want to see dubbed “Russiagate.” Not only was Sessions forced into resignation, but his chief of staff was allowed to stay on as acting attorney general.
Instead of passing the baton to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, the man who oversaw much of the investigation due to Sessions’s recusal, the Justice Department appointed Matthew Whittaker to the post in an interim capacity. So many takes could come from this move, but the key one has to be that Trump’s team, despite the chaos and corruption, is unlikely to make the same mistakes committed by the only group that offers a close precedent
Only one administration has been in these dangerous waters before, and it failed fantastically. Richard Nixon’s near dominance in elections and a firm grasp of the cutthroat side of Washington politics could not save the 37th President from a pre-impeachment resignation. If one event led Nixon to the helicopter that spirited him away on August 9, 1974, it was the infamous Saturday Night Massacre, from which the Trump White House looks to have learned a lesson.
On Oct. 20, 1973, Nixon ordered the firing of Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox. After his attorney general, Elliot Richardson, refused and resigned, leading Nixon to order Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus to do the same. Ruckelshaus, like his former boss, refused and resigned as well. The next official in line, solicitor general Robert Bork, in no hurry to hurt his own political career, did the deed and fired Cox. In a move that he saw as saving his presidency, Nixon effectively gave House Democrats all they would later need to write up the proposed articles of impeachment that triggered his resignation.
In a sense, Trump has nearly completed his own version of the Saturday Night Massacre, but it looks a lot different for two reasons. First, it has so far taken place over the course of two years. The firing/forced resignation of former acting Attorney General Sally Yates, former FBI Director James Comey and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who all oversaw investigations into the president, span almost the entire Trump Presidency thus far.
That method, though still as corrupt as Nixon’s, has resulted in a public almost desensitized to the kind of news that set 1973 America on fire. Someone in the current White House has read their Woodward and Bernstein, the two Washington Post journalists who did much of the early Watergate reporting and wrote books about the downfall of the Nixon White House. Someone, though it is hard to pin down who, has tried to emulate the Nixon White House’s ability to pick out who their enemies were without also falling prey to the misexecution that plagued Nixon’s time in the Oval Office.
The second reason this decapitation of the Justice Department’s leadership does not look like the Saturday Night Massacre is that it is not yet finished. The target of that crazy night was Cox and his team of lawyers, accountants and investigators. Though Mueller did not reenter the stage of American politics until after the firings began, he is now the principal target of every hiring and firing Trump makes at the DOJ.
Anything like Sessions’s resignation could not have happened before the midterms without running the risk of turning the media-created blue wave into a reality. However, the midterms are now over, and the Republican unified government only has two more months in power. If Trump has learned the lessons of Watergate, then he may use these months to only constrain the Mueller team’s investigation, or he may make Nixon’s fatal mistake in firing the person most responsible for investigating the president.