Within hours of President Donald Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey the comparisons began: Just like President Richard Nixon and the Saturday Night Massacre in 1973.
“Nothing less than Nixonian,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., said it was “disturbingly reminiscent of the Saturday Night Massacre,” and John Podesta, campaign chairman for Hillary Clinton, tweeted to Trump, “Didn’t you know you’re supposed to wait till Saturday night to massacre people investigating you.”
They all were harking back to that October evening so long ago when Nixon dismissed Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox, accepted the resignation of U.S. Attorney General Elliott Richardson and fired Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus.
The parallels are striking. Trump fired the man leading the investigation into whether he and his aides were involved with Russian efforts to defeat Clinton in the 2016 election, while Nixon dismissed the prosecutor examining if the White House tried to thwart an FBI investigation into Watergate scandal.
Yet other differences are stark. While Nixon’s move that night directly led to his resignation as president in August 1974, Trump’s dismissal of Comey is part of a political play whose ending has yet to be written.
And unlike Cox, who was popular with Democrats, Comey has antagonized both political parties. Not only was he probing Russian interference in the election, but he also angered Clinton last year for briefly re-opening an investigation of her e-mails just days before the November election.
“If you ask me — as someone who has studied the Nixon White House — if the Trump White House is hiding something, the answer would be yes,” said John A. Farrell, author of the New York Times bestseller, “Richard Nixon – The Life.”
“They are acting like they are hiding something,” Farrell said. “But we don’t know that. The flip side to all that is this could be Trump being Trump. He’s not like any other American president.”
“The guy who argues about the size of the crowd at his inauguration is the guy who could fire the FBI director because he doesn’t like the director’s style,” Farrell said.
Reaction to the Comey firing has been intense, fueled by social media and cable TV news shows which did not exist in 1973. But it has yet to approach the turbocharged atmosphere of what should have been a relatively tranquil Saturday evening in Washington in 1973.
Ever since operatives from the Nixon re-election committee tried to wiretap the Democratic National Committee in June 1972, the FBI and prosecutors had probed whether Nixon and his aides knew of the break-in in advance and if they obstructed justice to keep the burglars from talking.
Throughout the summer of 1973, the nation was riveted by the lengthy hearings of the Senate Watergate Committee and an investigation led by Cox, a former solicitor general and onetime campaign aide to President John F. Kennedy.
When word emerged that Nixon had taped his conversations, Cox demanded he turn over nine of the tapes. Nixon refused and plotted to dismiss Cox. What he didn’t count on was Richardson, picked to head the Justice Department in April 1973, would refuse to carry out the order.
“Nixon had been forced to take Elliot Richardson, who was honorable and well regarded,” said Carl Leubsdorf, then a Washington reporter for the Associated Press. “When push came to shove, Elliot showed why he was highly regarded.”
At 8:30 that evening, White House press secretary Ron Ziegler announced the firings. CBS and NBC broadcast specials with NBC’s John Chancellor saying the firings “may be the most serious constitutional crisis” in American history.
People outside the White House held signs proclaiming “Honk for Impeachment,” and within a week House Democrats had introduced 21 resolutions of impeachment. Nixon backed down, turning over the contested tapes and naming a new special prosecutor.
In his memoirs, Nixon recalled being “taken by surprise by the ferocious intensity” of the firings, writing “for the first time I recognized the depth of the impact Watergate had been having on America.”
By contrast, there has been no organized effort to impeach Trump. Unlike Nixon in 1973, Trump has a Republican House and Senate. Democrats and some Republicans have contented themselves with calling for an independent prosecutor or a special committee to investigate Russian involvement in the election by defeating Clinton.
But in what could be a prophetic warning to Trump, Nixon wrote in his memoirs that “Washington is ruled by Darwinian forces, and if you are in serious political trouble, you cannot expect generosity or magnanimity for long.”