There’s much to be said for the parallels that many people have noted between the actions taken Tuesday by President “I-Am-Not-Under-Investigation” Trump and those taken by President “I-Am-Not-A-Crook” Nixon in the October 1973 “Saturday Night Massacre.”
Both, of course, involved relieving a subordinate who was in charge of an investigation into the possible involvement of the president (and his aides) in illegal activity. [Nixon’s case was complicated by the fact that only the attorney general had the power, under the governing statute at the time, to fire the independent counsel (Archibald Cox), which led to the dismissal of both Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General Bill Ruckelshaus, both of whom refused to carry out Nixon’s order.]
In both cases, the president had a pretext for the firing. In Nixon’s case, it was the preservation of executive privilege. Cox had just issued a subpoena for the White House tapes, and Nixon didn’t want to comply — purely on principle, of course; I mean, it’s not like he was hiding anything, or anything nefarious like that.
Trump’s pretext is equally transparent: FBI Director James B. Comey mishandled the Clinton investigation and lost the trust and confidence of the American people.
I know, from the comments to my earlier posting, that some people buy this. I don’t. I can’t get over the fact that Comey’s handling of the Clinton investigation didn’t seem to bother Trump during the campaign. Or during the post-election transition period. Or up until Tuesday. The memo by Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, which is widely being cited by the White House and its apologists as the justification for Comey’s firing, has nothing in it that we didn’t know six months ago.***
I’m on record, here on the VC, as saying that I expected Obama to fire Comey, with good cause, the day after the election; and if Trump had fired him on the day after the inauguration, I would have been pleased (and surprised). But the question now before us isn’t “Has Comey done anything to justify his firing?” The question now is: “Why is Trump firing him now?”
*** I have the feeling that Rosenstein got played here by people more sophisticated politically than he.
Sessions: “So what do you think about the way Comey’s handled his job?”
Rosenstein: “Terrible. He mishandled the Clinton investigation — he should never have had that first press conference, back in July, and he should not have written that letter in late October. Really bad.”
Sessions: “Yes … Write that up for me in a short memo, would you?”
Rosenstein: “Yes, sir.”
Maybe it has nothing to do with the significant increase in resources that Comey had, a few days ago, asked for in connection with the Russia investigation. Or the subpoenas that the federal grand jury has now issued to Michael Flynn and his associates in connection with that investigation. No, none of that — it’s because Comey treated Clinton unfairly in the handling of the investigation into her email server.
It’s laughable, really. Coming from a guy who led “Lock Her Up” chants, it’s downright ridiculous.
The Saturday Night Massacre truly marked the beginning of the end for Nixon. Many people liked Nixon, many people thought he was a good president, and an overwhelming number of them thought he was a much better choice than his 1972 opponent, George McGovern. But they weren’t blind. People saw through his bunk:
“Less than a week after the Saturday Night Massacre, an Oliver Quayle poll for NBC News showed that, for the first time, a plurality of U.S. citizens supported impeaching Nixon, with 44% in favor, 43% opposed, and 13% undecided, with a sampling error of 2 to 3 per cent. In the days that followed, numerous resolutions of impeachment against the president were introduced in Congress.”
There were still some holdouts, to be sure — but most people over the age of 14 saw very clearly that there must be something on those tapes that Nixon didn’t want anyone to hear.
Though we won’t know for some time whether the Tuesday Afternoon Massacre is a similar tipping point for the Trump presidency, I fervently hope that will prove to be the case. I fear that it will be otherwise; there seem to be large numbers of people who, for whatever reason, still actually believe what he tells them. This is a man, remember, who famously said that he could walk down Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and not lose any voters. That is a terrible thing to say — maybe not for a Mafia chieftain or drug lord, but for a presidential candidate? There may be, alas, some truth to it.