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In Justice Department firing, echoes of Saturday Night Massacre

Sally Yates was acting head of the Justice Department until she was removed by President Trump.
Sally Yates was acting head of the Justice Department until she was removed by President Trump. Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images/File 2016

The defiance at the Justice Department — and subsequent firing of an acting attorney general by President Trump Monday night — has echoes of the “Saturday Night Massacre’’ that took place under President Richard Nixon more than four decades ago.

In October 1973, Attorney General Elliot Richardson and then-Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus both quit, rather than carry out Nixon’s order to fire a special prosecutor investigating the Watergate scandal.

A Boston Globe obituary called Richardson, a Boston Brahmin who died in 2000, “a national symbol of political integrity.’’

According to the Globe, tensions between Nixon and Richardson came to a head when the president ordered him to fire Archibald Cox. Nixon argued that at a time of international crisis — superpower negotiations over ending the Yom Kippur War were then underway — it would make him appear weak to the Soviets if Cox could flout presidential authority.

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Richardson refused, and an angry Nixon said, “I’m sorry that you insist on putting your personal commitments ahead of the public interest.”

“Mr. President,” the attorney general replied, “I can only say that I believe my resignation is in the public interest.”

As the Globe later recounted, Mr. Richardson’s deputy, William Ruckelshaus, also refused to dismiss Cox and also was fired. Solicitor General Robert Bork carried out the order.

The refusals by Richardson and Ruckelshouse are among the most prominent examples of top Justice Department officials openly defying the White House.

On Monday, Sally Yates, a career prosecutor, told the Trump White House that she was not convinced the president’s executive order on immigration was defensible in court.

She said, in part, that she did not believe defending the order was “consistent with this institution’s solemn obligation to always seek justice and stand for what is right.”

The White House press office announced Monday night that Trump had fired Yates.

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“The acting Attorney General, Sally Yates, has betrayed the Department of Justice by refusing to enforce a legal order designed to protect the citizens of the United States,’’ the White House said.

Richardson, who was born in Boston, grew up in Brookline and graduated from Milton Academy.

His government pedigree was long.

In the Eisenhower administration, he served as assistant US secretary of health, education and welfare and US attorney for Massachusetts. He was undersecretary of state, secretary of health, education and welfare, secretary of defense, and attorney general in the Nixon administration and was ambassador to the Court of St. James’ and secretary of commerce in the Ford administration. He was ambassador at large in the Carter administration.

He was also elected Massachusetts lieutenant governor and attorney general during the 1960s.

Richardson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, in 1998.

When Richardson died, President Clinton said he “put the nation’s interests first even when the personal cost was very high. He was an unparalleled public servant.’’