Donald Trump has just pulled a Richard Nixon.
He’s fired FBI Director James Comey, a man who is leading a criminal investigation into possible collusion between Trump’s campaign circle and Russian operatives, just the way Richard Nixon fired Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox when his probe was getting too close.
Of course, in Nixon’s case, it took some doing, because principled men stood between the corrupt president and his objective. First Attorney General Elliot Richardson refused to execute the order, resigning instead. Then Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus similarly refused and resigned. Nixon then instructed Acting Attorney General Robert Bork to oust Cox, and he executed the order. Altogether, the incident, which took place on Saturday, Oct. 20, 1973, became known as the Saturday Night Massacre.
President Trump doesn’t have the same problem. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein were both aboard for the purge, providing reinforcement and legal cover for Trump’s action.
According to a memo from Rosenstein, the concern with Comey is that he held a press conference in July announcing his decision not to recommend criminal charges against Hillary Clinton over her use of a private e-mail server.
“The director was wrong to usurp the attorney general’s authority and announce his conclusion that the case should be closed without recommendation,” wrote Rosenstein. The memo continues: “Compounding the error, the director ignored another longstanding principle: we don’t hold press conferences to release derogatory information about the subject of a declined criminal investigation.”
Now, it strains credulity beyond the rending point to believe that either Trump or Sessions has any real concerns about whether Clinton was treated unfairly. Trump, after all, spent much of his campaign not just demeaning her but saying, ridiculously, that if elected president, he would put her prison. I was at a Trump rally in New Hampshire on the late October day when news broke that Comey had told Republican congressional leaders that he was reopening the Clinton probe. Trump lavished praise on Comey for that action.
Nor is there any reason to believe that either man has any honest concern about proper process. Trump in particular is a process-be-damned president.
Yet here’s what is perfectly believable: Trump and his underlings are acutely worried about an FBI director who shows independence from his bosses, who charts his own course, who speaks his mind publicly when he feels the need, and who goes to Capitol Hill and explains his reasoning with a considerable degree of candor.
This president clearly doesn’t want a man like that in charge of an investigation that reaches deep into his inner circle and could have serious repercussions for his administration. Look for Comey to be replaced by someone who doesn’t have his independent profile or his relationship with Capitol Hill. Someone who knows Trump’s rules of the road and will abide by them.
Back during Watergate, Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre seemed to steel Congress’s resolve to get to the bottom of Watergate. The question is whether the same will happen now. The fear here is that the need for statesmen far exceeds their availability in this Congress.
Now, more than ever, a special prosecutor is needed.