Is This Donald Trump’s Saturday Night Massacre?

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tags: Watergate, Nixon, James Comey, Trump, Saturday Night Massacre



On Tuesday, President Trump fired James Comey, the director of the FBI, whose agency is overseeing an investigation into possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russia. To discuss Trump’s decision, and whether it has Nixonian parallels, I spoke by phone with historian John A. Farrell, the author of the new book Richard Nixon: A Life. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed the details of the Saturday Night Massacre, Nixon’s mental state during the Watergate scandal, and the importance of bipartisanship to keeping the executive branch in check.

Isaac Chotiner: As a historian of Nixon, what do you make of the comparisons we have been hearing today to Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre?

John A. Farrell: There are two big differences. One is that Trump is Trump, and this could just be Trump being Trump. And the other is that the House and the Senate are controlled by the Republican Party, and so we may never find out what happened. The actions that the president and his staff have taken, their behavior, mirrors that of Nixon and his staff when they were frantically trying to cover up felonious behavior, including in the president’s case, obstruction of justice. But up to this point, we don’t have any clear proof or evidence that this is something more than just politics—that it is a matter of law. So it would seem to me that the logical thing to do to restore confidence in the integrity of the government would be to have a Select Committee with the Democrats having real influence, or having Attorney General Sessions appoint a special counsel, as he has the power to do, to investigate whether this is Trump being Trump or Nixonian.

Tell me a bit more about the specifics about how the Saturday Night Massacre went down.

One of the interesting things about the Saturday Night Massacre is that both Alexander Haig, the president’s chief of staff, and Elliot Richardson, the attorney general, thought they had reached an agreement. And in fact, the bones of one agreement were submitted to Howard Baker and Sam Ervin of the Watergate Committee and were OK’d by them. The idea was something along the lines of having a judge or a senator listen to the Watergate tapes and decide whether or not they were incriminating and whether to go forward with them.

Behind all of that, however, was this burning desire by the president to dismiss [special prosecutor] Archibald Cox, because Cox had gone into areas that ranged far beyond the Watergate break-in. He was going into Nixon’s business relations and looking at the use of funds on Nixon’s properties. He was going into the Republican Party’s use of campaign funds. Nixon was as outraged as subsequent presidents would be by the way independent counsels took their brief and expanded it to find any kind of a crime to justify their existence. So in some ways the grounds for a compromise seemed to be available, and in other ways Nixon’s behavior made a compromise impossible. ...




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