Two days after President Trump’s former campaign chairman was found guilty of tax evasion and bank fraud, and his former personal lawyer pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations, he blasted Attorney General Jeff Sessions during an interview with Fox News.
“I put in an Attorney General who never took control of the Justice Department,” Trump said, adding, “It’s a very, very sad day. Jeff Sessions recused himself, which he shouldn’t have done or he should have told me.”
The interview was just one in a long line of attacks on Sessions and the Justice Department’s handling of Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into Russian meddling during the 2016 presidential election.
This is not unprecedented, but it is dangerous. Like Trump, the disgraced Richard Nixon firmly believed that officials within the Justice Department should remain fiercely loyal to the president — at the expense of fealty to the law. The Watergate investigation ultimately depended on civil servants rejecting this White House pressure, and the key question for Mueller’s investigation is whether individuals in this Justice Department will follow their lead.
Richard Nixon repeatedly clashed with the Justice Department. In the early years of his presidency, Nixon could usually rely on Attorney General John Mitchell, Nixon’s former 1968 campaign manager, to carry out his orders. Mitchell left the Justice Department in 1972 to manage Nixon’s reelection campaign and soon became immersed in Watergate.
In the spring of 1973, the president was dealt a severe blow when Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman and domestic adviser John Ehrlichman resigned after their roles in the Watergate coverup were revealed. Nixon fired White House Counsel John Dean just as he was beginning to cooperate with prosecutors. Mitchell’s successor as attorney general, Richard Kleindienst, also resigned because of his ties to individuals who participated in the scandal. With Democrats controlling both chambers of Congress, Nixon concluded that he had to select someone with credibility on both sides of the political aisle to lead the Justice Department.
He soon zeroed in on Secretary of Defense Elliot Richardson, a moderate Republican from Massachusetts who in many ways represented the Ivy League establishment of the era, embracing a nonpartisan approach to civil service. While he had previously served as undersecretary of state and as the head of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, Richardson was not a part of Nixon’s inner circle. During a conversation with speechwriter Ray Price, Nixon insisted that Richardson was good for his future prospects since “no one will figure he’s a friend,” and that many saw him as “Mr. Clean.” In a separate conversation, Nixon cynically described Richardson as someone who would be trusted by “the so-called d—ed establishment.”
During an April 30, 1973 televised address, Nixon described Richardson as “a man of unimpeachable integrity.” He added, “I am confident that with him in charge, justice will be done.” Less than 24 hours later, Nixon was screaming at FBI agents in the White House who were tasked with collecting the files of the outgoing staff members. Furious at what he saw as an invasion of his privacy and authority, Nixon even shoved one of the agents against the wall.
Richardson had supported the decision to seize the files. But when the president called him and demanded that the agents be removed from the White House, Richardson backed down without an argument. The president was determined to protect his personal records in the White House, and he warned the new attorney general, “If you ever break into the president’s papers, Elliot, we’d have a hell of a problem here.”
But, despite his attempts to strong-arm Richardson, Nixon felt that he could not “trust the son of a b—h.”
Nixon’s instincts were right. Richardson was committed to upholding the law, not maintaining loyalty to the president. During his confirmation hearings, Richardson promised Senate Democrats that he would appoint a special prosecutor and guaranteed that he would support an independent investigation.
The attorney general selected his former law professor at Harvard, Archibald Cox, to lead the Justice Department’s Watergate Special Prosecution Force. Cox, who had been solicitor general in the Kennedy administration, soon aroused the ire of the president. When Nixon found out that Senator Edward M. Kennedy attended Cox’s swearing-in ceremony, Nixon privately labeled the special prosecutor a “Kennedy man, McGovern man,” and concluded that “all of the assistants are!”
When Cox told the media in June that he could subpoena the president, Chief of Staff Alexander Haig called Richardson to protest the statement. “The whole thing is blatantly partisan,” argued Haig.
Richardson would regularly listen to the White House’s complaints about Cox’s investigation, but he also protected the special prosecution force. During one press briefing, Richardson stated that if a conflict arose between the special prosecutor and Nixon, the president could not rely on him for legal advice. He was scolded by the White House for being disloyal, and the president regularly attempted to influence his investigation.
The conflict reached a boiling point a month later when former White House aide Alexander Butterfield revealed during his testimony before the Senate Watergate Committee that Nixon had ordered the installation of a secret voice activated taping system in the White House in early 1971. Over the next three months, access to the White House tapes became the central issue for Cox and his staff.
The Nixon White House repeatedly rejected the requests for the tapes and failed to offer up a suitable compromise. On October 19, 1973, the White House had reached the deadline to respond to a court order to release nine of the tapes. The matter rose to crisis level when Nixon instead ordered Richardson to fire Cox.
Rather than complying, Richardson resigned the very next day. When Richardson met with the president in the Oval Office, Nixon told him, “I’m sorry that you insist on putting your personal commitments ahead of the public interest.” Richardson replied, “My President, I can only say that I believe my resignation is in the public interest.” Richardson’s ethics had collided with a Nixonian understanding of loyalty.
Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus also resigned in protest before Robert Bork, then solicitor general, became acting attorney general and fired Cox. While the investigation continued, these events on October 20, 1973, the infamous Saturday Night Massacre, represented a clash of interests between a president with something to hide and civil servants inside of the Justice Department who were after the truth.
Nixon made government officials choose what mattered most: loyalty to the president or the nation’s rule of law.
And a concerned public also made sure that commitment to justice won out. Tens of thousands of telegrams deluged Washington, D.C. and 21 members of Congress introduced resolutions that called for impeachment in the wake of the Saturday Night Massacre. George H.W. Bush, chairman of the Republican National Committee, tried to convince the White House to rehire Richardson, suggesting that the president should appoint the former attorney general as the ambassador to the Soviet Union to mitigate the public’s anger.
Nixon was kept in check by an overwhelming backlash that eventually propelled Republicans to protect an independent investigation — at the expense of their party’s president. The American public is still waiting to see if there will be a similar breaking point during the Trump era.
When looking back at the events leading up to the Saturday Night Massacre and its aftermath, one can clearly see the importance of protecting an independent investigation within the Justice Department. The response to Nixon’s executive overreach should inform the public’s reaction if President Trump chooses to escalate his attacks on the Justice Department and its investigation into his potential misdeeds.