On the night of Oct. 20, 1973, the United States was gripped by a constitutional crisis unlike any in its history.
President Richard Nixon, under investigation for his role in the Watergate scandal, ordered the firing of Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor handling the case, rather than cooperate with him. Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus resigned in protest, after refusing to carry out the president’s orders. Nixon went on to abolish the special prosecutor’s office entirely.
The events became known as the “Saturday Night Massacre.” It marked one of the most sordid moments in White House history, with the president using his political power to thwart an investigation and retaliate against his opponents in government.
“Saturday Night Massacre” re-emerged in the popular lexicon again on Monday, when President Trump fired acting attorney general Sally Yates for instructing Justice Department lawyers not to defend his order shutting U.S. borders to refugees worldwide and travelers from seven mostly Muslim countries.
The White House sharply criticized Yates, saying she had “betrayed” the department by refusing to enforce a “legal order designed to protect the citizens of the United States.” Trump appointed Dana Boente, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, to replace her.
Shortly after, the acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement was also demoted and replaced.
The circumstances differed significantly from those surrounding the Saturday Night Massacre. But almost instantly, Trump’s move drew comparisons to the Nixon administration, with critics branding it the “Monday Night Massacre.” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) used the phrase in a speech on the Senate floor, and longtime Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) tweeted that Trump had “commenced on a course of action that is Nixonian in its design and execution.” Both phrases became trending topics on Twitter, and by the end of the day, “Monday Night Massacre” even had its own Wikipedia page.
A fair comparison? Depends on who you ask. Unlike Richardson, who was appointed by Nixon, Yates was a holdover from the party that just lost power. Her action, and her dismissal, did not have the shock value of the firing by Nixon of his own appointees.
Some were quick to argue that Trump was within his rights to fire the acting attorney general. Carl Bernstein, the former Washington Post reporter whose stories with Bob Woodward on the Watergate scandal led to Nixon’s resignation, told CNN there was a “big difference” between what Trump and Nixon did, and framed Trump’s move as part of a bungled transition.
“The Saturday Night Massacre was really about firing the attorney general when Nixon was the target of an investigation and was actively obstructing justice,” Bernstein told CNN’s Don Lemon. “What’s really happened here is the president and his presidency is in chaos.”
The Federalist, a conservative publication, went farther, urging the press “to stop comparing everything to Watergate.”
But for others, including GQ’s Jay Willis, the parallel seemed clear. “Not since 1973,” Willis wrote, “has a President of the United States forced an attorney general out of office under circumstances like these.”
He continued: “The Department of Justice is the agency within the executive branch that is charged with challenging the president’s missteps, ensuring that the rule of law does not bend to the president’s will. It was for this same reason that when President Nixon ordered Richardson and Ruckelshaus to illegally terminate Cox … they refused to do so and quit in protest on the same night.”
The Watergate investigation had been underway for more than a year when Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox subpoenaed a batch of tapes Nixon used to record his conversations in the Oval Office, believing they would shed light on the president’s role in the break-in at the Democratic Party headquarters and the subsequent coverup.
The White House resisted, proposing instead that Sen. John Stennis, a Democrat from Mississippi, review the tapes and report back to the special prosecutor’s office. Cox rejected the proposal, saying in a televised news conference that he wanted unrestricted access to the tapes in their raw, unedited form.
That’s when Nixon struck. First, the president ordered Richardson, who recruited Cox to handle the Watergate case, to dismiss him. He refused and submitted his resignation. Nixon then turned to Ruckelshaus, who also refused and resigned in protest.
The president found a willing surrogate in Robert Bork, the solicitor general and third-ranking official at the Department of Justice, who fired Cox.
News of Cox’s dismissal and the resignations of Richardson and Ruckelshaus emerged that evening, triggering outrage and prompting calls for Nixon’s impeachment. “Whether ours shall continue to be a government of laws and not of men is now for Congress and ultimately the American people to decide,” Cox said that night of his dismissal.
Cox was ultimately replaced by a second special prosecutor who did end up getting a hold of the disputed tapes. Facing impeachment, Nixon would resign less than a year later.
Ken Gormley, author of a 1997 biography of Cox, described the decision to sack the special prosecutor as a devastating miscalculation for Nixon and the beginning of the end of his presidency.
“The Saturday night massacre,” Gormley wrote, “was the single event in his long and controversial political life from which Richard M. Nixon, president of the most powerful nation in the world, would never recover.”
It is unlikely anyone will say the same about Trump, despite the blistering outcry surrounding his decision to fire Yates. Nixon was concealing a crime. Trump was attempting to defend a policy decision.
Ruckelshaus, Nixon’s second-in-command at the Department of Justice, spoke about the Saturday Night Massacre and Trump’s decision to fire Yates on Monday in an interview with the Seattle Times. Ruckelshaus described his refusal to obey the president as a matter of conscience, while Yates, he said, seemed to be arguing points of law.
Still, Ruckelshaus said he would “caution the president to exercise a little more care in these types of orders.”
“Because they can end this way,” he said, “and that doesn’t help him discharging his responsibilities.”