The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Monday Night Massacre’ sure is a catchy name. The media isn’t sure whether to use it.

Acting Attorney General Sally Yates was fired by President Trump on Monday. (Photo by Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post)

President Trump gave us "Lyin' Ted," "Little Marco," "Crooked Hillary" and, most recently, "Fake Tears Chuck Schumer." What about "Monday Night Massacre"?

Trump didn't coin the phrase, but he sure knows how to generate a catchy nickname. The question for the media is whether this one applies to Trump's abrupt firing of acting attorney general Sally Yates and demotion of Daniel H. Ragsdale, who was acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The word "massacre" certainly conveys the ruthlessness Trump displayed in ousting Yates, who earlier in the day had ordered Justice Department lawyers not to defend the president's immigration order temporarily banning entry into the United States for citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries and refugees from around the world. In a sharply-worded statement, the White House said Yates, a 27- year veteran, had "betrayed the Department of Justice."

"Monday Night Massacre," however, is a specific reference to the "Saturday Night Massacre" of 1973, when Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus resigned in protest of President Richard Nixon's order to fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox, who was handling the Watergate investigation. Nixon comparisons are always a bit, uh, tricky.

The Washington Post's initial report on the "Saturday Night Massacre" did not include the phrase, but a follow-up story on page one of Monday's paper did:

The prevailing White House view was that time is on the side of the president, that as the shock of what is being called the "Saturday Night Massacre" wears off, the legality and propriety of Mr. Nixon's actions will be broadly endorsed by Republicans.

Like Nixon, Trump got rid of someone at the Justice Department who wasn't doing what the president wanted. But there are significant differences between their moves, as Morning Mix's Derek Hawkins explained:

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. ...
Nixon was concealing a crime. Trump was attempting to defend a policy decision.

Michael J. Gerhardt, a constitutional law professor at the University of North Carolina, added this in an interview with The Fix's Aaron Blake:

It's a little early to know the extent to which this is a constitutional crisis. There are a lot of people jumping rather fast to analogizing this to the "Saturday Night Massacre." That unfolded a little differently, and the dismissals were different than these conditions. It had to do with arguable misconduct. … So this is a little different in that the president just issued executive order, and they're saying that might not be lawful. It's more about who's got authority in the executive branch about the legality of an executive order.

Thus, there is a split in the media over whether "Monday Night Massacre" is an apt moniker. The Huffington PostFortune and Salon applied it quickly. Politico published it when quoting Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.

Others did not but made references to the "Saturday Night Massacre." The New York Times wrote that the Trump-Yates episode "recalled the so-called Saturday Night Massacre in 1973, when President Richard M. Nixon fired his attorney general and deputy attorney general for refusing to dismiss the special prosecutor in the Watergate case."

Bloomberg reported that "the ouster of a sitting attorney general — albeit an Obama administration holdover who would have left the job upon [Jeff] Sessions's confirmation — inevitably echoes a dark moment in American history: the 1973 Saturday Night Massacre."

NBC News reported that Yates's defiance of Trump "would appear to represent the most serious rebellion by the Justice Department since the 'Saturday Night Massacre.' "

Still others argued against comparisons between Trump and Nixon. The Weekly Standard described Trump's action as "the Monday Night Massacre that wasn't." Reuters said it was "not exactly the Monday Night Massacre."

Reports by CBS News, NPRFox News and Mother Jones did not mention a massacre on any day of the week.

And, in perhaps the best example of the media's struggle to find the perfect characterization, CNN initially put "Monday Night Massacre" in a breaking news banner but then rephrased the graphic, as political commentator Carl Bernstein (of Watergate reporting fame) downplayed the similarity between Trump's action and Nixon's. The revised CNN graphic said "Trump fires acting AG for refusing to enforce travel ban."