President Richard Nixon at a White House news briefing. (Henry Burroughs/Associated Press)
Opinion writer

President Richard Nixon was in deep-crisis mode. He had just ordered special prosecutor Archibald Cox fired for refusing to back off his pursuit of the White House Watergate tapes. That very night, Nixon had accepted the resignation of Attorney General Elliot L. Richardson and fired Deputy Attorney General William D. Ruckelshaus, both of whom refused his instructions to discharge Cox. Nixon ordered Solicitor General Robert H. Bork, as the newly installed acting attorney general, to carry out the order, and he did.

But the president wasn’t finished.

He abolished the special prosecutor’s office and had the FBI seal off the Justice Department offices of Richardson and Ruckelshaus and Cox’s offices on K Street NW.

It was called the Saturday Night Massacre.

The unprecedented events caused an uproar. More than 50,000 telegrams streamed in to Capitol Hill in one day. More than 20 resolutions of impeachment were filed in Congress. I was there as a staffer with Sen. Charles McC. Mathias Jr. (R-Md.).

In the middle of that political storm, and with the Yom Kippur War in motion, Nixon called a news conference six days later, on Oct. 26, 1973, to announce a dramatic development.

“We obtained information which led us to believe that the Soviet Union was planning to send a very substantial force into the Mideast, a military force,” he told reporters. Describing the situation as “a very significant and potentially explosive crisis,” Nixon said that shortly after midnight, he had ordered “an alert for all American forces around the world.”

It was a precautionary alert, he asserted, to indicate to the Soviet Union that he would not accept any unilateral move on their part “to move military forces into the Mideast.”

Nixon concluded his announcement with the message that he and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, after several exchanges, had agreed to work jointly on the problem of ending hostilities in the Middle East.

Nixon opened the news conference to a succession of questions, but the Middle East didn’t get top billing.

Watergate still held center stage.

Of the three questions about the Middle East, one returned attention to the issue of the day: “Did your Watergate problems convince you that the U.S. needed a strong response in the Mideast to convince other nations that you have not been weakened?”

“I noted speculation,” Nixon replied, “to the effect that the Watergate problems may have led the Soviet Union to miscalculate.” He said he disagreed with that assessment, contending that Brezhnev knew that “regardless of the pressures at home, regardless of what people see and hear on television night after night” that “he [Nixon] would do what was right.”

Where am I going with this?

The chain of events that got started with the discovery of Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election has led to investigations by the FBI and two bipartisan congressional committees. Questions have been raised about possible cooperation of Trump associates with the Russians.

Those questions, as with the Watergate queries that dogged Nixon, won’t go away. Neither will the pressure from Congress and the media for answers, not just carefully crafted talking points.

As was true with Nixon and Watergate, the nature and extent of President Trump’s involvement with Russia hangs like a ghost over his presidency.

Will Trump, as paranoid, relentlessly vengeful, fearful of the press and infatuated with himself as Nixon, react in a Nixonian way?

Nixon’s Middle East alert drew suspicion, coming as it did less than a week after the Saturday Night Massacre.

Marvin Kalb, diplomatic correspondent for CBS News, raised the issue in a news conference with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

“There has been some line of speculation this morning,” Kalb said, “that the American alert might have been prompted as much perhaps by American domestic requirements as by the real requirements of diplomacy in the Middle East.”

Although Democratic leaders, such as House Majority Leader Tip O’Neill, reportedly moved quickly to dispel suspicions, the question of Nixon’s credibility and the extent of doubts about Watergate, reported the New York Times, “pointed up the depths of his domestic troubles as members of Congress continued to receive demands from constituents for his impeachment.”

Which brings us back to Trump.

His unfounded charge that President Barack Obama wiretapped Trump Tower during the presidential campaign was as scurrilous as it was unnerving.

That the president of the United States would make such an explosive public accusation without evidence calls into question his credibility and trustworthiness.

What if Trump, under intense pressure from all sides on Russia, decides to shift the focus to his commander-in-chief role and orders a shift in our military posture in response to a manufactured foreign crisis?

Lawful or illegal?

Is there an Elliot Richardson or Bill Ruckelshaus in the White House, the Pentagon, the National Security Council or the State Department? Anywhere? Anyone?

Read more from Colbert King’s archive.