Monday, Oct. 22, 1973, was the observance of Veterans Day in Washington, so most congressional offices were closed. However, Sen. Charles McC. Mathias Jr. (R-Md.), and his top aides, including yours truly, gathered that day at his office to review the unprecedented events that had rocked the city 48 hours earlier.
Washington had never witnessed a Saturday night like that.
President Richard Nixon had ordered special prosecutor Archibald Cox fired for refusing to back off his pursuit of the White House Watergate tapes. The same evening, Nixon had accepted the resignations of Attorney General Elliot L. Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William D. Ruckelshaus, both of whom refused to discharge Cox. Nixon directed Solicitor General Robert H. Bork, as the newly installed acting attorney general, to carry out the order, which he did.
That very night, Nixon also abolished the special prosecutor’s office and had the FBI seal the Justice Department offices of Richardson and Ruckelshaus, as well as Cox’s office on K Street NW.
The “Saturday Night Massacre” ignited a firestorm. Just how much of one became apparent as soon as we entered the office that Monday.
We had to be there: Mathias, considered a political maverick, had made the “enemies list” at the Nixon White House.
Telephones were jumping off the hook. The receptionists and clerical staff had the day off, so some of us stepped in, taking turns answering the phones.
The messages streaming in from Maryland’s politically conservative Eastern Shore and Western Maryland and more liberal Montgomery County and Baltimore were remarkably similar.
Outraged constituents wanted their senator to know they thought Nixon had gone too far — that what he had done on Saturday night was simply wrong. More than 50,000 telegrams in protest reportedly arrived on Capitol Hill in one day.
The circumstances surrounding Nixon’s treatment of Cox, Richardson and Ruckelshaus differed, to be sure, from the factors that led to President Trump’s firing of FBI Director James B. Comey.
Cox’s firing 44 years ago and this week’s treatment of Comey, however, have one common feature: Both Nixon and Trump moved to quash a federal investigation into activities associated with their presidential campaigns by firing the top officials overseeing the probe.
It didn’t work then. Will it work now?
The ’73 electorate had come to realize that Nixon crossed the line and that presidential power had been abused.
Many of the callers couldn’t cite laws that Nixon might have broken or the constitutional rights he might have violated. But there was collectively a gut feeling in the country that Nixon — liked and supported by many — had gone too far.
And Congress, prodded by a fearless press, including this newspaper, stepped up.
What feelings about Trump exist today across the fruited plain? Is the dismay limited to Democrats in Congress and a few Republican outliers annoyed by Trump’s smackdown of Comey?
Because count on it, Trump is not going to hold still for deepening probes into possible ties between the Kremlin and his presidential campaign. That is what Comey’s firing was all about.
But can Trump get away with misusing the powers of his office to obstruct the FBI’s probe of Russia’s campaign to influence the 2016 presidential election?
Look for a full-throated Trump campaign to deceive the country into believing that there’s no reason to probe whether anyone on his team has been involved in misconduct with the Kremlin.
Watch as he and his minions attempt to interfere with the conduct of investigations by the Senate and House intelligence committees by seeking to discredit key members.
The last thing Trump wants is a spotlight shining on the money trail that flowed from Russian enterprises connected to the Kremlin to activities and individuals associated over the years with Trump personally, the Trump Organization and his business, family and political allies. Does Russia, because of money, have its hooks into Trump?
Thus keep a close eye on former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who was just issued a Senate subpoena for documents related to the Russian meddling and possible Trump campaign/Kremlin ties.
It may well be that Flynn regarded Vice President Pence and White House press secretary Sean Spicer as useful idiots who would blithely peddle his lie that he didn’t discuss the removal of sanctions with the Russian ambassador before Trump took office. But would Flynn, Army to the core, dare overstep his bounds with the commander in chief? That Flynn, close campaign adviser, representative of President-elect Trump’s transition team and Trump’s handpicked national security adviser, would have had communications with the Russians without Trump’s knowledge is almost beyond belief.
So back to the beginning: Are phones jumping off the hook, and emails flying, because Trump has gone too far? Is Congress going to examine whether Trump has — through his behavior as candidate and president — prejudiced the cause of law and justice? Or will the country, and a cowardly Republican Congress, just roll over and play dead?
Read more from Colbert King’s archive.
Read more on this topic: