Demands for the impeachment of President Nixon mounted swiftly last night in the wake of his firing of Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox and the resignations of Attorney General Elliott L. Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William D. Ruckelshaus.
Within the White House, sources reported an immediate reaction of “shock” among presidential aides to Mr. Nixon’s action and an expectation that it was now inevitable that Congress would move to impeach him.
Members of the House and Senate -- from both parties -- expressed dismay at the President’s moves. One member of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Jerome R. Waldie (D-Calif.), said flatly that he will introduce an impeachment resolution when the House reconvenes, probably Tuesday. So did Rep. Ogden R. Reid (D-N.Y.), a one-time Republican.
Waldie charged that Mr. Nixon “in one wild move has removed the few remaining men of demonstrable integrity in the administration.”
The action, he said, leaves no doubt that release of the Watergate tapes in Mr. Nixon’s possession “would prove the President’s complicity in the crime of obstructing justice and would make him impeachable.”
The President would rather withhold the tapes and make the matter of impeachment a test of “the guts of the members of Congress, which he considers a better bet,” Waldie said.
Three of the most prestigious Democrats in the Senate -- Stuart Symington of Missouri, Edmund S. Muskie of Maine and Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts -- all indicated their belief that Mr. Nixon’s actions made impeachment proceedings more likely.
Muskie said the President’s actions “are of such gravity and consequence to our form of government” that the House should consider impeachment proceedings. “What the President has done,” he said, “threatens to destroy our system of law. It smacks of dictatorship. Unless Congress responds in the only way provided in the Constitution for resisting such a usurpation of authority, we endanger our country’s future.”
Kennedy called the firing of Cox “a reckless act of desperation by a President who is afraid of the Supreme Court, who has no respect for law and no regard for men of conscience.
“It is obvious,” he said, “that Mr. Nixon is bent on maintaining the Watergate cover-up at any cost. The burden is now on Congress and the courts to nullify this historic insult to the rule of law and to the nation’s system of justice.”
Symington charged that the President “has now violated his solemn obligation to the Senate” on Richardson’s independence, and said “there is no question that whatever the chances for impeachment were before, they have been materially increased.”
Republicans also saw impeachment down the road for Mr. Nixon. Rep. John B. Anderson (R-Ill.), chairman of the House Republican Conference, said “the President has precipitated a constitutional crisis” and he predicted impeachment resolutions would be introduced this week.
Sen. Edward Brooke (R-Mass.) said, “This act on the part of the President, under the circumstances, is sufficient evidence which the House of Representatives should consider to begin impeachment proceedings.”
Rep. John N. Erlenhorn (R-Ill.), a moderate, said he, too, expected impeachment proceedings and predicted that the vote for removing Mr. Nixon “will be significant,” but he would not say whether he thought it would succeed. He called the President “ill-advised” for his action yesterday, and for withholding the tapes.
Sen. Mark O. Hatfield (R-Ore.) in a telephone interview from Oregon, said, “It seems to me the President is almost intent on committing political hara-kiri.”
While saying he is still hopeful that “we can resolve this short of impeachment,” Hatfield said the President’s action “invites far more serious consideration” to taking that step than before.
Hatfield also said the President’s actions would seem to put “in jeopardy” his nomination of Rep. Gerald R. Ford to be Vice President, succeeding the resigned Spiro T. Agnew.
The Oregon Republican noted that several Democrats had indicated they wanted to withhold action on Ford’s nomination pending release of the White House tapes by Mr. Nixon. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Jerry Ford held hostage,” he said.
Ford was one of the few voices heard last night in support of Mr. Nixon’s actions. “The President had no other choice, after Cox -- who was, after all, a subordinate -- refused to accept the compromise solution to the tapes issue,” he said.
Agreeing with Ford was Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.). “I don’t know what other choice the President had” he said. “It’s a question of who’s the President -- Nixon or Cox.” Dole said whether impeachment proceedings start depends on what each man says and the reaction on Capitol Hill to the President’s proposed compromise on the tapes, in which he would have provided a summary of the contents, and let Sen. John Stennis (D-Miss.) listen to the tapes for verification.
One House member, Rep. Donald M. Fraser (D-Minn.), national chairman of Americans for Democratic Action, said the President left the House “no choice but to proceed with impeachment,” and he proposed that the House hire Cox as its special counsel to explore grounds to impeach Mr. Nixon.
Cox himself in his statement of the President’s action against him implied that the next proper step was impeachment. “Whether ours shall continue to be a government of laws and not of men is now for Congress and ultimately the American people,” he said.
Until last night, Congress had appeared to be extremely reluctant to even consider the impeachment step seriously. But there had been growing signals that if the President eventually bucked the judiciary branch on the issue of the White House tapes, it could provide the catalyst for action.
In discharging Cox and closing down his special Watergate investigation, the President appears to have averted that direct confrontation. But in so doing, he appears at the same time to have assured another, more direct one with Congress on the ultimate question: whether Watergate and its attendant machinations will drive him from the White House.