Richard Nixon was a miserable excuse for a president who appears credible only by comparison with several of his more miserable successors. But, as bad as Nixon was, it took the former president the better part of five years to get into a fight with the Department of Justice and fire a top lawyer for following the rule of law rather than the dictates of an out-of-control and unconscionable White House.
It took Donald Trump ten days.
On the evening of October 20, 1973, a scandal-plagued Nixon was determined to fire independent special prosecutor Archibald Cox, who was investigating presidential wrongdoing as part of a broader inquiry into issues raised by the Watergate scandal. Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus resigned rather than to follow Nixon’s orders. Finally, Robert Bork took over as acting attorney general and did the deed. The chaotic developments of that evening came to be known as the “Saturday Night Massacre.”
Trump acted on a weeknight. But he stirred parallel talk of a political massacre. The president’s firing of Acting Attorney General Sally Yates for ordering Justice Department lawyers to stop defending his “Muslim ban” executive order was instantly described as the “Monday Night Massacre.”
Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe was among the first to make the connection, tweeting that Trump’s Justice Department crackdown “reminds me, of course, of Nixon’s Saturday night massacre.” David Gergen, the veteran White House aide who has served in Republican and Democratic administrations, said on CNN, “This brings back so many echoes of the Saturday Night Massacre.”
Gergen and others noted distinctions between different presidents and different motivations for targeting the Department of Justice. Their point was well-taken. But there was no question that Trump’s actions inspired a sense of instability and chaos rarely felt in the United States since the dark days of Nixon’s presidency. Former White House counsel John Dean, the man who stood up to Nixon, tweeted as the events of Monday night evolved: “The way the Trump presidency is beginning it is safe to say it will end in calamity. It is almost a certainty. Even Republicans know this!”
Dean hailed Yates for standing up to Trump, as did Congressman Elijah Cummings, the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight Committee.