Trump’s ‘Nixonian’ axing of FBI chief has Washington scrambling for historical precedent
It wasn’t quite evening, nor was it Saturday, but within minutes after President Donald Trump fired the FBI director who was investigating Russian meddling in the president’s election last year, the words “Saturday Night Massacre” swept across a stunned capital.
In Washington, especially in the throes of scandals and investigations, each new shock development sparks a search for useful historical analogies.
Immediately on Tuesday evening, Democrats and Republicans alike turned to 1973, to the Saturday Night Massacre, when president Richard Nixon rattled the nation by firing Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor who had been appointed to investigate his behaviour in the Watergate scandal.
On one evening that October, Nixon abolished the office of the special prosecutor, and both the attorney general, Elliot Richardson, and his deputy, William Ruckelshaus, resigned after refusing Nixon’s debill clinton 1993mand that they fire Cox.
Trump’s firing of FBI chief James Comey “is a very Nixonian move,” said John Dean, the White House counsel under Nixon. “This could have been a quiet resignation, but instead it was an angry dismissal.”
On television Tuesday night, the faces of all the president’s men popped out of the history books - fuzzy, black-and-white images of the dark figures of the nation’s worst scandal, which ended with Nixon’s resignation on the eve of his inevitable impeachment. On social media, Comey’s firing instantly took its place alongside other unsettling chapters in the history of presidential power - Watergate, to be sure, but also other struggles between FBI directors and presidents, especially at times when the bureau was investigating the president or his aides.
But the yearning to find comfort in terrible chapters of American history that the country nonetheless survived runs up against Trump’s lifelong desire to be provocative and unpredictable - and against unprecedented allegations in which a president’s campaign stands accused of possible collusion with a foreign adversary.
“Trump is a unique individual who is not bound by the normal strictures of politics, so we don’t know if he’s doing this because he’s unpredictable or because he’s hiding something,” said John Farrell, author of Richard Nixon: The Life, a new biography. “But the actions he and his top staff have taken certainly mirror those of their counterparts four decades ago, who were clearly hiding something.”
Presidents who have been on edge about FBI investigations of their actions have sometimes pushed back hard, but more often they have stepped away from any direct effort to halt a probe.
Nixon’s relationship with the FBI’s first and most iconic director, J. Edgar Hoover, was particularly fraught, and in 1971, the president summoned Hoover, who had led the bureau and its first incarnation since 1924, to the Oval Office to relieve him of his duties.
“Nixon actually called him in for the showdown meeting and just couldn’t do it,” Dean said. “There were talking papers written. It was all set up. They’d been planning it for weeks. And then he chickened out.”
In his memoirs, Nixon said that he had been surprised that, as Farrell put it, “the acid of Watergate had dug so deeply into American society that the Saturday Night Massacre would be seen as a great constitutional crisis.”
In 1993, President Bill Clinton also learned how unsettling a confrontation with the FBI could be. Six months after he took office, Clinton fired then-FBI Director William Sessions, saying that his attorney general, Janet Reno, had reported to him that Sessions “can no longer effectively lead the bureau and law enforcement community.”
Asked whether he wanted to get rid of Sessions - a Ronald Reagan appointee - for political reasons, Clinton replied, “Absolutely not.” A Justice Department investigation had found that Sessions had engaged in a pattern of unethical behaviour and expense-account padding - garden-variety corruption that might seem almost quaint compared to the Nixon-era crimes. Sessions had used an FBI plane to visit his daughter and an FBI limousine for personal travel, and had a government-paid fence installed at his home.
Sessions said he was a victim of a political vendetta, and he refused Clinton’s entreaties to resign.
As the Watergate analogies poured in from angry and startled politicians Tuesday night, they were accompanied by another echo of the 1970s scandal - calls for the appointment of a special counsel to take over the Russia investigation.
“But remember that until a few hours ago, lots of Democrats were calling for Comey to go,” Farrell said. “That’s being lost in the shuffle as we rush to the Nixonian analogy.”