Trump's Firing of Comey Strikes Nixonian Chords

May 10, 2017

When President Donald Trump dismissed FBI Director James Comey yesterday, critics immediately drew comparisons to an incident during Richard Nixon’s presidency known as the Saturday Night Massacre. That’s when Nixon fired a special prosecutor investigating the Watergate break-in, leading to high-level resignations and a constitutional crisis.

NHPR’s Peter Biello discussed the lessons and limitations of this comparison with Tim Naftali, a professor of history at NYU and former director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library.

What was the Saturday Night Massacre?

In the summer of 1973, Richard Nixon started huffing and puffing, telling his advisors that he wanted to fire Archibald Cox—Archibald Cox was the special Watergate prosecutor. Richard Nixon’s [record] keeping system became public knowledge in the summer of 1973, and understandably, the special prosecutor wanted access to those recordings.

Richard Nixon did not want the tapes to go to the special prosecutor. He asked the Attorney General of the United States, Elliot Richardson, to fire the special prosecutor. Richardson said, no sir, and resigned instead. His deputy, William Ruckelshaus, said, I will not do it either.

The third person in the line of succession is the Solicitor General, who happened to be Robert Bork. So Bork fired Archibald Cox, but what he did afterward was even more controversial. He had the FBI seal the offices of the special prosecutor. So the appearance to the world and the American people was not simply that the special prosecutor was gone, but that the investigation itself had been frozen by a guilty president.

That’s why, that night, which was known as the Saturday Night Massacre, was the beginning of serious calls for President Nixon’s impeachment.

A lot of people now are talking about whether President Trump is doing something similar in the firing of FBI director James Comey. Is that a fair comparison?

Well, it’s a very imperfect comparison, because we don’t know enough. We’d need to know if President Trump’s intent is to obstruct justice. Richard Nixon’s intent was to obstruct justice—he did not want the tapes, which ultimately incriminated him, to go to the special prosecutor. We don’t know whether Donald Trump decided to get rid of Comey because he assumed Comey was in a position to get at something that would humiliate or incriminate him.

There is another difference, which is that Comey was not the head of the FBI investigation. There is somebody running the investigation who reports to the director. Now, unless we see evidence that that person has been removed and that the new FBI director is going to be soft on the investigation, there’s no obstruction of justice.

What’s clear, though, is that the appearance looks bad, and the politics are terrible. We know what Richard Nixon’s intent was—it was bad, felonious really. We don’t know what Trump’s intention was, but the optics are just terrible and they imply a level of guilt.

But it does not prove guilt, which we should make absolutely clear.

No, it doesn’t prove guilt. First of all, we have not seen evidence directly implicating the President in collusion with the Russian foreign intelligence service, which would be cause for a criminal action and impeachment. There’s no evidence for that. In fact we haven’t seen evidence of direct collusion between any member of his campaign and the Russian intelligence service. There’s a lot of suspicion, and we know that investigations are going on, but we haven’t seen the evidence.  

In our country, everyone is innocent until proven guilty. What is so Nixonian, though, about this moment is that the Trump Administration, and particularly the President, is doing things that imply guilt. Richard Nixon had a bad habit, if you watched him over time, of repeatedly denying things that he had done. His most famous one is, "The American people need to know if their president is a crook—well I’m not a crook."

Well he was a crook! And the fact was that if you watched him long enough, the more defensive he got, the more guilty he was. I’m not suggesting that the psychological makeup of our president now is the same as that of Richard Nixon. But that was the Nixonian way of dealing with difficult questions.

Trump is at least sending off the appearance of being like Nixon. Even if we can’t prove his guilt—there’s no way at the moment—he’s acting as if he’s guilty. And that’s something he really should be aware of.

I think the one other big difference is that Nixon’s team was very strong. Ultimately it couldn’t protect him from himself, but his team stopped a number of very bad ideas, which were criminal, from happening. There’s no sense that Donald Trump’s team is strong enough to prevent him from doing things which are going to hurt him. The timing and manner of the Comey [firing] suggests that Donald Trump listens to no one.

Although it seems as though, if we’re going to believe the news reports that are out there, that he did get support from some people within his administration, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Well, I would be wary of initial reports like this. And also, there’s going to be a lot of signs of loyalty in the early going. It’s all too fresh, I think, to make historical judgments. What I would be watching in the next few weeks is whether we see resignations from the administration, and secondly whom the FBI selects to replace Comey—that’s going to be extremely important.

The Nixon Administration thought they had found a ringer to replace Archibald Cox. Archibald Cox had been Solicitor General under John F. Kennedy, he was a Harvard professor, he represented the elite that Nixon hated and frankly disliked like Nixon. Archibald Cox tried to be scrupulously nonpartisan—The Nixon team choose a Southern Democract to replace him, Leon Jaworski, assuming that he would be pro-Nixon. They were absolutely wrong. Leon Jaworski chose country over president.

We’ll have to see whom the Trump people select, but the confirmation hearings will tell us a lot, I think, about the future of the FBI Russia hacking investigation. After all, that’s the key here. All the rest of this is atmospherics and theatrics. In the end, what matters most is whether there’s an obstruction of justice, and justice implies the proper investigation of the Russian hacking scandal and any possible American alliance or collusion.

That’s what matters. If there’s anything that happens, from this point on, that suggests the White House is intervening to blunt, weaken, or otherwise stop the Russia investigation, then we know someone, perhaps the President himself, is trying to obstruct justice. Right now we don’t have that evidence, but we have to watch, we have to be very careful, and I hope that Congress will do its job and make sure that the Executive Branch follows whatever leads it has regarding Russia and collusion.