The Opinion Pages | OP-ED CONTRIBUTOR
A 'Saturday Night Massacre' Veteran Offers Trump Some Advice
By WILLIAM D. RUCKELSHAUS
JULY 27, 2017
On Monday, Oct. 15, 1973, I stuck my head in Attorney General Elliot Richardson's office to tell him I was going to Grand Rapids, Mich., to oversee the F.B.I.'s background investigation into Gerald Ford, President Nixon's choice as his new vice president. I was the deputy attorney general.
Five days earlier, Spiro Agnew had pleaded no contest to a tax evasion charge and had been forced to resign as vice president.
Elliot and I and his immediate staff had spent most of the summer working on the Agnew case. It had been intense and emotionally exhausting. The vice president was facing criminal charges not only for tax evasion but also for taking kickbacks from contractors while governor of Maryland.
As I was about to leave, Elliot said, "We've got an even worse problem than Agnew."
That's not possible, I replied.
"Yes, it is," he said. "The president wants to fire Cox."
Richardson had appointed Archibald Cox, his former professor at Harvard Law School, five months earlier as special prosecutor to investigate the Watergate scandal.
My reply reflected my belief at the time. "Don't worry," I said. "When it comes right down to it, he'll never do it. The American people won't tolerate it."
I was wrong about my first point, but right about the second. As we were about to find out, Americans would not acquiesce to a president firing a special prosecutor chosen by the attorney general to investigate possible presidential misconduct.
When Elliot Richardson was confirmed as attorney general in May 1973 he told the Senate Judiciary Committee that he would not fire Cox except for "extraordinary improprieties." I made the same pledge in September 1973 at my confirmation hearing. At that time, only the attorney general or his successor could fire Cox.
I was acting director of the F.B.I. on May 25, 1973, when Cox became the Watergate special prosecutor. It was my duty to respond to Cox's request for help by providing F.B.I. agents to follow leads relating to the Watergate case.
My relationship with Cox was very professional. Every time he asked the F.B.I. for help in his investigation, I tried to be as responsive as possible.
Occasionally I would be called by the president, or more often by Al Haig, his chief of staff, complaining that Cox was investigating alleged wrongdoing that had nothing to do with Watergate. I would pass on their concerns to Cox.
In every case, the complaints from the White House resulted in Cox's pulling back from areas of investigative concern outside his Watergate mandate. He was very sensitive to being accused of partisanship. Cox had been the solicitor general in the Kennedy administration. He could not have been more responsive to the White House's complaints, even as he forged ahead with his investigation into Watergate.
After I left for Grand Rapids that October morning, the situation between the White House and Richardson began to rapidly deteriorate. Elliot called to let me know, and I returned to Washington on Wednesday evening. Three days later, Elliot and I resigned after refusing to carry out President Nixon's order to fire the special prosecutor. Cox was then dismissed by Robert Bork, who had quickly been designated acting attorney general.
The resulting public firestorm, which became known as the "Saturday Night Massacre," marked the beginning of the end of the Nixon presidency. Congressional support eroded, the House Judiciary Committee began impeachment hearings and the Supreme Court ordered the release of White House tapes capturing the president and his aides plotting the cover-up. Nearly 10 months after that October night, Nixon resigned.
The events of recent weeks have eerily reminded me of those Watergate days. When accusations of Russian involvement in last year's election first surfaced, I thought President Trump could quickly put them to rest by revealing all he knew and instructing his staff to do the same, just as President Nixon could have done with the Watergate burglary in 1972.
But President Trump hasn't done that, even though he has consistently asserted his complete innocence. Why not lay it all out for the public to judge for itself? Are we headed for another long national nightmare? For the sake of the country, I hope not.
If Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel, is left alone, he will conduct a thoughtful and fair investigation. He is universally and justifiably admired and should be supported in his work.
If the president fires him, as he is reportedly contemplating doing, the result might very well be the same as what President Nixon faced when he forced Elliot Richardson and me to resign for refusing to obey his order to fire Cox.
Mr. President, don't worry whether you have the power to pardon yourself. But do consider the wisdom of firing the man charged by your own deputy attorney general with investigating Russian intervention into your election.
William D. Ruckelshaus, a former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, was the acting F.B.I. director and deputy attorney general under President Richard Nixon.
Patriotism is not a short and frenzied outburst of emotion but the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime.
- Adlai Stevenson
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