On Monday night, after Trump fired acting Attorney General Sally Yates over her refusal to defend Trump’s Muslim ban, many commentators compared the incident to the infamous Saturday Night Massacre in 1973, when then-Attorney General Elliot Richardson and his deputy resigned after President Richard Nixon ordered Richardson to fire the special prosecutor investigating the Watergate scandal.
Jill Wine-Banks talking:
I’d say it was a big mistake, that if Sally had been the attorney general to Richard Nixon, or the White House counsel, there wouldn’t have been a Watergate, that he made a mistake both in terms of the substance and the appearance. And the turning point in the Watergate investigation, in many ways, was the Saturday Night Massacre, when we were inundated with what were then telegrams, but would today probably be emails, and public opinion turned against Richard Nixon. I’d like to point out that he served a very short time after that, although he had been elected with a landslide, because public opinion turned against him and the evidence was there of his culpability.
– with Nixon, he was already in his second term as president. We’re dealing with a president who’s in his second week as president. And the speed with which this kind of a crisis has occurred.
I think that’s one of the most remarkable points, is about the women. If you look at—all the judges that have ruled on this have been women. The acting attorney general, of course, is a woman. And in the Nixon era, less than 5 percent of all lawyers were women. So, you would have never had that as anything involved, and that one of the lessons of Watergate is that you can’t surround yourself with yes men. And in this case, of course, it turns out you shouldn’t surround yourself with yes women, either, and he hasn’t. So, that’s the good news, is that the women have had the courage to stand up to the president. If John Dean had stood up much sooner than he did, this whole Watergate episode could have been avoided. But people are afraid to tell truth to power. And I’m so proud to be part of the women’s group that is standing up to him.
– 1973. This is how NBC’s John Chancellor broke the news of what became known as the Saturday Night Massacre.
“JOHN CHANCELLOR: Good evening. The country tonight is in the midst of what may be the most serious constitutional crisis in its history. The president has fired the special Watergate prosecutor, Archibald Cox. Because of the president’s action, the attorney general has resigned. Elliot Richardson has quit, saying he cannot carry out Mr. Nixon’s instructions. Richardson’s deputy, William Ruckelshaus, has been fired. Ruckelshaus refused, in a moment of constitutional drama, to obey a presidential order to fire the special Watergate prosecutor. And half an hour after the special Watergate prosecutor had been fired, agents of the FBI, acting at the direction of the White House, sealed off the offices of the special prosecutor, the offices of the attorney general and the offices of the deputy attorney general. All of this adds up to a totally unprecedented situation, a grave and profound crisis in which the president has set himself against his own attorney general and the Department of Justice.”
Elizabeth Holtzman talking:
I was the youngest woman ever elected to Congress until a couple of years ago, so that’s—I don’t about the youngest member of that committee. I never checked that point.
it was an extraordinary abuse of power, what Richard Nixon did, the firing of Archibald Cox, having him fired. It was an impeachable offense; it would form part of the articles of impeachment. Why? Because President Nixon was using the powers of his office not for the benefit of the United States of America, but to cover up a crime—namely, the break-in at the Watergate Hotel by operatives of the White House and by operatives of his re-elect committee. So that was a cover-up and part of keeping the cover-up going. And it was abuse of power, because Richard Nixon didn’t care about the law. He wanted the special prosecutor out of the way.
And while there’s not an exact similarity here, because so far we don’t know that there’s a cover-up, but what we have is the same mentality of abusing power, of taking power into your own hands and saying, “I’m first”—not “America First,” “I’m first.” If the attorney general says that this may not pass legal muster, that this may not be lawful, don’t you think the president ought to be asking, “Wow! How do we get this to be lawful? What’s wrong here? I want to obey the law.” No, the president put himself above the law. He didn’t want to find out why this wasn’t lawful, what the qualms were, what the problems were. And that’s the mentality that will bring this president down. You cannot, in the end, put yourself above the law time after time after time.
– Sally Yates in 2015 at her confirmation hearing, being questioned by Jeff Sessions, and specifically on the very issue over which she now has been fired.
SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: Do you think the attorney general has a responsibility to say no to the president if he asks for something that’s improper? A lot of people have defended the Lynch nomination, for example, by saying, “Well, he appoints somebody who’s going to execute his views. What’s wrong with that?” But if the views the president wants to execute are unlawful, should the attorney general or the deputy attorney general say no?
SALLY YATES: Senator, I believe that the attorney general or the deputy attorney general has an obligation to follow the law and the Constitution and to give their independent legal advice to the president.
SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: Like any CEO with a law firm, sometimes the lawyers have to tell the CEO, “Mr. CEO, you can’t do that. Don’t do that. We’ll get a suit. It’s going to be in violation of the law. You’ll regret it. Please,” no matter how headstrong they might be. Do you feel like that’s the duty on the Attorney General’s Office?
SALLY YATES: I do believe that that’s the duty of the Attorney General’s Office, to fairly and impartially evaluate the law and to provide the president and the administration with impartial legal advice.
SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: And just as in a fraud case or any other drug case you might have prosecuted—excellently, it appears—over the years, immigration law is important to be consistently and effectively enforced, should it not?
of course, the irony is overwhelming. But I just want to go back to the point that was made by the White House when they attacked her. I thought she showed enormous courage in standing up for what she believed was right and in talking about the law. That’s the Department of Justice. What does the law say? We’re a law-abiding country. The president of the United States, in attacking her, the White House statement said she was weak on illegal immigration. That’s not her job to be strong or weak on immigration. Her job is to be strong on the law. He didn’t care about the law. The president doesn’t care about the law. That’s the problem here, and that’s what we’re seeing. The amazing thing is, he didn’t even vet this executive order with lawyers beforehand—maybe the Judiciary Committee staff, it’s not clear, but he didn’t vet it with the Justice Department. He didn’t vet it, apparently, with the homeland security lawyers.
They didn’t care what the law was, how this was going to be done. This is the president über alles. And I use that terminology very deliberately.
– More than a hundred employees of the State Department have signed on to drafts of a dissent memo that condemns Trump’s executive order. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer threatened State Department officials, saying they should quit their jobs if they have a problem with Trump’s “program.”
Jill Wine-Banks talking:
That’s an interesting issue that came up during the Saturday Night Massacre. And there was debate whether the office had been fired, all of us, or whether only Archie Cox had been fired. And we debated in the office whether we should resign in protest. And Archie advised us that that would be absolutely wrong, that we knew the case, that we should never resign. If we were fired, that was a different story, but that we needed to stay and do our job. And I agree exactly with what Liz has said and with what the acting attorney general testified to, which is that the lawyers who are involved in this have to act in accordance with their ethics and enforce the law and act in accordance with the Constitution. And we need people who will stand up and say, “You cannot do this.” There are some things that can be altered in a way that makes it legal, but there are some things that simply cannot be done, and someone has to be strong enough and courageous enough to tell the president when he cannot do what he’s proposing.
– in 1973, the headline in the papers: “Nixon Discharges Cox for Defiance; Abolishes Watergate Task Force; Richardson and Ruckelshaus Out.” Interestingly enough, right under that, a little sub-headline: “Kissinger Meets Brezhnev on Mideast Cease-Fire Plan.” So the Middle East and Russia were in this picture then, as well.
there’s still a debate. And I’ve talked to Ruckelshaus, and he both was fired and resigned. And the same is supposedly true of Richardson. Both Richardson and Ruckelshaus felt that Cox had done absolutely nothing that was not within his charter, that all of his actions were proper and that it would be illegal and against what they had testified to in getting confirmed to their offices. They had promised that they would not fire him except for cause. They did not believe there was any cause, and that they could not, therefore, carry out the president’s order. They were willing to resign rather than do that. The president fired them. So, they were both fired and resigned. They acted in accordance with their conscience.
I’d also like to point out to Sessions and to all other appointees that Bork, who carried out the order, ended up having his career shortened. He was never confirmed to the Supreme Court, largely because of his actions during Watergate and in firing Cox. So there are consequences for carrying out what are illegal orders.
Elizabeth Holtzman talking:
the hearings took place after the Saturday Night Massacre. and the firings, resignations of the top Justice Department officials. The hearings galvanized the country. The hearings were bipartisan. The House Judiciary Committee voted on a bipartisan basis for three articles of impeachment. The country, which had overwhelmingly supported Nixon’s re-election by a landslide margin—not the margin that this president got, but one of the biggest landslides in the history of this country—saw that the rule of law had to govern. And the American people decided, more important than a president, more important than a party, more important than a policy was the rule of law and the Constitution.
I want to say one other thing that’s really important to remember. The Saturday Night Massacre, firing the attorney general, firing the deputy attorney general, triggered the impeachment hearings against Richard Nixon, which is what brought him down in the end. So, this is something that should make the American people sit up and take notice. We have a president who is not willing to listen as to what the law requires and what the Constitution requires. That’s the real message here. And the danger is for our rule of law and the constitutional rule for our democracy.
I want to say one other thing. I helped, along with Ted Kennedy, to write the Refugee Act of 1980. And we wrote that law in the wake of the huge crisis that happened when the boat people fled Vietnam. First of all, the United States of America took over 750,000—750,000 people. We were a smaller country at that time. Americans weren’t quaking in their boots. We weren’t scared something terrible was going to happen to us. We took them and welcomed them with open arms. It was one of the most important and successful resettlement efforts of refugees in the history of the world. And that law was designed to abolish discrimination in admission of refugees on any basis. He must be turning in his grave now. The two of us wrote that law in 1980. And it’s being disgraced now.
former U.S. congresswoman from New York who served on the House Judiciary Committee that voted to impeach Richard Nixon.
former assistant Watergate special prosecutor and the first woman to serve as U.S. Army general counsel.
— source democracynow.org