By Michael Koncewicz , author of They Said No to Nixon: Republicans Who Stood Up to the President’s Abuses of Power
“And to this day, I think the President had no choice. I think he did the right thing,” said Pat Buchanan at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in May 2017. Nixon’s former speechwriter was referring to the events of October 20, 1973, the Saturday Night Massacre.
The longtime conservative firebrand was defending his former boss’s controversial order to have Attorney General Elliot Richardson fire the Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox. Both Richardson and the deputy attorney general William Ruckelshaus famously resigned in protest that day. The Solicitor General Robert Bork, who was next in line, carried out the order, leading to an unprecedented wave of anger that eventually forced the President to select another Special Prosecutor. One poll showed that the events of that weekend led to a plurality of the American public supporting Nixon’s impeachment for the first time. The president resigned less than ten months later.
After Buchanan defended Nixon’s actions at the Nixon Library, a small portion of the crowd of a few hundred people applauded his direct challenge of the consensus view on the Saturday Night Massacre. After a second or two, a few more people clapped. Buchanan joked, “Maybe they’re going to call me back to another committee.”
While Buchanan’s stance on the Saturday Night Massacre could easily be dismissed as just the product of his own personal connection to the 37th President, recent events have suggested that more conservatives might be willing to reevaluate Nixon’s attempt to stop an independent investigation into his White House.
After several weeks of very little news coming out of Special Counsel Robert Mueller investigation’s into Russian meddling during the 2016 election, President Trump sparked outrage across the nation after he announced his decision to fire Jeff Sessions and appoint Matthew Whittaker as the interim Attorney General.
Since Sessions had recused himself from overseeing the Mueller investigation, Whitaker’s appointment meant that he would now replace Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein as the figure who will oversee the Mueller investigation. While Rosenstein is a longtime civil servant who many Democrats see as an independent minded figure, Whitaker previously worked as Session’s Chief of Staff and in 2017 wrote op-ed for CNN that argued against the existence of the Mueller investigation. Whitaker also suggested that the DOJ cut Mueller’s funding as a way to end the probe into the Trump campaign’s alleged wrongdoings. This weekend, Vox reported that Whitaker advised the President on how to pressure the DOJ to investigate the White House’s enemies while he served as Session’s Chief of Staff.
The reaction from most high-profile Republicans has been muted so far. Unlike the Republicans who resigned during the Nixon-era, there have very few signs of significant dissent within the GOP. Whether it’s in Congress or inside of the administration, there aren’t many Republicans who seem to be interested in protecting the independence of the Mueller probe.
Very few seem to have learned the right lessons from the Saturday Night Massacre. During an appearance on Sean Hannity’s radio show this past September, Gregg Jarrett, a Fox News anchor of author of the bestselling book The Russia Hoax: The Illicit Scheme to Clear Hillary Clinton and Frame Donald Trump, urged the President to fire Rod Rosenstein over his refusal to declassify documents related to the Russia investigation. Jarrett compared Trump’s frustration over Rosenstein’s actions to Nixon during the fall of 1973 and concluded that the President was right to demand the firing of Archibald Cox. “I mean that’s how the system is supposed to work,” said Jarrett.
My book They Said No to Nixon: Republicans Who Stood Up to the President’s Abuses of Power argues that current events show that the battle over Nixon’s legacy is inextricably linked to the past, present, and future of the Trump presidency.
Much like our current president, Nixon believed that a loyalist should have led the Justice Department. Nixon never said that he regretted his decision to fire Cox, but wrote that his “first major mistake was the appointment of Richardson as Attorney General.” He added, “Richardson’s weakness, which came to light during the Cox firing, should have been apparent.” Nixon and many of his supporters felt that the lesson was that the President was not ruthless enough when dealing with the Justice Department.
Confronting Nixon’s view of the Saturday Night Massacre will give us a better understanding of our current moment. While it is safe to assume that most Americans in 2018 would disapprove of another Saturday Night Massacre, the public should be concerned about what lessons the current president and his most ardent supporters may have learned from that fateful weekend in October.