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'Saturday Night Massacre': Key figures in Nixon's 1973 Justice Department purge

In 1973, President Nixon ordered the firing of special prosecutor Archibald Cox because he wouldn't obey Nixon's order to stop looking into Watergate. Two of the Justice Department's top leaders resigned in protest rather than following Nixon's directive to fire Cox. It became known as the "Saturday Night Massacre," an instance of the president using his power to punish political enemies within the Justice Department.

It’s a phrase that came up again in January after President Trump ousted acting Atty. Gen. Sally Yates, just hours after she said the Justice Department would not defend the president’s controversial executive order temporarily banning all refugees and travelers from certain countries. And the phrase reappeared Tuesday when Trump ousted FBI Director James Comey. In that case, Justice officials cited Comey’s handling of the end of the Hillary Clinton email investigation. [For those keeping score, yes, the same handling which Clinton has said she believes contributed to her loss to Trump.]

Three years ago, on the 40th anniversary of Nixon’s actions, artist Steve Brodner drew this guide to the key players.

(Steve Brodner / Special to The Times)

Here’s more on the episode from deputy Op-Ed editor Susan Brenneman, originally published Oct. 18, 2013:

The “Saturday Night Massacre” was a scorched-earth moment in the Watergate affair.

On Oct. 20, 1973, the two highest-ranking members of the Justice Department, Atty. Gen. Elliot L. Richardson and his deputy, William D. Ruckelshaus, quit rather than follow President Nixon's order to fire Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox. Cox and the courts were pressing the president to release White House tape recordings that might shed light on whether he had a role in covering up a break-in at Democratic Party headquarters in Washington's Watergate office complex.

Nixon's move to block the special prosecutor was for most Americans their first up-close look at what the Watergate fuss, by then more than a year old, was all about: naked presidential power.

Nixon badly miscalculated on Oct. 20, 1973. When Richardson got the order to fire a defiant Cox, the attorney general instead went in person to the White House to quit his job. Ruckelshaus, next up at the Justice Department, was handed his orders by phone, and he too refused and resigned.

"You owe a duty of loyalty to the president that transcends most other duties," Ruckelshaus told a gathering of former U.S. attorneys in 2009. But "there are lines.... In this case, the line was bright and the decision was simple."

For Robert H. Bork, then the U.S. solicitor general, it was another matter. Unlike Richardson and Ruckelshaus, Bork hadn't been a party to Cox's investigation. He hadn't personally agreed to protect the special prosecutor's independence. Besides, Ruckelshaus explained, Bork "believed the president had the power to fire Cox and he was simply the instrument of the exercise of that power."

Here's where it gets interesting: Ruckelshaus was relieved that Bork did what did. He emphatically didn't want to see Cox fired, and he had refused "an order from his commander in chief" (that's the way Alexander Haig, Nixon's messenger, put it). But that wasn't the only thing on Ruckelshaus' mind:

"The solicitor general was third in command at the Department of Justice," he said, "and there the chain of command stopped. It's not clear what would have happened if Bork had refused.... Both Elliott and I had urged Bork to comply if his conscience would permit. We were frankly worried about the stability of the government."

By the time Nixon resigned, effective Aug. 9, 1974, and put an end to the "long national nightmare" of Watergate, it was clear that government stability (apart from Nixon's own hold on power) hadn't been the first concern of the president and his cronies.

With Watergate, the United States survived "a massive break of trust," Ruckelshaus said in 2009. "The center and the Constitution held. We also suffered greatly.... In my opinion, Richard Nixon's conduct ... did his country incalculable harm, and ... we have not yet fully recovered from some of the damage."


Updated May 9, 4:15 p.m.: This op-ed was updated with Trump’s firing of Comey.

This piece was originally republished on Jan. 30, 2017.

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