Alan Zendell, May 10, 2017
In the coming weeks, we will no doubt hear hundreds of partisan views about whether the firing of James Comey is comparable to the infamous Saturday Night Massacre of October 20, 1973. Amid the growing storm over the Watergate break-in the previous year, it became clear that the House Judiciary Committee could not handle the investigation on its own, and Attorney General Eliot Richardson appointed a special prosecutor to pursue the matter independently. The terms of the appointment were specific: the special prosecutor could only be removed by Richardson (not the president) and then, only for cause.
The man he appointed was Archibald Cox, a Harvard Law professor of impeccable credentials, who the public immediately greeted as a folk hero. When Cox issued a subpoena to President Nixon over the Watergate tapes, Nixon refused to comply and ordered Richardson to fire him. One way in which the firings of Comey and Cox are definitely not similar is the response of the respective Justice Department officials. Richardson, who had promised the Judiciary Committee that he would support Cox’s investigation wherever it led, refused Nixon’s order and resigned as Attorney General in protest. When Nixon ordered Richardson’s deputy, William Rucklehaus to fire Cox, he too resigned in protest, and it was left to the Solicitor General, Robert Bork, to reluctantly fire Cox.
The integrity of the people President Nixon appointed to his Department of Justice played an essential role in getting to the truth, which ended Nixon’s presidency. Can you imagine that happening now, as Trump’s people march in lockstep regardless of appearances and protests?
To me it’s especially ironic, as it was only yesterday that I said I didn’t want Trump to fail as president. But given his credibility issues, which are entirely self-inflicted, are we really expected to believe that he fired Comey over his handling of the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails? Coming immediately after the House testimony of Sally Yates, which noticeably thickened the smoke rising from the investigation of possible collusion between Trump staffers and Russia prior to the election, is that even remotely plausible?
If Trump believes the Russia investigation will ultimately exonerate him and his staff, why would he create this cloud of incredulity, which will cast even a finding of complete innocence in doubt? It just doesn’t make any sense. What level of arrogance does it take to completely ignore the lesson of one of the darkest hours of our nation’s history? Will tweets and bluster and outrageous claims of hoaxes and fake news fool anyone who isn’t already a rabid believer?
Whether the Russia investigations ultimately prove Trump right or wrong, firing the FBI Director at this time sends the worst possible message, both to Americans and to people watching around the world to see whether our democratic institutions can survive the tactics of the Trump administration. I do want Trump to succeed in preserving what made America great, but this is not the way to do it.
He is flirting with a constitutional crisis of the first magnitude. First he attacked the credibility of the Judiciary, accusing every federal judge who ruled against him of a combination of bias and incompetence. That kind of rhetoric is a direct assault on our Constitution. It goes hand in glove with Trump’s comments on the rules by which the Congress conducts business. He finds them inconvenient because they don’t let him dictate legislative decisions, so let’s change them, right?
No, not right. The separation of power defined in the Constitution and the strength of a free press are what set us apart from the rest of the world. They are, in fact, precisely what makes America great.
I don’t know any more than any other American whether James Comey’s performance as FBI Director merited his being fired. But as every television personality knows, appearances matter, and timing is everything. If Comey mishandled the investigation of the Clinton emails, Trump had 108 days to remove him from office before Tuesday. He could have done so at any time without raising the specter of Richard Nixon’s worst decisions. If people compare firing Comey to Nixon’s blatant attempt to stop Cox from finding evidence of his guilt, it’s entirely Trump’s fault.
When Cox was fired, he famously said, “Whether ours shall continue to be a government of laws and not of men is now for Congress and ultimately the American people [to determine].” Those words are as true today as they were forty-four years ago.