PRINCETON – President Donald J. Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey is unprecedented, as is much of what Trump has undertaken as president. Despite similarities with President Richard M. Nixon’s infamous “Saturday Night Massacre” 44 years ago, during the Watergate scandal, the political situations are utterly different.
In October 1973, Nixon, waiting until a weekend, ordered the dismissal of a newly appointed special prosecutor, Archibald Cox, who had issued a subpoena demanding that Nixon hand over secretly recorded – and, as would become clear, highly damning – White House tapes.
Nixon’s defiance was direct, and the result was disastrous. Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus resigned in protest rather than carry out the president’s order. A federal judge ruled the firing of Cox illegal. Public opinion polls showed, for the first time, a plurality of Americans favoring Nixon’s impeachment.
It was the beginning of the end. Congressmen introduced impeachment resolutions. Nixon was forced to appoint a new special prosecutor. The drama thickened for another ten months, until the Supreme Court unanimously ordered Nixon to surrender the tapes. A few days after that, Nixon resigned rather than face certain impeachment and removal from office.