President Trump unquestionably has the power to fire special counsel Robert Mueller. What happens if he does? One Masthead member, Phillip Lacovara, is in a unique position to offer some perspective. He was one of the lawyers looking into Watergate when President Nixon decided to fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox, in what came to be known as the Saturday Night Massacre. As counsel to the special prosecutor, Lacovara was also one of two lawyers to argue on behalf of the United States in the landmark Supreme Court case U.S. v. Nixon. I talked to Lacovara about what happened when Nixon made the fateful decision to fire Cox.
WHAT HAPPENED AFTER NIXON TOLD THE SPECIAL PROSECUTOR TO STAND DOWN
The Saturday Night Massacre was a turning point in the Watergate scandal. On October 20, 1973, after Cox, the special prosecutor investigating ties between the White House and the Watergate break-in, insisted that Nixon hand over tapes suspected to contain relevant evidence, Nixon ordered the attorney general and his deputy to fire Cox. Both men refused and resigned. Solicitor General Robert Bork ultimately agreed to carry out the president’s order, leaving the special prosecutor’s office without a special prosecutor.
When Lacovara arrived at his office that evening, there were armed FBI agents guarding the door. Less than two hours after the news broke on television, what seemed like the entire staff of the special prosecutor’s office gathered outside of the K Street headquarters. Everyone was trying to find a way in. “It was like a military coup,” Lacovara said. Before that night, FBI agents had been working with the special prosecutor’s office, protecting the information they’d been gathering. “The FBI now had directions from the White House to treat us like suspected criminals.”
“We insisted on going inside the building, and they didn’t shoot us,” Lacovara said. “Although the office had only been in existence for three or four months, there was an incredible sense of camaraderie and commitment to what we were doing.” Once the staff congregated in one room, Lacovara called Bork, a former colleague, to find out what was going on. He learned that, while Bork had been ordered to fire Cox, he hadn’t been told to dissolve the entire office. “So by 8 o’clock, I knew we were still officers of the United States government,” Lacovara said. At that point, he began working with other staff members to smuggle important documents out of the office. One lawyer’s wife, he remembers, walked out of the building with papers and audio tapes stuffed under her clothes.
Phillip Lacovara argued his first case in front of the Supreme Court at age 24 (he was so green that he had to get special permission). He was 29 when, as deputy solicitor general of the United States, he was asked to join the special prosecutor’s office, and investigate possible ties between the White House and the Watergate cover-up. When he took the job, Lacovara imagined it would be a short-term appointment. Then he discovered that Nixon recorded almost everything that happened in the Oval Office, and kept the tapes.
“At the time, there were conflicting reports about who had done what, when, and who knew what, when. The recordings were a thunderbolt: It was the most persuasive kind of evidence to show who was telling the truth and who was lying.”
Lacovara immediately drafted a grand jury subpoena, demanding the president release the tapes. He walked it over to the White House personally. When Nixon refused to comply, Lacovara and Cox went to court: First to the D.C. District Court and then to the D.C. Court of Appeals. Both bodies ordered Nixon to hand over the tapes. In response, Nixon told Cox to “stand down” and take no further action.
“This was when I had a series of real heart-to-heart consultations with Cox.” Lacovara worried about setting a dangerous precedent. If the Supreme Court ruled in Nixon’s favor, or—even worse—if it ruled against him and he still refused to comply, the president could appear above the law. He feared bringing the country to the brink of a constitutional crisis. “Cox anguished over this decision but ultimately decided, as I think was correct, that he had to go forward and take this case to the Supreme Court. Once we started the fight, we couldn’t step back without undercutting the integrity of the whole process.” A few hours after Cox decided to move forward with the case, he was fired.
As soon as the D.C. District Court opened on Monday morning, Lacovara asked the court to order the FBI to refrain from interfering with the investigation, and it immediately agreed. The entire staff returned to work later that day. That was October 22, 1973. Eight months later, Lacovara argued for the release of the “smoking gun” tapes in front of the Supreme Court in U.S. v. Nixon, which led to the tapes’ release. One month after that, Nixon resigned.
“I voted twice for Richard Nixon,” Lacovara said. “Being involved in a process that led to the disgrace and resignation of a president who otherwise had a lot of talent was disappointing and dismaying. The dominant emotion was sadness. Sadness for our country.”
TODAY’S WRAP UP
- Question of the day: Since Monday’s conversation with John Green—a young adult with a huge adult following—I’ve been wondering what draws adults to books with teenage protagonists. Are you an adult with a soft spot for young adult novels? Tell us why you love the genre.
- Your feedback: Over here at the Masthead, we’re testing out a lot of different kinds of stories—did you like this one? Take this quick survey.
- What’s coming: We’ll go behind the scenes with the illustrator who created the artwork for our Atlantic series, “A Veteran’s View.”
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