Readers Debate: Is Comey’s Firing Worse Than Watergate?

Elliot Richardson speaks to reporters on October 23, 1973, after resigning as U.S. attorney general. Richardson, along with his deputy William Ruckelshaus, resigned in protest after Nixon fired Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox. (Charles Tasnadi / AP)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Last week, Jim Fallows, who covered the fallout from the  Watergate scandal 45 years ago, wrote about five reasons why President Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey may pose an even greater challenge to the American system. In response, Stephen W.—a reader who was then a “young, idealistic college grad” working in Massachusetts politics—shared his own memory of the Saturday Night Massacre:

On the Saturday evening of October 20, 1973, I received a phone call from a mentor, Tom O’Donnell, a partner at Archibald Cox’s Boston law firm. I had heard the news earlier in the day: the firing of Cox, and the resignations of Elliot Richardson and William Ruckelshaus. Tom asked me if I could perform a favor. AG Richardson was about to land at Logan Airport and needed a ride to his home in Cohasset.

As I pulled up to the terminal curbside, I saw the tall, horn-rim–spectacled figure standing alone in the faint light. I greeted him softly, “Welcome home, sir,” and took his buckled valise from his hand to place it in the trunk. As we made our way down the Southeast Expressway toward the south-shore enclaves of Yankee Brahmins, the night seemed particularly dark and gloomy. Very few people were out and about. I distinctly remember feeling the weight of the moment.

I feel the same weight today as I watch the Trump family tragedy play out. But I also remember the quiet countenance of Mr. Richardson. It was a profile of a patriot, putting country before party or self-interest. His expression was calm and deeply reflective as he sat in the front seat next to me, without a hint of anger or upset. There were no words of any import exchanged between us. It didn’t seem appropriate to intrude on his thoughts.

We exchanged a simple “thank you and good night,” as I passed his only bag back to him. As I pulled out of the long driveway of the dark and secluded home, the encounter left me with a deep impression of the significance of integrity and reputation in the course of all human affairs.

Your article triggers my memory—a very personal memory of the import of our solemn duties and responsibilities exercised for the preservation and protection of those exceptional ideals of democracy, against those who would suborn the rule of law.

Dozens of other readers wrote in to share their thoughts about those duties and responsibilities, as exercised by government officials and private citizens in Nixon’s era and ours. Fallows passed the emails on to me, and I’ve collected a number of them here. From Dan Kimmel:

Excellent article, but, like many, it glosses over the role of Robert Bork in the Saturday Night Massacre. I was no fan of Bork and was glad he never made it to the Supreme Court, but when he became acting head of the Justice Department, he told Richardson and Ruckelshaus he would fire Cox because he believed that the president had the authority to so order, but then he would resign in protest as well. Richardson and Ruckelshaus prevailed on him NOT to resign because there was serious doubt as who, if anyone, was legitimately next in line at the Justice Department. It fits the later narrative of the right-wing Bork to depict him as a willing Nixon stooge, but that was not the case.

According to The New York Times’s 1987 account of those events, Bork apparently considered the firing of Cox to be a question of legal authority, whereas Richardson and Ruckelshaus resigned because of moral, not legal, concerns. But as another reader, Randy, points out, acting on principle can also be good politics:

As a follow-up to this article, I would suggest an article about what happens to politicians that bite the bullet and do what’s right for the country, not their party. Howard Baker and others, for example, became heroes. Did any of the Republicans that turned on Nixon lose?

I think it’s very clear that Rod Rosenstein is now an important figure in history. If he stays silent and things go south for Trump, he’s a co-conspirator, possibly, but if he does the right thing, he could become famous. It’s not too late. He could simply appoint a special prosecutor, resign, get rich in the private sector.

I think the personal loyalty oath [that Trump reportedly asked of Comey] is a huge deal. If that’s true, how can any FBI director pursue the Russian case?

Bill Popik likewise fears conflicting loyalties within the administration:

Early on in Trump’s administration (imagine—it’s actually still early, but it seems like an eternity ago) I thought that what might save us were the career bureaucrats three or four levels down in the government who would simply figure out ways to drag their feet to ensure that the most onerous dictates of this administration didn’t come to fruition. Now, I’m not so sure. We are seeing that Trump insists on loyalty, not to the Constitution, but to him and his causes above all else, and that he’ll enforce that through the appointment of loyalists who will drive fealty down through the agencies they lead.

Jay, on the other hand, is “unconcerned at this time”:

I think Fallows exaggerates Trump’s failings and Comey’s probity. We have too soon forgotten the evils of J. Edgar Hoover, a too-independent and too-powerful FBI chief. Comey was going Hoover on us with his dissing of Lynch and Trump. If he “lost confidence” in Lynch, imagine what little respect he would give to Sessions. It seemed clear to me, and I thought everyone else, that Comey’s days were numbered, and Trump only waited until he had an attorney general confirmed to can Comey.

Anyway, Clinton, Inc. and the Democratic Party present an immediate and serious threat to my rights and liberties under the 1st and 2nd Amendments. They also present the same danger to some freedoms I enjoy but that are not protected by the Constitution, such as sport hunting. It is for that reason I have a high tolerance for Trump’s shenanigans.

Jack was alive to remember Watergate, but writes, “I just do not think it has come to that—yet”:

Trump is many things, but not evil. Just a stumbling guy who stumbled upon a huge part of America that hated the Republican and Democratic/Academic/Media/Entertainment class that heretofore has controlled our political discourse and political system. He spoke to their concerns. That part of America elected him. You really should get used to it.

Stephen B. voted for Gary Johnson, but he’s also skeptical that the Watergate-Comey comparison may be overblown by partisanship:

We have been in a tit-for-tat race to the bottom since Watergate. A good percentage of Americans are simply playing a team sport. And like football, the brain damage is starting to accumulate to our society.

Whether you agree with the Watergate comparison or not, the reaction to the dismissal of Comey highlights the extent to which many Americans have lost trust—in government, in the media, or in their fellow citizens. And those accumulated losses could pose a very real threat. As Michael writes:

I just wanted to quibble with one statement made in the post:

At worst, such efforts [at interference by the Russian government] might actually have changed the election results. At least, they were meant to destroy trust in democracy.

I would argue that this is exactly backwards: The results of an election are a one-time thing, for the most part. (Brexit is an exception.) But I believe the Russian endgame is more about the latter than the former; I think it’s well documented that their MO is to sow confusion and uncertainty—even to the point of supporting both sides of a conflict—simply to render an opponent unable to act effectively.

In short, getting Trump elected was a nice-to-have; the real point was to weaken faith in democracy as an institution. This is the potential lasting damage.