Richard Nixon’s firing of the Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox during the “Saturday Night Massacre” in October 1973 doesn’t just provide the clearest parallel and precedent for Donald Trump’s frightening decision to dismiss FBI director James Comey while his agency is investigating the president’s campaign for possible collusion with Russia. The Saturday Night Massacre also establishes the clear moral and political standard against which to measure the response of America’s leaders to the Comey firing now.
After Nixon fired him, Cox framed the stakes of his dismissal with searing clarity: “Whether we shall continue to be a government of laws and not of men is for Congress and ultimately the American people” to decide. In answering that question, some of the nation’s leaders fell into predictable partisanship. But mostly the country’s public- and private-sector leadership—including key figures inside Nixon’s own administration and others who had earlier supported the president—answered Cox’s challenge by uniting to defend the rule of law and demanding that the investigation resume unhindered.
The question today is whether a deeply polarized nation can respond with equal determination to Trump’s ominous assault on democratic accountability, which two legal scholars on Tuesday accurately described as “a horrifying breach of every expectation we have of the relationship between the White House and federal law enforcement.”