Out of Control

Nixon’s excesses prompted Congress to reassert its own powers, but those changes eroded over time. Now, Trump is demonstrating anew all the dangers of unchecked executive authority.

Yuri Gripas / Reuters

The news that President Trump tried to fire Robert Mueller is one more moment of shock and awe in this period of American history. The good news is that this was the political massacre that didn’t happen. According to The New York Times, White House Counsel Don McGahn II threatened to quit, and that was enough to kill the plan. The bad news is that Trump tried to do this once, and all evidence suggests he remains determined to kill this investigation in its tracks.

The reason that so many Americans react badly to the news about Trump is similar to what drove the outrage about President Richard Nixon’s famous Saturday Night Massacre, as the Washington Post reporter David Broder named it, in October of 1973. The path to that scandal started when Alexander Butterfield, a former aide to H.R. Haldeman, revealed to the Watergate congressional committee that the president had recorded secret Oval Office conversations. Archibald Cox, the Harvard professor who had been appointed as an independent special prosecutor in May to investigate Watergate, wanted those tapes. He wanted to know just what they revealed about the June 1972 break in to the Democratic National Headquarters. On October 12, a U.S. Court of Appeals ordered Nixon to comply. Nixon tried to broker an agreement with Cox to release a small portion of the tapes, but the negotiations broke down.

Nixon was livid when he heard that Cox was demanding that the White House release all the recordings. It was bad enough that the Ivy-League professor was being so aggressive with him, but now Cox seemed to be taking the investigation to a new level that could be extremely damaging. Nixon, who believed that his office gave him the power to do almost anything, ordered that Attorney General Eliot Richardson fire Cox. The problem was that Richardson refused. “Let it be on your head,” the president angrily told the attorney general when they met. Soon after, Nixon turned to the next person in command, Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus, who also refused to carry out the order. “I am, of course, sorry that my conscience will not permit me to carry out your instruction to discharge Archibald Cox,” he wrote in his resignation letter. It wasn’t until Solicitor General Robert Bork said yes that Nixon found someone to do what he wanted. “I am, as instructed by the President, discharging you, effective at once, from your position as Special Prosecutor, Watergate Special Prosecution Force,” Bork wrote in a letter. Cox’s staff of 38 lawyers and 50 staff was immediately dismantled.

The response was sheer outrage all over the country. “It was a terrifying night. It felt like we were in a banana republic,” the journalist Elizabeth Drew later recounted in an interview. The fact that the president took it upon himself to try to kill the investigation by getting rid of the investigator was evidence that Nixon was out of control. NBC Newscaster John Chancellor told his viewers: “The country tonight is in the midst of what may be the most serious constitutional crisis in its history.” “Nixon Forces Firing of Cox; Richardson, Ruckelshaus Quit,” read the headline of The Washington Post on Sunday October 21, 1973. In the middle of CBS chairman William Paley’s dinner party in New York City, the room “erupted in a maelstrom of hysteria,” Evan Thomas wrote, with guests uttering “Excitable phrases like ‘coup d’etat’” and “‘What’s next? Gas ovens?’”  “An impeachment stampede could well develop,” Alexander Haig warned Henry Kissinger. He was correct. Illinois Representative John Anderson predicted that “obviously, impeachment resolutions are going to be raining down like hailstones.” California Democrat B.F. Sisk, a conservative who said he was “absolutely aghast” by the news, called for a select committee to look into impeachment. “For many members who had been willing to give the president the benefit of the doubt,” Tip O’Neill later recalled, “this was the last straw.” After being fired, Cox delivered his own statement, which said: “Whether ours shall continue to be a government of laws and not of men is now for Congress and ultimately the American people.”

Nixon didn’t anticipate the ferocity of the response, but there it was. In face of the reaction, the president backed down by appointing a new special prosecutor, Leon Jaworski, and announcing that he would comply with a court order to release some of the tapes.

The Saturday Night Massacre got to the heart of the issue that fueled the Watergate scandal and the rage with Richard Nixon. The problem wasn’t simply that so many Democrats disliked Nixon as a person and a politician, nor was it simply the break in at the DNC headquarters at the Watergate complex. The problem was the presidency itself.

Over course of the 20th century, liberals and conservatives had so greatly empowered the executive branch that the institution had become ripe for abuse. Democrats had seen a strong presidency as the only way to push liberal ideas through the conservative coalition of southern Democrats and Republicans in Congress. Post-World War II Republicans saw a strong presidency as the only way to ensure that aggressive military policies were enacted to fight against communism.

The Saturday Night Massacre revealed clearly just how forcefully a bad president could act if someone tried to get in his way. After almost a decade of living through the horrendous war in Vietnam, where many felt that Congress sat on its hands as presidents pushed the nation into a quagmire without a congressional declaration of war, the Saturday Night Massacre struck a raw nerve in a body politic that was growing weary of what the historian Arthur Schlesinger called the “Imperial Presidency.” The realization was that it had become too easy for someone like Nixon to do what he did in October 1973.

The result of Watergate was not just the resignation of Nixon, but a whole series of reforms meant to strengthen Congress and rein in the presidency. The War Powers Act of 1973 aimed to reassert congressional authority over the use of force overseas. The Budget Act of 1974 aimed to centralize the budgeting process and give Congress a stronger voice when shaping the federal budget. The Ethics in Government Act of 1978 created regulations, as well as an Office of the Independent Counsel, to prevent executive-branch corruption from occurring more often.

But over the following decades many of those reforms fell by the wayside, and both parties rebuilt the authority of the executive branch. The horror of 9/11 was an especially important moment when the presidency underwent a vast expansion of power that greatly weakened the ability of Congress to constrain the White House.

Today, we are back to a similar place as in October 1973. This is why the new Nixonian story about Trump and Mueller is so unsettling. While it is true that this time the massacre did not happen, it is too easy to see how it could have gone a different way.

For all the anger about Trump himself, what Americans have really been awakened to is just how powerful we have allowed the presidency to become at the expense of Congress. When Trump tweeted out one of his provocative statements about North Korea, he dramatized how easy it would be for a reckless president to drag us into a nuclear war. When Trump single-handedly used executive orders to dismantle climate change regulations and international agreements, he showed just how much damage a president can inflict on public policy regardless of what Congress does or does not do. And the reports that Trump has already tried to fire the person whom his own Justice Department appointed to investigate possible collusion in the 2016 election and the obstruction of justice are a reminder that the existing president still possesses many of the powers that were so troubling back in 1973. In some ways, the presidency is even more awesome in its strength.

The past 12 months have opened up a crucial conversation in our democracy about a subject that too often receives insufficient attention: the excessive power of the presidency. One of the best outcomes of Watergate was to trigger congressional pushback as well as to create momentum for reforms that curbed the executive branch.

Unfortunately, we have allowed too many of those reforms to fall away, and we are now in a situation where a president like Trump has the capacity to do some very dangerous things. It is time that we don’t just focus all attention on Trump the person but, more importantly, on the nature of the presidency that he controls and the awesome power that he exercises without almost any congressional oversight.