After President Donald Trump fired FBI Director James Comey on May 9, a historical comparison was invoked with renewed vigor: His actions, many said, were Nixonian. While the letters from Trump’s Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Attorney General Jeff Sessions about Comey’s conduct made no mention of the FBI’s ongoing investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, politicians and pundits of all political leanings expressed concern. President Richard Nixon, of course, fired the special prosecutor investigating his Administration’s involvement in the Watergate burglary. Three days later, Congress was flooded with resolutions to impeach him.
The comparisons between Trump and Nixon are not new. But beyond that basic and broad similarity, the specific differences and similarities do potentially provide some useful understanding of what is happening.
The People Fired Were Both Accused of Politicking
When Nixon hired Archibald Cox as a special prosecutor, he did so despite Cox’s history serving under Democrats. Cox had been President John Kennedy’s Solicitor General. He also headed the Wage Stabilization Board under President Truman, but resigned on principle after Truman acted against his advice.
“He was viewed as an upright Boston Brahmin,” said Duquense University President Ken Gormley, who wrote a 1997 Cox biography titled Conscience of a Nation. Eliot Richardson, the Attorney General who Nixon hired after the Watergate revelations felled several members of his staff, told Gormley that when Nixon balked at the idea of hiring Cox, he told Nixon something to the effect of: “Archie Cox would just as soon cut off his right arm before he did anything improper or inappropriate,” Gormley said.
But that did not shield Cox. Mere months later, as Nixon advisor Pat Buchanan told TIME, “I recommended that [Nixon] burn the tapes and shut down the prosecutor’s office.” His reason? “It was quite obvious what [the investigation] was: It was a partisan, vindictive effort to get Nixon.”
Trump inherited Comey, whose apolitical bonafides have been questioned for months now — though less by Trump allies than his opponents, who accused Comey of turning the election for Trump by publicly commenting on the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server. The Administration later adopted a similar position that Comey has been irreparably politicized, and the President has touted his opponents’ old complaints about Comey as evidence.
The Justice Department Backed Trump
Nixon could not turn to his Attorneys General for support in firing Cox. Both Richardson and his deputy resigned on October 20, 1973, instead of firing Cox themselves. That evening, known as the “Saturday Night Massacre,” still outnumbers the scale of the Comey firing. Third-in-command Solicitor General Robert Bork eventually executed Nixon’s wishes.
Today, current Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who recused himself from the Russia investigation, recommended in a letter to the President that he “remove” Comey “and identify an experienced and qualified individual” to take his place. His deputy Rod Rosenstein concluded in a letter to Sessions that “the decision should not be taken lightly” but that “the FBI is unlikely to regain public and congressional trust until it has a Director who understands the gravity of the mistakes” Comey made in the handling of the investigation of the email inquiry.
The Washington Post has reported, though, that Rosenstein threatened to resign after seeing the White House’s narrative largely credit him with the idea of firing Comey.
Trump Did Not Expect the Reaction
Recent reports say that Trump was surprised by the blowback he received for his decision. He now faces a hostile media and a hostile Congress (now distracted from any shared legislative goals) — neither of which were utterly inclined to accept him.
“When I went to dinner that night with my wife and some friends, I walked in and said, ‘There’ll be impeachment resolutions in on the House on Tuesday,’” says Buchanan, who has a chapter on the Saturday Night Massacre in his new book, Nixon’s White House Wars.
“Trump and Nixon faced the same enemies,” Buchanan continued. “Basically, you’ve got a media and a political elite, which were trying to bring them down…. Similar forces are trying to bring down Trump and you’re getting somewhat of the same hysteria. But this to me looks like it’s going to pass very quickly.”
“There’s a whole lot of people who say Trump should have done it sooner, and others who say, ‘Well, it’s just a cover-up,’” Buchanan said. “But it’s a much less grave and less serious matter.”
Investigations Will Continue
The target of the investigation Nixon attempted to skirt was obvious: He did not want the private recordings of a president made public, because he said it would threaten national security. His path to achieving this was straightforward: Shut down the investigation.
By the time he fired Cox and his team, the case was already in the courts — meaning that Nixon had an opportunity to evade the outcome. “Half of the constitutional scholars in the country thought he might win,” says Gormley. “It was a toss-up whether the President did have that kind of absolute executive privilege to keep these kinds of things secret in order to carry out his job.”
Yet even with those much narrower confines, Nixon failed. He was forced into hiring a new special prosecutor, who eventually won out in the courts. Within less than a year, he was no longer president.
The investigation into potential Trump collusion is far younger — in part, as former FBI agent Michael German wrote for TIME, because of Comey. It’s also more diverse, though the FBI’s investigation has long been considered the most viable.
Though this doesn’t mean that the Trump investigation is protected from the President’s influence. “The President is the head of the Executive Branch,” Gormley says Nixon proved. “In the end, he can get a person who will do his bidding.” For Nixon, that was Bork. For Trump, the fear is it will be whomever he puts in Comey’s place. And unlike Nixon, he faces a Congress led by his own political party.
Meanwhile, with Sessions recused, Rosenstein, a relatively new Trump appointee, still maintains a great deal of control over what is to come. (Comey had only days prior requested more resources for the process.) And while Rosenstein entered the post with a commended reputation, so did Archibald Cox.
The Times Have A-Changed
On Jan. 24, 1974, Cox wrote an op-ed in the New York Times that may as well have been about the current atmosphere: “Regardless of the outcome, the value of the proceeding will depend on whether the process is so conducted that the country perceives it as a fair and legitimate measure for restoring integrity to government.”
Yet there are also familiar concerns about whether an entire country will agree on fairness and legitimacy. “The country is irretrievably divided now—culturally, socially, morally, politically, ideologically,” says Buchanan now. “And you’ve got some demonstrations, and some of them are turning violent in places.” But he maintains: “Look, we’re not in the sixties now. We had 250,000 guys on the Monument grounds and buses surrounding the House. We’re not there yet.”
Sarah Begley contributed reporting to this article.
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