Trump's Coming Saturday Night Massacre

The president looks to be on the verge of repeating Richard Nixon’s fatal miscalculations.
07/30/2017 10:55 pm ET Updated Jul 31, 2017

Donald Trump’s vendetta against Attorney General Jeff Sessions has gone underground for a few days, as the president savors the firing of White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus. But Trump’s rancor at Sessions has not gone away.

His obvious motive in wanting Sessions out is getting an attorney general willing to do Trump’s bidding and fire the special counsel, Robert Mueller. In this chess game, key Republican senators have indicated their support for Mueller, even warning Trump that they would refuse to confirm a successor and that they would block a recess appointment by keeping the Senate technically in session during the August break.

Trump looks to be on the verge of repeating Richard Nixon’s fatal miscalculations in the October 20, 1973 Saturday Night Massacre, in which both Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus resigned rather than following Nixon’s order to fire Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox. Nixon kept working his way down the Justice Department hierarchy until he found someone willing to do his bidding, Solicitor General Robert Bork.

This move got rid of Cox, but fatally damaged Nixon’s relations with Congress and public opinion. A successor special prosecutor, Leon Jaworski, picked up Cox’s investigation, impeachment charges were drawn up, and Nixon was compelled to resign.

Trump is not famous for reading history, much less learning from it. Once Trump makes up his mind that Mueller has to go, he will likely go as far down the Justice Department food chain as he needs to until he finds someone willing to do the deed.

Trump has a penchant for firing prosecutors when they begin getting too close to his affairs. He fired the FBI director James Comey, after Comey refused to follow Trump’s suggestion that he go easy on former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. And he fired Preet Bharara, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, who was investigating Trump family financial dealings.

Trump has clumsily tried to impugn Mueller’s integrity by suggesting that Mueller or his associates have conflicts of interest, and he as much as told the New York Times that if he didn’t like where Mueller’s investigation was heading, he would be inclined to force Mueller out.

But Republicans have warned Trump that if he fired Mueller they would change the law to make the special counsel fireproof. Sen. Lindsey Graham said flatly that firing Mueller would be “the beginning of the end of the Trump presidency.”

However that remedy could take some time. And in the meantime, Trump’s designee could fire Mueller and order his files and his investigation to be turned over to the main Justice Department, thus slowing things down.

One thing Mueller might do is to give an interim report to key Congressional Committees. If Trump or his henchmen try to fire Mueller, he could also provide Congress with key documents, as well as litigate the firing. 

Republicans in Congress, many of whom loathe Trump and his behavior, have been willing to work with him, opportunistically, because he serves their purposes of destroying government regulation, weakening public institutions, cutting taxes, and undermining several policies of the Obama era.

But after last week’s serial reverses, Republican patience may be coming to an end.

On the heels of the defeat of the effort to repeal Obamacare and the astonishing way Trump used Anthony Scaramucci to oust Priebus, at least two dozen key Republican legislators have warned Trump not to fire Sessions. 

For Trump to oust Sessions and then Mueller would be reckless, and ultimately self-annihilating, for it would undermine what’s left of Republican loyalty to this president. But everything in Trump’s character and recent behavior suggests he will try to force Mueller out anyway. And that could indeed be the beginning of the end.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and professor at Brandeis University’s Heller School. His latest book is Debtors’ Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility.

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