This Saturday marks the 45th anniversary of the infamous ‘Saturday Night Massacre,’ when an embattled President Richard Nixon fired the special Watergate prosecutor, but only after both the Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General refused to carry out the President’s orders, and resigned from their positions.
The move by President Nixon came during an ongoing legal dispute over the release of the Watergate tapes – recordings made in the Oval Office by a secret taping system that the President had installed – which ultimately contained evidence that forced Nixon from office.
Special Watergate Prosecutor Archibald Cox wanted all the tapes for his investigation, but even with the backing of a federal court order, President Nixon refused to turn them over, instead offering summaries, an offer that Cox refused to accept.
“I’m not looking for a confrontation,” Cox told an October 20, 1973 news conference at the National Press Club a few blocks from the White House. “I’m certainly not out to get the President of the United States.”
Several hours later, Nixon ordered that Cox be fired.
As NBC News anchor John Chancellor said that evening, “The country tonight is in the midst of what may be the most serious constitutional crisis in its history.”
The President first asked Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire Cox. Richardson refused and quickly resigned.
The same request then went to Deputy Attorney General Williams Ruckleshaus. Like Richardson, Ruckleshaus also refused to fire the Watergate prosecutor, and then quit.
Finally, the firing of Cox was carried out by Solicitor General Robert Bork, a decision which would haunt him politically in later years.
It’s a scenario that some have focused on, wondering if President Donald Trump might try to end the investigation of Special Counsel Robert Mueller into Russian interference in the 2016 elections.
In an op-ed in August of 2018, Ruckleshaus drew parallels between Watergate and the current battle over the Russia investigation.
“President Trump is acting with a desperation I’ve seen only once before in Washington,” Ruckleshaus wrote. “45 years ago when President Richard M. Nixon ordered the firing of special Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox.”
“Nixon was fixated on ending the Watergate investigation, just as Trump wants to shut down the Mueller investigation,” Ruckleshaus added.
It took until late July of 1974 for the U.S. Supreme Court to finally order Nixon to turn over the tapes – in a unanimous 8-0 ruling.
Nixon resigned soon after, on August 8, 1974.