OP-ED: The Saturday Night Massacre, honorable men and the right side of history
Four principled prosecutors resigned from the Roger Stone case on Feb. 11. They did so rather than be complicit in Donald Trump’s attempt to soften the sentence for Stone, his underling who was convicted of crimes in a case arising from the Mueller investigation into Russia’s 2016 election interference.
Even more than the past resignations on principle by others serving in the Trump administration, such as Defense Secretary James Mattis, these withdrawals, including one attorney who quit the Justice Department altogether, bring to mind the pivotal moment in Watergate, the “Saturday Night Massacre,” which commenced when Attorney General Elliot Richardson resigned rather than obey President Nixon’s order to fire Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox.
Both Cox and Richardson were from what, in that era, was known as the Eastern Establishment, men from the upper class who attended Ivy League schools and disproportionately occupied leadership roles in American business and politics. Cox was my law professor after his Watergate days. Decades before, Cox had been Richardson’s law professor.
Cox had short-cut steel gray hair, spoke precisely, and was the sort of man who could, and did, pull off wearing a bow tie. And he did not shy from telling stories about Watergate.
When Richardson became attorney general, the Watergate investigation was already in full swing. In Cox’s telling, he initially declined Richardson’s request to be the Watergate prosecutor, from concern he would be removed if the facts of the case took him closer to the presidency than Nixon liked. The deciding point for Cox was that Richardson provided his personal promise that Cox would only be removed for misconduct.
When the 1973 Senate hearings revealed the existence of a White House system for taping conversations, Cox sought White House tape recordings for his investigation, and got a federal court order for them. Nixon then ordered Richardson to fire Cox.
As Cox told the story: “Elliot said to me, ‘The president has asked me to remove you.’ And I said, ‘You gave me your word that wouldn’t happen.’ And he said, ‘Yes, but he is the president. Sooner or later he will have his way.’ I could tell that Elliot wanted me to let him off the hook by offering to resign, but I wasn’t going to do that. I looked at him and said, ‘Well, Elliot, I guess you know what you need to do.’”
After Richardson resigned rather than fire Cox, the assistant attorney general also resigned. Cox ultimately was fired, but the resignations, on principle, of a Cabinet officer and his second in command changed the political and public perception of Nixon.
Cox didn’t protest that his firing violated the terms of his recruitment. He didn’t claim that he was being victimized or being treated unfairly — Twitter-whining didn’t exist back then, and Cox didn’t do things that way. Cox instead appealed to his old friend on a personal level, reminding Richardson to do the right thing, to live up to his promise despite the cost.
Richardson was a lifelong Republican. Cox was a lifetime Democrat. Beyond party loyalty, both men held a greater allegiance to the country, to the law and to a high standard of personal honor.
Perhaps Cox’s appeal would have had less strength if it had come from someone Richardson knew less well, or who didn’t share a connection of social class and tradition. If Cox’s appointment had been merely a transaction, rather than the continuation of a long-standing relationship between honorable men, perhaps Nixon’s low behavior would have escaped being contrasted to Richardson’s integrity.
In our time, Donald Trump’s constant and flamboyant dishonesty stands in contrast to the quiet professionalism of the law enforcement and intelligence communities Trump has worked constantly to undermine and impugn. Again and again, Trump forces his supporters to choose between allegiance to him and allegiance to country, law and honor. Shamefully, elected Republicans other than Mitt Romney and Justin Amash have to date chosen the former.
Cox and Richardson demonstrated how to stand on the right side of history.
— Bruce Dravis is an attorney living in the Chicago area.