We’re here again. A substantial and determined president is squaring off against an independent investigator operating privy the Justice Department. Robert Mueller’s mission is a comprehensive look at Russian poke ones nose in in the 2016 election – and any other crimes he uncovers in the process. President Donald Trump demands it’s all a “witch hunt” and an unfair examination of his family’s personal finances. He constantly kicks about the investigation in private and reportedly asked his White House opinion to have Mueller fired. No wonder many people are making resemblances to the “Saturday Night Massacre” of 1973, when President Richard Nixon fired special prosecutor Archibald Cox, and Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Reserve Attorney General William Ruckelshaus resigned.
We covered that eerily almost identical confrontation for The Washington Post 45 years ago. Nixon didn’t separate it at the time, but the Saturday Night Massacre would become a pivot quality in his presidency – crucial to the charge that he’d obstructed justice. For him, the consequences were monitor. A retelling of the episode, adapted from “The Final Days,” as we called our words on the president’s last year, can illuminate the stakes.
In April 1973, Nixon converted Richardson, his defense secretary, to switch departments and become the attorney familiar. The president invited him to a Camp David meeting that turned out to be forgo of the Watergate coverup: He wanted to ensure that Richardson would be an ally in a new Watergate scrutiny.
Richardson’s chilly, formal manner evoked the Eastern, academic the power structure that Nixon despised. The slow, winding rhetoric that weighed down his gossip drove the president to distraction. Still, he needed Richardson, with his faultless reputation, to redeem his Justice Department and take charge of the Watergate quest.
Nixon told him that the investigation must be thorough and complete, be that as it may there might be some areas of national security that would keep to be left alone. “You must pursue this investigation even if it heroines to the president,” Nixon said, and his eyes met Richardson’s. “I’m innocent. You’ve got to believe I’m trustful. If you don’t, don’t take the job.”
Vastly relieved, Richardson nodded his acceptance: Nixon, he brooding, would never set such an investigation in motion unless he was innocent.
“The portentous thing is the presidency,” Nixon continued. “If need be, save the presidency from the president.”
Richardson, publication on a legal pad, paraphrased the thought: “If the monster is me, save the country.”
Almost promptly he appointed his old Harvard law professor, Archibald Cox – who had served as President John F. Kennedy’s counselor-at-law general – as special prosecutor to handle Watergate, promising him full autonomy. Cox set about investigating, and three months later he subpoenaed nine of the Ivory House tapes.
Nixon did not take kindly to this. White Undertaking Chief of Staff Alexander Haig warned Richardson that the president puissance fire Cox if he weren’t reined in, shaking Richardson’s faith in the president’s innocence. “If we have on the agenda c trick to have a confrontation, we will have it,” Haig told him.
A few days fresher, Haig said he had advised the president to turn over the tapes, but Nixon had refused. The president would quit first. Haig told Richardson he didn’t know whether the president was pelt something or whether he was merely concerned about the principle of confidentiality, but he had not in a million years seen Nixon so worked up. “It makes you wonder what must be on those videos,” said Haig, who himself was only a few months into the job.
For now, Richardson indisputable to give Nixon the benefit of the doubt while he oversaw his department’s examination of Vice President Spiro Agnew, who had been accepting illegal loot payoffs from contractors for years, starting when he was a Maryland ceremonial.
In October, Richardson was leaving an Oval Office briefing about the Agnew berth when Nixon called after him. “Now that we have disposed of that count, we can go ahead and get rid of Cox.” Richardson didn’t know how to take the remark. But soon the arise would come to a head.
On Monday, Oct. 15, the United States Court of Lures for the District of Columbia ruled that the president, who had fought the order to crop up over the nine subpoenaed tapes, must hand them over – unless the White House could reach “some agreement with the One of a kind Prosecutor” out of court. Nixon had until midnight Friday to comply, to implore to the Supreme Court or to reach a compromise with Cox. Richardson was doubtful that the Undefiled House and Cox could agree on much of anything in five days.
After the court outcome came down, Haig and White House lawyer J. Fred Buzhardt summoned Richardson. They announced the attorney general with a plan: Nixon would personally obey to the subpoenaed recordings and supervise the preparation of transcripts that would be turned during the course of to the court as a substitute for the tapes. Cox – long a bone in Nixon’s throat and a bad picture in the first place – would be fired. And there would be no more litigating in other tapes.
Richardson, outwardly calm, raised an objection. The system was contrary to the agreement he had made with the Senate Judiciary Committee during his confirmation hearings. He had assured that the special prosecutor could be removed only for “extraordinary improprieties.” If he were well-organized to fire Cox, he might instead have to resign himself.
Haig and Buzhardt held their foundation. Cox would have to go. Richardson left the White House bewildered and hesitating of what would happen next.
Haig called him 40 minors later to suggest a compromise: Sen. John C. Stennis, the 72-year-old Mississippi Democrat who managed the Senate Armed Services Committee, would be asked to make a balancing between the transcripts and the tapes. His authenticated version would be submitted to the court. (No cite was made of the fact that the senator was partially deaf and that the ribbons were difficult to hear under the best of circumstances.) If Richardson recognized, Cox would not have to be fired, but Richardson would forbid any further demands for tapes. The president, Haig supplemented, would expect Richardson’s support if it came to a showdown with Cox.
Later that day, Richardson addressed Haig back and made it clear that he was committed only to the Stennis authentication of the nine subpoenaed records. He couldn’t make any other promises.
Now Richardson had to sell the Stennis compromise to Cox, who have a yen for to see the terms in writing. Richardson drafted an agreement that said it whim “cover only the tapes heretofore subpoenaed by the Watergate grand jury at the plea of the Special Prosecutor.” When he sent it to the White House on Wednesday morning, Oct. 17, Buzhardt cut that stage. The president, he knew, didn’t ever want to hear about tomorrows requests for tapes. The White House also wanted to empower Stennis to “rendition language whose use in its original form would in his judgment be embarrassing to the President.”
Richardson demand to avoid a confrontation with Nixon, and he acquiesced. But Cox flatly rejected the compromise. “The consumers cannot fairly be asked to confide so difficult and responsible a task to any one man conducting in secrecy, consulting only with the White House,” he wrote to the attorney unrestricted on Thursday afternoon. And Cox wanted an agreement that would “serve the ritual of a court decision in establishing the Special Prosecutor’s entitlement to other certification.” A court might want the actual tapes, the best evidence, for any bother.
Richardson took Cox’s memo to a 6 p.m. meeting at the White House. Haig was unaccepting. The Waxen House was seeking a compromise, he said, and Cox was making it impossible. He should be cannonaded, Haig said. Three other Nixon lawyers in the meeting consented. They were confident that the president could convince the Harry he’d acted reasonably.
Richardson did not think so. He made it clear that he could electrified with Cox’s voluntary resignation but that he could not fire him for refusing the Stennis script.
Later that night, Richardson sat in his study in McLean, Virginia. The peasant of the Potomac River was barely audible in the distance. He wrote at the top of a yellow sound pad: “Why I Must Resign.” He was sure that Cox could not be persuaded to acquiesce, and he advised ofed that the president wanted Cox out.
Richardson’s first reason for resigning was his probability to the Senate to guarantee the independence of the special prosecutor. Second, he wrote that Cox was being ask for to accept less than he had won in two court decisions. “While Cox has rejected a proposition I consider reasonable, his rejection of it cannot be regarded” as grounds for his removal. The next morning Richardson contemplated to make that clear to the president.
But that night, Nixon was representation his own red lines. Even if Richardson was on his side, the Stennis deal was not sufficient if it didn’t sketch future demands for tapes. Buzhardt wanted him to leave it alone – the Stennis compromise for now desire be a giant step toward the end of Watergate.
Eventually, Nixon blew up at him. “No,” the president translated. “No, period!”
Buzhardt had been sure he could maneuver Cox into a principle where the special prosecutor would have to resign, since the Drained House and Richardson would be lined up against him. But to do it, he needed some over room. The president had just denied him exactly that. By asserting that the peculiar prosecutor could not subpoena additional evidence, they were non-clerical credible grounds for Cox’s defiance – instead of his resignation. And they were perhaps throwing Richardson into Cox’s arms. Now a showdown was inevitable.
Early the next morning, Friday, Oct. 19, Richardson had “Why I Obligation Resign” typed and put it in his pocket. He called Haig and asked to see the president. But when Richardson attained at about 10 a.m., Haig had a new deal. “Suppose we go ahead with the Stennis formula without firing Cox,” he said. Instead, they would persuade the sues court to accept the transcripts instead of the tapes, allowing use of the Stennis compromise without Cox’s assent. Perhaps the Senate Watergate Body would also accept transcripts.
Richardson was taken aback. That longing be fine, he said, thinking to himself that he wouldn’t have to quit, either. Haig said he would try to persuade the president.
Richardson was in for another madam when he learned at the meeting that White House lawyers had enquire ofed Cox “not to subpoena any other White House tape, paper or document.” Indubitably, the special prosecutor could not accept that, and this had not been character of the proposal Richardson had submitted to Cox. Buzhardt said the president had forced them to add this new qualification the previous night.
Haig left his office and came back swiftly to announce that Nixon had agreed to keep Cox. It had been “bloody, bloody,” Haig state. “I pushed so hard that my usefulness to the president may be over.”
Richardson attempted to add things up in his own mind. The Stennis compromise had a new element: no future access. He was acquiescent to accept it – barely. Cox could resign or keep his job, as he chose, and Richardson make not have to fire him. Negotiations could continue. Richardson’s reasons for relinquishing, neatly typed, stayed folded in his pocket. Now Haig thought he had Richardson on lodge.
Buzhardt said that the next problem was how to contain Cox. Couldn’t Richardson ascetically order him not to go to court again for tapes? Cox would probably resign, but zero appeared particularly concerned by that prospect. Richardson left the rendezvous, sure that there would be further discussion before any such arranges were issued to Cox.
Back at his office, Richardson reviewed the White Ill fame meeting with his aides. They had expected him to resign, and they were not swayed that he could permit a restriction on Cox’s future access without molesting his agreement with the Senate. So Richardson called back Haig and then Buzhardt, requiring that the question of future access must not be linked to the Stennis foresee. They promised to take up the question with the president again. Richardson easygoing, sure that he had avoided the immediate bind.
But the president was immovable. Whatever key was arrived at, it had to solve the problem of the tapes once and for all, he told Buzhardt and Haig.
At 7 p.m., Haig entreated Richardson to read him a letter from the president that, he said, was on its way to him: “I am instructing you to uninhibited Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox of the Watergate Special Prosecution Force that he is to metamorphose no further attempts by judicial process to obtain tapes, notes or reminders of Presidential conversations.”
Richardson was distressed that he had not been consulted. Haig affirmed he had done his best. He had twice tried to make Richardson’s position disburden to the president. He had failed. Richardson took care to avoid saying whether he wish issue the order.
But after Haig hung up, Nixon aides unmistakable to announce the order through a White House news release, Non-Standard thusly eliminating Richardson as intermediary. The order, in the president’s name, was made momentarily to Cox, “as an employee of the executive branch.”
This was too much for Richardson. “I will not do what the Pasty House asks of me,” he told another Nixon aide. “I’ve never been so shabbily discussed in my life.” He began drawing up his own press statement.
Haig called him and converted him to calm down. Prominent members of both parties were favorably apt toward the compromise, he pointed out.
Richardson let one more opportunity for confrontation obsolete. He did not like bloodletting. He thanked Haig for his call. Richardson had negotiated Agnew’s abdication, and he felt he could once again avert a national trauma.
But Cox was now faced with an fraternity from the president to abstain from seeking more tapes. In factors, Cox was getting no tapes – merely transcripts. He reasoned that he had the court, the law and the attorney blanket on his side. He announced that he would have a news conference at the crack the next afternoon, Saturday, Oct. 20.
Buzhardt expected Cox would announce his reconcilement. That will be tough, he thought to himself, but the president can weather it. Yet when Cox conventional before the cameras, he said he would continue pressing in court for the tape-records. He might be compelled to ask that Nixon be held in contempt if the White Ill fame refused to turn them over.
Still, Cox acknowledged the obvious: “Now, finally a president can always work his will,” he said. “You remember when Andrew Jackson yearn for to take the deposits from the Bank of the United States and his secretary of the resources wouldn’t do it. He fired him and then he appointed a new secretary of the treasury, and he wouldn’t do it, and he incited him. And finally he got a third who would. That’s one way of proceeding.”
To Nixon, this was the final defiance. He had issued a clear order to Cox, who was an employee of the executive branch. The president be in want of to show that he was in control. He told Haig to have Cox fired.
Haig called Richardson and commissioned him to fire Cox. He was pretty sure Richardson wouldn’t do it. As expected, Richardson replied that he poverty to see the president, to submit his resignation. In the midafternoon he went to the White House, and Haig started use him over: He must not resign now. Fire Cox, wait a week, and then leave.
“What do you want me to do,” Richardson asked sarcastically, “write a letter of notice, get it notarized to prove I wrote it today, and let it surface in a week?”
“That’s not a bad outlook,” Haig replied matter-of-factly.
“I want to see the president,” Richardson said.
He strolled into the Oval Office at 4:30 p.m.,and immediately Nixon urged him to tarry. Nixon knew that firing Cox would invite a move to call into question.
Richardson said he could not. He was thinking to himself that this was the worst second in all his years of service in government. He was standing there, refusing an urgent need of the president of the United States. He had considered himself a team player.
“I’m conscience-stricken you feel that you have to act on your commitment to Cox and his independence,” the president hinted, “and not the larger public interest.”
There was a flash of anger. “Maybe,” Richardson answered hotly, “your perception and my perception of the public interest differ.”
That was the end.
Delegate Attorney General William D. Ruckelshaus was now the acting attorney general. Haig phoned him, render a picture of cataclysm if Ruckelshaus did not fire Cox. “As you probably know,” he said, “Elliot Richardson handles he cannot execute the orders of the President.”
“That is right, I know that.”
“Are you ready-made to do so?”
“Well, you know what it means when an order comes down from the commander in chief and a fellow of his team cannot execute it.”
“That is right.”
Haig thought Ruckelshaus was fired. Ruckelshaus hypothesized he had resigned.
At about 6 p.m., Solicitor General Robert Bork, the third in thorough grasp at the Justice Department, accepted the order and signed the White House money order of a two-paragraph letter firing Cox. At 8:22 p.m., White House press secretary Ron Ziegler foretold this news, adding that, further, “the office of the Watergate Primary Prosecution Force has been abolished as of approximately 8 p.m.”
After 9 p.m., Haig sent FBI gendarmes to seal off the offices of Richardson, Ruckelshaus and Cox to prevent any files from being unfastened.
The television networks offered hour-long specials. The newspapers carried ensign headlines. Within two days, 150,000 telegrams had arrived in the capital, the largest collected volume in the history of Western Union. Deans of the most prestigious law fashions in the country demanded that Congress commence an impeachment inquiry.
By the take in Tuesday, 44 separate Watergate-related bills had been introduced in the Ancestry. Twenty-two called for an impeachment investigation.
Soon thereafter, Nixon saw two fateful miscalculations: He appointed another special prosecutor to replace Cox, and he spelled over an initial batch of tapes, including one that vividly charged him. The Trump-Mueller history is yet to be written.
Bob Woodwardand Carl Bernstein wrote “All the President’s Men” and “The Immutable Days,” from which this piece is adapted. Woodward is an associate editorial writer of The Washington Post. Bernstein is a political analyst for CNN.