It was Saturday, October 20, 1973. I and my three suitemates were preparing to host a party in our quarters in Princeton University's Graduate College when the news came of the "Saturday Night Massacre," President Nixon's firing of the Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox. (It was so named because both Attorney General Elliot Richardson and his Deputy William Ruckelshaus refused to fire Cox, which caused them both to resign. Cox was finally fired by the infamous Robert Bork, who was then Solicitor General.) When Melissa, one of our guests arrived, she angrily declared, "He [Nixon] is going to get away with it!" And we - political scientists, historians, and economists - all nodded our heads in agreement. So much for our predictive skills! As everyone knows, in the end Nixon did not get away with it.
Whether or not the "Saturday Night Massacre" is actually an apt analogy to invoke in the aftermath of President Trump's termination of FBI Director James Comey, time will tell. (John Dean definitely does not consider it an appropriate analogy and said so quite clearly when interviewed yesterday.) And indeed my and many others' immediate recollection of 1973 may have more to do with today's overheated political climate than with the actual facts in the case.
The only point of similarity is that Comey and the FBI are apparently investigating the Trump campaign in connection with Russian interference in the 2016 election. The irony in all this is, of course, that Comey kept quiet about his investigation during the actual campaign, even as his irresponsible comments about Hillary Clinton may have tilted the election in Trump's favor. In an election that was decided by a small margin of votes in each of three states, any number of factors may have contributed to the unexpected outcome. But it is hard not to put at least part of the responsibility for that outcome on Comey's outrageous behavior. To add to the irony, it is precisely Comey's problematic behavior and comments in his first intervention last July that the Administration has now cited as the grounds for his dismissal!
On the one hand, clearly Comey should have been fired - both for what he said on July 5 and then for what he did on October 28. Besides possibly throwing the election to Trump, he inevitably undermined whatever confidence the public would otherwise have in the FBI. In that sense, one could say that President Trump did the right thing yesterday. But then why wait until May to do what any president should have done months ago? Crazy conspiracy theorists are going to have a field day with this, but (as is so often the case) one doesn't have to be a crazy conspiracy theorist to be troubled by both the act and the timing and to wonder whether the stated explanation and motives really tell the full and true story.
One big difference between 1973 and now is, of course, the character of the Republican party. It remains to be seen whether the Republican-run Congress will face up to its responsibility to ensure that Comey's replacement is committed to continuing the investigation - or, better still, appoint an Independent Investigatorto do so.