I woke up this morning to the news that Trump had fired the FBI director suddenly – and had a deep sense of Deja Vu. Memories of the shock of what historians call the Saturday Night Massacre immediately came back to me.
The Saturday Night Massacre refers to a major turning point in the Watergate scandal that began in June of 1972, when a group of men were arrested for burglarizing the offices of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C. Within days, reporters had found ties between the burglars and White House employees. Over the following months, President Richard Nixon denied any knowledge or involvement in “dirty tricks” that had been designed to silence political opponents or rivals, and he won his 1972 re-election bid in a landslide (admittedly, against a weak opponent). But by early 1973, the President’s cover-up was beginning to unravel. As his trusted associates began to defect – or Nixon began to throw them overboard- he claimed that it was the media’s fault (hmm…more deja vu?) Both the House and the Senate set up committees to investigate, and in May of 1973 the Attorney General, independent of the President, appointed a Special Prosecutor to also conduct an investigation.
In the summer of 1973, the Senate committee held riveting hearings that ultimately revealed the existence of tape-recordings of conversations in the Oval Office, and the Special Prosecutor, Archibald Cox, was eager to listen to them. He issued a subpoena to President Nixon in the autumn of 1973, but Nixon refused to turn them over, citing “executive privilege” – a concept he interpreted as meaning the President was above the law. When Cox continued to pressure the White House to comply with the subpoena, Nixon ordered the Attorney General to fire Cox; Attorney General Richardson refused, and resigned in protest. When the Deputy Attorney General also refused to fire Cox, he also was asked to resign – which he did. Both men had promised Congress, back in May, that the Special Prosecutor would truly be independent, and they had meant it.
The Justice Department was now leaderless, and eventually the Solicitor General of the U.S. had to fire Cox. Congress appointed another Special Prosecutor, but the damage to Nixon was immense. He now looked like he had something to hide (which he did, as we know now).
And it’s that appearance of trying to hide something that troubles me about Trump’s firing of the FBI Director. The FBI is supposed to be independent of politics, and admittedly James Comey has not been apolitical (just ask Hillary Clinton). But, more importantly for our political process, his agency was the only agency diligently investigating the role of a foreign nation – Russia – in our democratic process. We know the Trump team has had ties to Russia: Michael Flynn was chummy enough with the Russian ambassador in December to text message him! A former Justice Department official in a position to know has already testified to Congress that Flynn had been “compromised”. What exactly does that mean? And was it just Flynn who had suspicious relationships with Russian officials? We don’t know, and as ordinary citizens, we have to depend on our government officials to find out for us. Without the government doing it, we then have to rely on the media, which may or may not be accurate.
I’ve already written to my Congressman and Senators about this, since I passionately believe in the power of the ordinary citizen to make change. We have a right to know, and we need to know. Otherwise, this democratic experiment of nearly 250 years will collapse.