For those of us who had the opportunity to work for Congress during the early years of Nixon’s administration, the events surrounding what became known as the “Saturday Night Massacre” remained ingrained in our memories. In October 1973 Richard Nixon, completely embroiled in the Watergate scandal, called for the special prosecutor Archibald Cox appointed to investigate the charges against him to be fired.
Rather than follow Nixon’s orders, Attorney General Elliot Richardson resigned. Nixon then called upon Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus to carry out his order. Ruckelshaus also resigned, rather than comply. These events transpired on one Saturday evening. Eventually, the next ranking official Solicitor General Robert Bork (yes, that Robert Bork) complied, he fired Archibald Cox and the office of the special prosecutor was abolished.
The mood on Capitol Hill the following week was somber. Members from both sides of the aisle hailed Richardson and Ruckelshaus as heroes, men who were willing to put conscience before party and refuse to carry out what they believed was an unlawful order from the President of the United States. Needless to say, rumors of what Nixon might do next were flying around the Hill, including fears that Nixon might declare martial law and call out the National Guard. It was that serious.
Instead of ridding himself of an unwanted investigator, Nixon seriously damaged his reputation with both Congress and the public, and this was no small factor leading to his eventual resignation.
Today, the acting Attorney General Sally Yates announced that she had instructed Justice Department lawyers not to defend Trump’s Executive Order on immigration in a statement that ended “….nor am I convinced that the executive order is lawful.” Granted, Ms. Yates is an Obama appointee, but the circumstances and similarities to the Saturday Night Massacre in 1973 are too close for comfort.
Granted, Ms. Yates could have resigned, but instead, she chose to take a stand that put her clearly on a collision course with the Trump administration. President Trump certainly has the right to fire her, and he very well may do so. But the question remains, will her replacement(s) continue on her course until every political appointee in the Justice Department is fired? Instead of a massacre, the Justice Department may be facing genocide.
But despite Ms. Yates’s actions, this is a matter that will ultimately be decided by the federal courts. Already, several federal judges, ranging from New York to Washington to Boston have issued emergency stays against the Executive Order. Several attorneys have issued disturbing reports that the stays are being ignored by federal agencies at international airports in the US. If proven true, these agents could be held in contempt of court. If they are acting on the direct orders of the current administration, then a constitutional crisis looms.
The President of the United States cannot refuse to comply with a federal court order. Even Richard Nixon recognized that when he complied with the orders to turn over his secret tape recordings of meetings in his office. However, Donald Trump is no Richard Nixon. There is no predicting what he might do.
I am not a lawyer, but should he willfully defy or ignore a federal court order, that surely must qualify as a “High crime or Misdemeanor” as grounds for impeachment and conviction. Once again, I am reminded of those days following the Saturday Night Massacre in 1973. Rumors are spreading and, at this point, no one really knows what is going to happen. In 1973 the rule of law prevailed. Let us hope and pray that this holds true for 2017.