Nixon redux? Trump's "Tuesday afternoon massacre" could lead to his impeachment or resignation

Trump's dismissal of Comey echoes Richard Nixon's infamous actions of 1973 — and it could lead to his downfall

Published May 10, 2017 4:00PM (EDT)

Donald Trump, Richard Nixon (AP/Reuters/Rick Wilking/Photo montage by Salon)
Donald Trump, Richard Nixon (AP/Reuters/Rick Wilking/Photo montage by Salon)

As Mr. Rogers might have asked, “Can you spell coverup?”

FBI Director James Comey was leading the most important investigation into the Trump administration’s Russian connections. Now he’s been fired. Historians may come to call President Donald Trump’s move the “Tuesday Afternoon Massacre,” similar in many ways to Richard Nixon’s “Saturday Night Massacre” in October 1973, which eventually led to his resignation.

Trump will get to handpick Comey’s replacement, who will surely ignore the Trump administration’s corruption, conflicts of interest and misuse of the White House to enrich the president and his family.

We now face a constitutional crisis. Will Trump get away with it? The growing demand for Congress to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Trump’s Russian ties, independent of his Department of Justice and next FBI director, suggests that the American people aren’t as stupid or gullible as he thinks.  

It may have to wait until after November 2018. But if the Democrats take back the House — with the power to undertake an honest investigation of Trump’s Russian connections and conduct impeachment proceedings — Trump might wind up being the second president, after Nixon, to be forced from office.

Trump wants us to believe that he fired Comey for his handling (or mishandling) of Hillary Clinton’s emails. That is preposterous. Trump owes his election to Comey, whose comments during the campaign cast a shadow over Clinton. Until recently, Trump had praised Comey. What changed? Trump clearly sacked Comey because of his aggressive investigation of Trump’s Russian ties.

Mainstream media outlets may be obligated to let Trump provide his own justification for firing Comey, but so far they haven’t found any ordinary American willing to be quoted saying that he or she believes Trump’s explanation.

Trump’s official justification for telling Comey, “You’re fired” is the FBI director's handling of the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails. On Tuesday the White House issued the following statement: “President Trump acted based on the clear recommendations of both Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Attorney General Jeff Sessions.”

Trump made public his letter to Comey stating that he “concur[s] with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the bureau.” In the letter, Trump insisted that the firing was not related to the FBI’s current investigation of the ties to Russia of Trump’s campaign operatives and his White House advisers.

This is an obvious and blatant falsehood, but no major newspaper so far has used the word “lie” in a headline or story to describe Trump’s statement. The media’s failure to call his lie a lie is particularly troublesome because since Trump’s inauguration, The New York Times, The Washington Post and other major papers have, for the first time in modern memory, used that word to describe the president’s comments about the size of the inauguration crowd, the way “voter fraud” deprived him of a popular-vote majority and how Obama wiretapped Trump Tower.

Every political analyst who has sought to explain Trump’s victory has given considerable weight to Comey’s role in undermining Clinton’s presidential campaign by raising the specter that she had mishandled her private emails while she served as secretary of State, leading to a potential national security risk. Wittingly or unwittingly, Comey helped Trump defeat Clinton last November.

On July 5 in the middle of the presidential campaign, Comey took the unprecedented step of publicly announcing that Clinton had been “extremely careless” in using a private email address and server.

As The New York Times then reported, Comey “raised questions about her judgment, contradicted statements she has made about her email practices, said it was possible that hostile foreign governments had gained access to her account, and declared that a person still employed by the government — Mrs. Clinton left the State Department in 2013 — could have faced disciplinary action for doing what she did.”

Although Comey declined to recommend criminal charges against Clinton, his comments threw the Clinton campaign for a loop and gave Trump a powerful talking point to undermine Clinton’s credibility. From then on, his call to “lock her up” became a central theme of his campaign rallies.

Then on Oct. 28, just a week before the presidential election, Comey wrote a letter to Congress announcing that he was reopening the investigation of Clinton’s emails after investigators discovered additional emails on a computer belonging to former Rep. Anthony D. Weiner, the estranged husband of Clinton’s closest aide, Huma Abedin. In his letter, Comey said the FBI would review the emails to determine if they improperly contained classified information. Even though his FBI staff hadn’t even examined those emails, Comey nevertheless claimed that they “appear to be pertinent.”

At the time, Clinton was still leading Trump in most polls and most predictions of the Electoral College count, but Comey’s letter was the nail in the Clinton campaign's coffin. It put Clinton on the defensive, allowed Trump to attack her with what appeared to be the FBI’s seal of approval and contributed to Trump’s victory.

On Nov. 6, two days before the election, Comey dropped another bombshell. He did an about-face, telling Congress that a review of the additional emails on Clinton’s server found no evidence of illegal activity and that Clinton should not face criminal charges.

But by then it was too late. The tide had irrevocably turned against Clinton.

Trump cast doubt on the FBI's handling of the matter. At a rally that day in Michigan, he said, "You can't review 650,000 new emails in eight days. You can't do it, folks." He added, “Hillary Clinton is guilty. She knows it, the FBI knows it, the people know it, and now it's up to the American people to deliver justice at the ballot box on Nov. 8."

The media reported and broadcast Trump’s bombastic comments, providing an echo chamber that diverted attention away from Clinton’s efforts to regain her momentum.

Almost every journalist, political scientist and political operative who has done an autopsy of the presidential contest has concluded that Comey’s Oct. 28 letter was the major turning point that doomed Clinton’s campaign. Clinton herself echoed that conclusion in a speech a week after the election. “There are lots of reasons why an election like this is not successful,” she said, adding that “our analysis is that Comey’s letter raising doubts that were groundless, baseless, proven to be, stopped our momentum.” Comey too has acknowledged his role. Last week he testified before Congress that he was “mildly nauseous” about influencing the outcome of the presidential election, although he stood by his actions.

After Trump’s inauguration, it appeared that the new president was grateful for Comey's boost and would let him keep his job. But soon the impulsive president began having second thoughts. He was particularly irked when, in March 20 testimony before Congress, Comey declined to confirm Trump’s baseless claim that that former President Barack Obama had spied on him with wiretaps on Trump Tower.

In that same testimony, Comey said the FBI was investigating whether the Trump campaign had colluded with a covert Russian operation to interfere with the election.

Clearly, Comey’s comment about the Trump-Russia investigation was the beginning of the end for the FBI director.

A memo from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein claimed that Comey should be canned for, among other reasons, releasing “derogatory information” about Clinton. That’s a total turnabout from Trump’s claims, in a tweet last week, that Comey “was the best thing that ever happened to Hillary Clinton."

Trump has been in office for four months. Comey’s handling of Clinton’s email issue was well-known to Trump, as well as Sessions and his staff, since the inauguration. If the president had wanted to fire Comey for this, he could have done it soon after taking office.

It is obvious that Trump decided to dismiss Comey because the FBI director was looking into Trump’s Russian connections. Trump has been extremely worried about this investigation. On Monday he took to Twitter to attack it once again.

The timing of Comey’s dismissal is clear evidence that Trump canned him because he was worried that Comey would aggressively pursue the Russian investigation, which could discover evidence that would not only further discredit Trump in the public eye but also give Congress ammunition to begin impeachment proceedings.

Some news outlets have reported that Sessions was told last week to find a reason to can Comey. The emails are simply a convenient pretext.  

That puts Sessions in an ethically and legally awkward position of recommending that Trump fire Comey in the middle of the Russian investigation — after Sessions was forced to recuse himself from that investigation because he lied under oath about his own conversations with Russian officials.

Trump now gets to nominate someone else to take Comey’s place. The next FBI director will oversee the agency’s ongoing investigation of the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia. Trump doesn’t have to explicitly tell the next director to tread lightly on this investigation. It is part of the job description.

That connection has led many Democrats — and a few Republicans — to call for an independent special prosecutor to examine Trump’s Russia ties, to make sure the Sessions-led Justice Department (and the next FBI director) doesn’t cover up what suddenly seems like the biggest scandal facing this president.

Already, many Americans are discussing the eerie parallels between Trump’s Russian ties scandal and Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal.

By 1973 Americans were consumed by the growing controversy over the previous year's break-in by Nixon operatives at the Democratic National Committee's offices inside the Watergate Hotel in Washington. Democrats in Congress, as well as some moderate Republicans, were calling for a special prosecutor to investigate the break-in and whether the White House had covered it up. The Senate Judiciary Committee made clear that it would not confirm Nixon’s nominee for attorney general, then-Secretary of Defense Elliott Richardson, unless he named an independent special prosecutor. Richardson agreed and named Archibald Cox, a Harvard Law School professor, to the job.

Nixon became increasingly worried about Cox’s investigation. In October 1973 the president ordered Richardson to fire Cox. Richardson refused and then resigned. Nixon then ordered Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus to sack Cox. He too refused. Nixon then asked Solicitor General Robert Bork (third in line at the Justice Department) to do the deed. Bork agreed.  

Those events, which would become known as the "Saturday Night Massacre," led to Nixon’s downfall. Within a few days, about 450,000 telegrams and cables reached the White House and Congress — a record amount — calling for Nixon to resign or Congress to impeach him. A growing number of Republicans in Congress jumped on the bandwagon. Rep. John Anderson, chair of the House Republican conference, predicted that "impeachment resolutions are going to be raining down like hailstorms." Outside the White House marchers held signs saying, "Honk for Impeachment." House Speaker Carl Albert, an Oklahoma Democrat, told the Judiciary Committee to start the impeachment process. Rep. Gerald Ford, the Republican House leader, agreed. (Nixon would soon appoint Ford to be his vice president, a post left vacant after Spiro Agnew's resignation in a separate scandal.)

Public outrage and the threat of almost certain impeachment led Nixon to resign on Aug. 9, 1974, making him the first and still the only sitting president to do so.

But the unfolding scandal over his Russian ties could eventually lead Trump to follow in Nixon’s footsteps. If the Democrats win a majority of seats in the House in November of next year (a real possibility), they will have the power to conduct their own investigation of the Trump-Russia connection, obtain Trump’s tax returns to uncover his web of business ties and begin impeachment proceedings.

Faced with that reality — along with his historically low popularity ratings and humiliation over his inability to carry out his campaign promises — Trump could decide to find an excuse to quit. Most likely, he will claim that he’s leaving office for “health reasons.” But that would be a lie, like so many of Trump's statements, including his ludicrous claim that he fired James Comey for mishandling the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails.

By Peter Dreier

Peter Dreier is professor of politics and chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His most recent book is "The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame" (Nation Books).

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