Like his predecessor, Trump appears eager to fire the man investigating the White House—and he seems one false move away from following through.
Richard Nixon needed a reason.
He’d resolved to fire Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor investigating his involvement in Watergate, more than three months before the Saturday Night Massacre, when Cox was eventually dispatched. It was only a matter of time until Nixon would find a suitable pretext to give him political cover—and soon, Cox gave him one. The investigator refused to accept a so-called compromise on Nixon’s secret White House tapes, whereby Cox would receive summaries of the recordings instead of the tapes themselves. The former president quickly moved to remove Cox from his post, and to dissolve the office of the special prosecutor itself.
This fraught period of the Watergate affair—which involved an elaborate, president-sanctioned cover-up in the aftermath of a break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters—is the closest historical parallel to the current moment. Like Nixon, President Trump appears eager to fire the man investigating campaign and White House officials’ culpability in a high-profile scandal: Robert Mueller, the special counsel examining a broad range of subjects related to Russian interference in the 2016 election. And like Nixon, Trump seems one false move away from following through.
In 1973, I worked as a lawyer on Cox’s task force investigating obstruction-of-justice allegations against Nixon. The White House tapes show that, by the summer of 1973, the president had grown increasingly frustrated over Cox’s examination of alleged misconduct, which included a conspiracy to obstruct justice by the president’s closest aides. Cox’s dogged pursuit of nine specific tape recordings was the last straw. The special prosecutor wanted the audio for a reason: Ever since White House Staff Secretary Alexander Butterfield had revealed the existence of Nixon’s voice-activated taping system, in July 1973, Cox hoped to use the recordings to resolve disputed facts about who said what in conversations with the president.
Yet Nixon refused to turn them over—even after he was subpoenaed by a grand jury and under orders from two separate courts. Instead, the president proposed that Cox accept the compromise, under which he would receive summaries of the taped conversations prepared by Nixon. Cox’s refusal to agree to any substitute for the tapes themselves provided Nixon the pretext he was seeking to remove the special prosecutor, and to return the investigation to more pliant personnel within the Justice Department.