Imagine if President Trump, on the weekend after the upcoming midterm elections, suddenly forced out Jeff Sessions, Rod Rosenstein and Robert Mueller.
For the record, that would be the removal of the attorney general, the deputy attorney general and the special counsel investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election.
And imagine Trump also shut down the offices occupied by Mueller’s team of prosecutors — lock, stock and barrel.
Just like that.
Impossible, you say? Unprecedented? In fact, it is neither.
It is the scenario Washington, D.C., witnessed exactly 45 years ago this weekend, when President Nixon lost patience with his own Justice Department’s relentless investigation of the Watergate case — a case that would eventually bring about Nixon’s resignation.
Nixon’s firing spree was soon dubbed the Saturday Night Massacre. And, by that name, it has remained notorious enough to be mentioned whenever a president seems to be contemplating serial firings.
In Trump’s early months in office, his removal of an acting attorney general (Sally Yates) and the director of the FBI (James Comey) drew comparisons to the infamous Saturday in 1973.
Trump has made manifest his unhappiness with Sessions, who recused himself from the Russia investigation, leaving Rosenstein to take it over. The president has recently held more than one personal meeting with Rosenstein, who has increasingly been regarded as a target of Trump’s distrust since he appointed Mueller.
On the job now for about a year and a half, Mueller has prosecuted a number of Russian officials and several Americans — winning several convictions and guilty pleas with agreements to cooperate. These include Paul Manafort, who was briefly Trump’s campaign chairman in 2016 and will be sentenced in February.
Trump has restrained his famous penchant for firing close associates, at least so far. But if the approaching midterms are a factor in his thinking, that restraint might be coming to an end with Election Day on November 6.
There were no midterms looming for Nixon in October 1973. He was trying to deal with a bout of economic troubles and a hot war in the Middle East. (Dubbed the Yom Kippur War,
the fighting had begun earlier in the month and Israel had come close to being overrun.)
But he also was trying to rid himself of the lingering cloud of a scandal from the year before, and he may have thought the busy news docket of that weekend made it the perfect time.
To review the state of affairs that fall: It all began when five men were arrested after breaking into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee, an office inside the Watergate hotel complex.
That incident happened in June 1972 during the president’s re-election campaign, and the burglars were later found to have ties to that campaign. In fact, their escapade that night had been part of a far larger scheme of espionage and sabotage against Democratic candidates. Much of this was revealed by two young investigative reporters for The Washington Post named Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.