The firing of FBI Director James Comey by President Donald Trump last week is darkly reminiscent of Watergate’s infamous “Saturday night massacre.”
Comey, like Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox, led an investigation that could shake the administration to its core. While then-Attorney General Elliot Richardson and his deputy, William Ruckelshaus, refused President Richard Nixon’s order to fire Cox, Trump’s dismissal of Comey was putatively grounded on the recommendation of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein with an assist by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who had recused himself from the FBI investigation into Russia’s interference with the presidential election.
President Trump has now clarified that it was his intention to fire Comey no matter what recommendation he received.
The timing and circumstances surrounding the firing have raised questions as to whether Trump’s motivation had more to do with the probe of possible collusion by the Trump campaign with Russian agents in the election than with Comey’s missteps in the Hillary Clinton email imbroglio. Even so, Comey’s actions regarding Clinton are the subject of an unfinished investigation by the Justice Department’s inspector general. It should be noted that a letter signed by about 100 former Justice Department officials (myself among them) critical of Comey’s comments accompanying his announcements in the Clinton email investigation did not call for Comey’s resignation or firing — only that he respect DOJ guidelines restricting such statements.
In Watergate, Nixon acted pre-emptively before tape-recorded evidence of his involvement in obstructing justice had been uncovered. However, his gambit of firing Cox for trumped-up reasons backfired and led to the appointment of a new special prosecutor, Leon Jaworski, who picked up where Cox left off. The net result was that the American public then realized something very damaging must have led Nixon to fire Cox. “What was Nixon hiding?” the nation wondered. As it turned out, Nixon’s act was part of a plan to get rid of a truly independent prosecutor and derail the investigation, bringing it back to what Nixon believed were the friendlier confines of the Justice Department.
In the end, the Supreme Court enforced the special prosecutor’s subpoena for the tapes, enshrining the proposition that no man — even the president — is above the law. The tapes provided irrefutable evidence of Nixon’s mendacity, leading to his resignation in disgrace.
A cloud of doubt now threatens to compromise the integrity of the investigation into Russia’s interference in the election. We need a special counsel of unquestionable integrity and determination to lead an independent investigation. Also, a thorough investigation by Congress is needed — through a select committee with sufficient staff and resources to take up the work begun by the Senate and House intelligence committees. Open hearings would give Americans confidence that a credible investigation is underway.
Nixon’s White House issued the same arguments against the Senate Select Committee and the Watergate special prosecutor’s office as we are hearing now — that there is no substance to the investigation and that continuing a pointless probe would be a waste of taxpayer’s money. But we ignore at our peril Russia’s interference in our election, its efforts to disrupt democracies worldwide and its threat to our fundamental institutions of representative government.
Our duty to protect and defend our democracy can be satisfied only by a credible investigation of Russia’s role in our election and any aid and comfort that may have been supplied — inadvertently or purposefully — by any American dupe or quisling.
Richard Ben-Veniste is an attorney in Washington. He was chief of the Watergate task force of the special prosecutor’s office and was a member of the 9/11 Commission.