The Saturday Night Massacre wasn’t one thing; it was a series of events which took place on the evening of Saturday, October 20, 1973, at the height of the Watergate Scandal. President Richard Nixon ordered Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire independent special prosecutor (the Robert Mueller role) Archibald Cox. Richardson refused and instead resigned immediately. Nixon then ordered Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus (think Rod Rosenstein) to fire Cox; Ruckelshaus refused, and also resigned. Nixon then ordered the third-in-line official at the Justice Department, Solicitor General Robert Bork, to fire Cox. Bork did as Nixon asked. Bork was brought to the White House by limousine and sworn in as acting attorney general, he wrote the letter firing Cox, and the Saturday Night Massacre was a done deal, leaving behind the bodies of the Watergate martyrs.
A new special counsel was appointed eleven days later, and on November 14, 1973, a court ruled that the dismissal had been illegal.
Richardson had appointed Cox in May 1973 after promising the House Judiciary Committee that he would appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the events surrounding the break-in of the Democratic National Committee’s offices at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, DC, in June 1972. The appointment was under his authority , and as the attorney general, only Richardson could remove the special prosecutor, and only for gross improprieties or malfeasance in office. Richardson had promised not to use his authority to dismiss the Watergate special prosecutor, unless for cause.
Cox subpoenaed Nixon, asking for copies of taped conversations recorded in the Oval Office, but Nixon refused. On Friday, October 19, 1973, Nixon offered what was later known as the “Stennis Compromise”, asking that the nearly deaf Mississippi Senator John C. Stennis listen and summarize the tapes for the special prosecutor’s office. Cox refused, and it everyone believed that there would be a short rest in the legal maneuvering while government offices were closed for the weekend.
Initially, the Nixon claimed to have fired Ruckelshaus, but as an article the next day in The Washington Post pointed out: “The letter from the President to Bork also said Ruckelshaus resigned”, catching Nixon in another lie.
The night he was fired, Cox’s press aides held an impassioned news briefing and read the following statement from him:
“Whether ours shall continue to be a government of laws and not of men is now for Congress and ultimately the American people.”
On November 14, 1973, a federal judge ruled firing Cox was illegal without finding of extraordinary impropriety. Most Americans saw The Saturday Night Massacre as a gross abuse of presidential power and they sent an unusually large number of telegrams and phone calls to the White House and Congress in protest.
A few days after the Saturday Night Massacre, a poll for NBC News showed that America was equally divided with 44% of Americans in favor of impeaching Nixon, 43% opposed, and 13% undecided. In the days that followed, numerous resolutions of impeachment against the president were introduced in Congress.
Yet, the House Judiciary Committee failed to approve its first article of impeachment until the following year, nine months after the Saturday Night Massacre, when it charged Nixon with obstruction of justice, and then there more articles of impeachment followed. Within two weeks, Nixon made the decision to resign and following a televised speech, he and Pat Nixon bordered a helicopter and waved goodbye to the White House staff.
Richardson served as Ambassador to Great Britain during Gerald Ford‘s White House. He received The Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor in 1998, and he died in 1999 at 79-years-old.
Cox went on to teach at Harvard Law School and served as head of Common Cause, an organization dedicated to making government more transparent and responsible to the broad public rather than special interests and to restore faith in government institutions. He died in 2004 at 92-years-old.
Ruckelshaus returned to the private sector and moved to Seattle. A Republican, he endorsed Barack Obama for president in 2008 and Hillary Clinton in 2016. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015.
Ronald Reagan nominated Bork to the Supreme Court in 1987. In a highly contested Senate debate, opposition to Bork centered on his role in the Saturday Night Massacre. His nomination was defeated in the Senate, with 58 Senators opposing his nomination. The SCOTUS vacancy was instead filled by another Reagan nominee, Anthony Kennedy. Bork died of acute racism in 2012.
45 years have passed since The Saturday Night Massacre. America has changed. The question now is whether the current president might orchestrate the dismissal of the current special prosecutor, Mueller, and somehow escape Nixon’s fate. He seems to get away with everything. The constitutional checks and balances are not lined up in 2018 the way they were in October 1973. Nixon faced a Democratic House and Senate, while Fat Donnie has a Congress ruled by his own party, which has already taken extraordinary steps to protect him.