Ever since the Watergate scandal of the 1970s, the golden rule for presidents under investigation by a special prosecutor or special counsel has been that the president shall not fire the person conducting the investigation. For there – as medieval maps sometimes warned travelers – “be dragons”.
Donald Trump has been lectured repeatedly on this score by various advisers and pundits. Yet word keeps leaking out of the White House that Trump would like nothing more than to fire Robert Mueller. So far, Trump has heeded the warnings. But how much longer, one wonders, can a man who famously bragged that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and get away with it be expected to resist temptation to dismiss the special counsel?
Since May 2017, Mueller, dogged as Inspector Javert in Les Misérables, has been investigating assorted misdeeds allegedly committed by Trump and his aides – from “collusion” with Russians meddling in the 2016 presidential election to the payment of large sums of hush money to a porn actor and a former Playboy model.
Mueller has already either indicted or wrung guilty pleas from 19 people, including Trump’s former campaign chair. What’s more, it appears that Mueller is following a trail left by former FBI director James Comey, whom Trump did fire last year, on a possible obstruction of justice charge against the president.
Clearly, Trump is feeling pinched and would like the cause of his pain to vanish. So let us review the short history of that golden rule everyone keeps warning him about.
What are the allegations in the Trump-Russia investigation?
The investigation into Trump and his team appears to encompass allegations of collusion, obstruction of justice, abuse of power and charges specific to Trump aides and former aides.
Any case along these lines against the president would be historic. Both of the presidents to face impeachment proceedings in the past century, Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon, faced obstruction of justice and abuse of power charges.
It’s important to note that the work of the special counsel is secret, and the public has no way of knowing for certain what charges prosecutors may be weighing against the Trump team or, in what would be an extraordinary development, against the president himself.
Mueller is authorized to investigate “any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump” and related matters. In other words, potential collusion during the 2016 election.
But so-called “collusion” is only part of it. The special counsel has the broad authority to build a prosecution wherever the inquiry may lead. The investigation has already resulted in charges against former Trump aides such as tax fraud that do not relate directly to election activity.
In the course of the investigation, Trump’s past business practices have also come under scrutiny. With his first indictments of people in Trump’s orbit, the special counsel has demonstrated an appetite for the prosecution of alleged white-collar crimes. The president has denied all wrongdoing.
On Friday, 19 October 1973, Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox issued a subpoena for copies of tape recordings made by Richard Nixon in the Oval Office. With that, Nixon decided he’d had just about enough of Cox, an upright and highly respected attorney and Harvard law professor.
The very next day, Nixon ordered his attorney general, Elliot Richardson, who had appointed Cox the previous May, to fire him immediately. Richardson refused and resigned.
His successor in the justice department’s chain of command, the deputy attorney general, William Ruckelshaus, likewise refused and resigned.
Next up was the solicitor general (and acting attorney general), Robert Bork, who obeyed the president’s order, fired Cox and kept his job. The White House announced the firing – soon dubbed “the Saturday Night Massacre” – at 8.35pm that same night.
As a member of Time magazine’s Watergate reporting team, I well remember that night 45 years ago. Normally, by 8.30pm on a Saturday night, the magazine was entering the final stages of its weekly production cycle. But on this Saturday night, Time’s Washington bureau was in all-out crisis mode – correspondents, including me, were frantically phoning sources in Congress, in the White House, in the justice department, at the FBI and anywhere else imaginable, trying to learn what precisely had happened and why and what the ramifications were. Until the previous December, I had been on a three-year assignment, covering the Vietnam war. So I was not unfamiliar with what it felt like to report under pressure. But this situation was something completely new to me.
The Watergate complex in Washington DC on 20 April 1973. Photograph: AP
We all understood that a political volcano had just erupted, and I think many of us sensed that the US was on the brink of being changed forever. Not since the civil war had an American president seemed so close to impeachment and never before had the list of impeachable “high crimes and misdemeanors” against a sitting president been so lengthy.
The words “constitutional crisis” were on just about everyone’s lips as the full impact of the Cox firing began to be felt during those hectic hours of crash reporting, writing and filing by telex and phone that were necessary in order for us to get the news into the magazine that would be in mailboxes and on the stands 48 to 72 hours later.
Soon, Congress also swung into action. At least 22 impeachment resolutions were quickly introduced in the House, along with 12 bills and resolutions, sponsored by 94 Democrats and four Republicans, calling for the appointment of a new special prosecutor. So ferocious was the public and official outcry that within 12 days, a new special prosecutor, Leon Jaworski, was indeed appointed, and would win access to the Nixon tapes before the supreme court. In the meantime, the Senate select committee on Watergate continued its televised hearings, uncovering layer on layer of criminal and unconstitutional behavior.
Eventually, the tapes obtained by Jaworski provided the “smoking gun” of Nixon’s involvement in the Watergate cover-up, which in turn led the House judiciary committee to approve three articles of impeachment on bipartisan votes, and forced Nixon’s resignation in disgrace less than a year after the Saturday Night Massacre.
As for me, I knew Nixon was doomed politically when, just a week after the massacre, I received a letter from Irene Cloud, my aunt who lived in the tiny town of Kingman, Kansas, some 50 miles or so west of Wichita. Cloud was a dedicated Lincoln Republican in the moderate, anti-slavery Kansas tradition that had existed from the civil war to the 21st century, when the far right captured the state house.
An unmarried grammar school teacher, Cloud wrote me rarely but always to a purpose. When I opened the envelope, I found inside a light blue sheet of note paper on which in her perfect, schoolmarm’s hand, she had written “Dear Stanley, I have reached the conclusion that Mr Nixon is a bad man …”
If Nixon had lost my Aunt Irene, he had lost the nation.
Not everyone today believes that Donald Trump will necessarily suffer the same fate as Nixon should he fire Robert Mueller. At least two good friends of mine who are experts in measuring public opinion – and who are not themselves conservatives – told me recently that they believe Trump’s “base” in the Republican party will stick with him in a way that Nixon’s base, including my Aunt Irene, did not. “They would think firing Mueller was just another example of Trump bringing Washington to heel,” said one.
Perhaps so. But there are still dragons out there.
Stanley Cloud was part of Time magazine’s Watergate team, and went on to become Time’s Washington DC bureau chief