by Jeremy Fassler
Shortly after the inaugural last January, acting Attorney General Sally Yates warned Donald Trump that his National Security Adviser, Michael Flynn, had been less than forthcoming regarding his conversations with Russians. Trump’s immediate response was to fire Mrs. Yates, apparently still thinking of himself as a reality TV host with a trademarked catchphrase. The first thing this incident made me think of was, of course, the Saturday Night Massacre, the fateful night in 1973 when Richard Nixon’s Attorney General, Elliot Richardson, and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckleshaus, resigned their posts rather than act on orders to fire Watergate Special Counsel Archibald Cox. Nixon eventually got the Solicitor General, Robert Bork, to do the deed, an act that would come back to haunt him when Ronald Reagan nominated him for the Supreme Court.
Throughout the first year of this illegitimate presidency, it’s been common to think back to the Saturday Night Massacre: Trump firing Comey was “Worse Than the Saturday Night Massacre,” wrote Bruce Shapiro in The Nation; the attempted firing of Special Counsel Robert Mueller in June was “The Saturday Night Massacre That Wasn’t,” wrote David A. Graham in The Atlantic; the resignation of Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe a “slow-motion Saturday Night Massacre,” MSNBC’s Chris Matthews said on his show last night.
These analogies illuminate our present by talking about our past, and they are all accurate in their own way. But they may no longer be adequate. This week, Rachel Maddow outlined exactly how many people with oversight into the Russia investigation have been fired, resigned or reassigned, and it is truly alarming. Beginning with Yates, climaxing with Comey, and continuing through the various firings, reassignments and resignations of FBI deputies, now only Rod Rosenstein stands between Trump and his most desired goal: firing Robert Mueller. And the Republican Party may help him do it.
Last night, the House Intelligence Committee voted to release Devin Nunes’ memo that supposedly accuses the FBI and the intel community of abusing power in the Russia investigation. For the past week, Republicans had been inundated with cries to release it, leading to the trending hashtag #ReleasetheMemo (which we now know Russia was responsible for promoting from their bot accounts.) The President will review the memo before deciding whether or not to release it to the public by the end of the week. Although the Justice Department has asked him not to do this, since the memo’s contents have not been officially reviewed, it is likely that he will override their concerns and release it anyway, because it gives him the pretext to fire Rosenstein.
The pretext goes back to Christopher Steele’s dossier, which the Republicans have been discrediting since its release, and the implications it makes about former Trump campaign aide Carter Page. Page took several trips to Moscow during the campaign, including one to make a graduation speech where he criticized the United States. When accusations against him first became public in the fall of 2016, Page dismissed them and the media followed suit, with the Washington Post stating that, “the likelihood that Page is the center of a Kremlin-Trump conspiracy to undermine the U.S. democratic system is extremely low.” What the paper didn’t know was that, the FBI had been monitoring his activities throughout 2016 via a FISA court warrant, which, according to law, they had to renew every 90 days. When the Obama Administration became the Trump Administration, it was up to Rosenstein to OK the renewal, which he did based on the information in the dossier.
This is a dicey case to bring against Page, not just because the accusations made in the Steele dossier have largely played out, but because it assumes the dossier is the only intelligence that the FBI has against him. They are either ignoring, or unaware of, the fact that his Russian activities go back further than the Trump campaign. In 2015, the FBI busted a ring of Russian spies out of New York City, who worked together to recruit Americans as assets for their side, and Page was one of their targets, communicating with accused agent Victor Podobnyy about the energy business.
To think that the Republicans would release the memo not just to discredit Steele, fire Rosenstein, and imperil Mueller, but to protect Carter Page of all people is a disgrace, and it is where the Nixon analogy breaks down. Although Republicans were not blameless when it came to inhibiting Watergate investigations, like the one Congressman Wright Patman started in 1972, they turned against Nixon as more and more evidence put him at the center of the cover-up. They also didn’t have a popular right wing media machine to issue their talking points, or Koch Brothers to bankroll their campaigns, forcing them to live in a reality where, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, “everyone is entitled to his own opinions, but not to his own facts.”
Unlike Trump, Nixon had experience in Congress, and many of his Republican House and Senate colleagues were still in power when he became President. As a result, they could assess his missteps and analyze his character with a perspective that Republicans under Trump do not possess. They may have feared Nixon at times, but they did not march in lockstep to protect him. By 1974, when it became clear he could no longer remain in office, it was up to them to go to the White House and deliver the message that he had to resign. Conservative poster child Barry Goldwater himself led that group. When he retired from the Senate in 1986, he was replaced by John McCain. Can you imagine McCain telling Trump to resign today?
With the ascendance of right wing media, partisanship, and conspiracy, we now have a Republican Party that will bend over backwards to appease its lying, treasonous President. This would horrify Republicans in the past, and it should horrify them today, but they already lost any semblance of shame when they nominated Donald Trump to represent them. Historical analogies to Nixon can be fun, and will no doubt continue as events play out, but as Trump continues to degrade the office of the presidency through his flagrant obstruction of justice, they may no longer be useful to plumb the depths of the chaos we find ourselves in.