Matthew T. Mangino: A reprise of ‘our long national nightmare’
On the night President Donald Trump announced that he had fired FBI Director James B. Comey, David Ignatious, a columnist with the Washington Post, wrote “[A] prominent Republican politician gave me this simple, blunt assessment of the Trump White House: ‘These guys scare me.’”
Forty-five years ago this country was in the midst of one of the scariest times in American history. President Gerald Ford referred to Watergate as “our long national nightmare” after assuming the presidency in the wake of Richard Nixon’s resignation.
In many ways, Russiagate and President Trump’s efforts to derail its investigation are far scarier than Nixon and the White House Plumbers.
For starters, there was resistance within Nixon’s own administration. The “Saturday Night Massacre” — the firing of special Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox — was initially defied by the Department of Justice.
Trump’s firing of Comey has been compared to Nixon’s conduct. To compare the two events is to do a disservice to the top two Nixon-era justice officials and to elevate the top two current Justice officials to a level of unwarranted integrity and independence.
In 1973, President Nixon demanded the Department of Justice fire Cox for refusing to obey the president’s order to abandon his demand for the “White House tapes.” Attorney General Elliot Richardson resigned rather than dismiss Cox.
When Nixon turned to Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus to fire Cox, Ruckelshaus chose to resign as well. Finally, the Solicitor General Robert Bork carried out the president’s demand.
The New York Times reported that President Trump asked Comey in January to pledge loyalty to him and that Comey refused to do so. According to sources, the director pledged honesty and independence. Although a highly unusual request of an official investigating a president’s administration — apparently, neither response was adequate.
When Trump “decided” to fire Comey — the man investigating his administration’s ties to Russia and possible collusion between the Trump Campaign and Russia to turn the election — not only did the Justice Department not bulk, senior Justice officials aided and abetted the president.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein met with Trump before the firing, where, according to the Wall Street Journal, they discussed Director Comey’s job performance. At the White House’s request, Rosenstein wrote a memo to the president detailing his concerns about the director’s conduct.
The 12-paragraph letter was deeply critical of Comey’s handling of an investigation into then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server to conduct public business. Rosenstein concluded that the FBI had lost the public’s trust and that “the director cannot be expected to implement corrective action.” The president’s termination letter to Comey refers to the memo.
As for the top man at Justice, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the concerns are even greater. Sessions admitted that he consulted with the president as he made the decision to terminate Comey. Trump admitted that the Russia investigation was a consideration in his decision. However, Sessions had recused himself from the Russia probe and all matters relating to the 2016 campaign, including the investigation into Clinton’s emails — the “primary” factor is Comey’s firing.
“Refusing to recuse oneself from a conflict or breaking the promise to recuse from a conflict is a serious breach of legal ethics,” conservative Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin wrote. “He [Sessions] needs to testify immediately under oath; if there is no satisfactory explanation, he must resign.”
Nixon covered up a bungled break-in at the Democrat National Committee headquarters and it cost him the presidency. President Trump may well have attempted to obstruct the investigation into his administration’s ties to a major foreign power and his campaign’s possible collusion with that power. How will Russiagate end for him?
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book “The Executioner’s Toll, 2010” was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewTMangino.