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What we can learn from Nixon’s ‘Saturday Night Massacre’

Dubbed the "Saturday Night Massacre," the political drama that unfolded on October 20, 1973, pitted a president against the Justice Department and has drawn parallels to today. William Ruckelshaus is one of the officials who refused to carry out an order from President Nixon to fire a special prosecutor investigating Watergate. Ruckelshaus joins Judy Woodruff to look back at what happened.

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  • William Brangham:

    Now for some political history, with a look back at a pivotal chapter from Watergate.

    Recently, Judy Woodruff sat down with a Nixon administration official who was in the thick of it back then and is watching today’s news with a wary eye.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It was a political drama with parallels today, one that pitted a president against the U.S. Justice Department, and jolted Washington on the night of October 20, 1973.

    President Richard Nixon that day was trying to get rid of the special prosecutor investigating the Watergate scandal. His attorney general, Elliot Richardson, refused to carry out the order and resigned. Richardson’s deputy, William Ruckelshaus, who immediately became acting attorney general, also refused, and he followed Richardson out the door.

    In the end, President Nixon succeeded in getting the special prosecutor discharged. But the Nixon presidency only lasted another 10 months.

    The episode has been dubbed the Saturday Night Massacre.

    And William Ruckelshaus, one of the central characters from that night, joins us now.

    Thank you very much for being with us, Bill Ruckelshaus.

    Forty-four years ago, this happened. How fresh is it in your memory?

  • William Ruckelshaus, Former Deputy Attorney General:

    Well, it will be there as long as I’m around.

    It certainly became a very important part of my life and affected it directly for the next several months. But it’s never left my consciousness.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Were you worried at the time that President Nixon would get away with what he was trying to do?

  • William Ruckelshaus:

    Not really.

    I didn’t think at the time that the American people would tolerate firing a man who is essentially hired by the Senate and by the Justice Department to investigate crimes that they expected were committed by the president.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    How similar — and you have written about this recently — how similar and how different are what happened back then to what’s going on right now with the Trump presidency and the Russia investigation?

  • William Ruckelshaus:

    Well, one difference is in the nature of the people involved. These two presidents are clearly not the same kind of person.

    There was also a Republican administration and a Democratic Congress back in 1973. And, today, we have one party dominating both the presidency, as well as the Congress.

    In many respects, the rest of it is similar. Now, in the first place, we don’t know whether President Trump will try to fire Bob Mueller, the special counsel, as he’s now called. But he might. And he’s hinted that he might. And if he does, I expect the result will be the same, that the public will, once they digest it, not tolerate it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    We know that he certainly expressed a desire for Bob Mueller to step down. He doesn’t — he isn’t happy with what he’s doing.

    If he can’t get someone or the process to remove Robert Mueller, do you believe he could use some sort of executive order to remove him?

  • William Ruckelshaus:

    Well, I think he can remove him if he wants to.

    He would have to be discharged by now the deputy attorney general, since General Sessions has recused himself from this investigation. But he could just keep going down the list of Justice Department employees, and finally find somebody who would carry out his wishes.

    I don’t think that’s going to be an issue for him, if that’s what he wants to do. But that’s not what’s going to sink him.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You wrote about this, this week. You also said that you thought the public anger today is not as great against President Trump as it was then against President Nixon.

  • William Ruckelshaus:

    I think that’s right, on this issue that we’re talking about.

    Trump has only been in office six months, a little over six months, whereas Nixon had been there for four years, had been reelected, and had been there for about a year. And he was also vice president, of course, under President Eisenhower. So, the public had had a long time to get used to President Nixon and what he was all about.

    They haven’t had all that time with President Trump. So, they’re not adjusted enough to his habits, I don’t think, to decide that he should be impeached or in some way driven out of office. It’s just too soon.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    William Ruckelshaus, the country clearly did survive Watergate. It racked the country. It racked the government at the time. But the country survived and moved on.

    What do you think that, and what do you think today’s controversy with regard to the Russia investigation says about our government, says about our people?

  • William Ruckelshaus:

    It says we’re confused, Russia. The administrative branch, at least, is doing extraordinary things to please him.

    And many of the people in the Congress are confused by these actions. Both parties want to investigate why the Russian government interfered with our election. That’s a very serious charge to make. It’s a very serious thing for them to do.

    One of the central tenets of a democracy is to be able to have a free vote for your leadership. And having taken that vote, then to find a long-term antagonist like Russia to interfere with the exercise of that kind of power is really quite extraordinary.

    And I think this investigation should be carried out by Bob Mueller. I think he’s a first-rate prosecutor, first-rate public servant. It will be credible. It will be fair. And we will be — the public will be satisfied that justice will have been done.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    One other thing you told us, Bill Ruckelshaus, that you wanted — that was on your mind, and that is, as you watch the Trump administration, the Trump White House, the challenge of serving both the president and the American people at the same time, when those two things may come in conflict.

  • William Ruckelshaus:

    That’s a good question.

    When I was confirmed, just as Elliot Richardson had been three months earlier, we both pledged that we would not discharge that special prosecutor, except for extraordinary improprieties.

    And when you are faced with the question of obeying the president’s order, you don’t decide not to do that lightly. You take that very seriously. After all, he was elected, and you weren’t. So you don’t always get your way in terms of what you want to do.

    But if he asks you to do something that you believe is fundamentally wrong, then you shouldn’t do it. And you should tell yourself that before you go into one of these jobs in Washington, so that you don’t find yourself compromising your principles or your conscience.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Something for every administration, every group of people who serve every president to remember.

    William Ruckelshaus, joining us from Seattle, thank you very much.

  • William Ruckelshaus:

    Thank you, Judy.

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