OTD in History… October 20, 1973, Saturday Night Massacre Nixon fires Special Prosecutor in Watergate Investigation
By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS
On this day in history October 20, 1973, President Richard Nixon embroiled in the Watergate Scandal instructs Attorney General Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus to fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox. Nixon wanted Cox fired because he issued a subpoena for the Oval Office tape recordings. A United States Court of Appeals wanted Nixon to comply, instead, Nixon wanted Senator John C. Stennis of Mississippi, who was known to be hard of hearing to summarize the tapes but Cox refused the Stennis Compromise, demanding the actual tapes and threatening to go back to Federal Court to obtain them. Both Richardson and Ruckelshaus resigned rather than fire Cox. Then Nixon order Solicitor General Robert Bork to fire Cox, telling him, “Accordingly, in your capacity of acting Attorney General, I direct you to discharge Mr. Cox immediately and to take all steps necessary to return to the Department of Justice the functions now being performed by the Watergate Special Prosecution Force.” Bork finally fired the special prosecutor and abolished the office investigating the Watergate break-in. Bork agreed after he was sworn-in as the acting Attorney General. Later in his posthumous memoirs, Bork claimed Nixon promised him a Supreme Court seat.
By 8:30 p.m., Nixon announced that he had abolished the office of the special prosecutor and transferred the investigation to the Department of Justice claiming, where White House press secretary Ronald L. Ziegler claimed, the Watergate investigation would be “carried out with thoroughness, and vigor.” Ziegler briefly explained in a press briefing, Nixon’s actions was “to avoid a constitutional confrontation by an action that would give the grand jury what it needs to proceed with its work with the least possible intrusion of Presidential privacy.” Continuing, the press secretary expressed, “That action taken by the President in the spirit of accommodation that has marked American constitutional history was accepted by responsible leaders in Congress and the country. Mr. Cox’s refusal to proceed in the same spirit of accommodation, complete with his announced intention to defy instructions from the President and press for further confrontation at a time of serious world crisis, made it necessary for the President to discharge Mr. Cox and to return to the Department of Justice the task of prosecuting those who broke the law in connection with Watergate.”
The evening known as the Saturday Night Massacre was a turning point in the Watergate scandal. NBC News Anchor John Chancellor announced to the American public, “The country tonight is in the midst of what might be the most serious constitutional crisis in history.” (Farrell) Cox was a Harvard law professor and former U.S. solicitor general who was appointed by the attorney general’s office in May 1973 to investigate the Watergate break-in. Cox and Nixon clashed from the start over Cox’s demand for “10 hours of secret Oval Office recordings,” which History.com notes, “implicated the president in the break-in.”
Earlier in the day, Cox held a press conference on the tapes saying, “I think it is my duty as the special prosecutor, as an officer of the court and as the representative of the grand jury, to bring to the court’s attention what seems to me to be non-compliance with the court’s order. I’m going to go about my duties on the terms of which I assumed them.” By late afternoon, Attorney General Richardson arrived at the White House. In his resignation letter Richardson indicated to Nixon, “While I fully respect the reasons that have led you to conclude that the special prosecutor must be discharged, I trust that you understand that I could not in the light of these firm and repeated commitments carry out your direction that this be done.”
After Bork fired Cox, Nixon swiftly ordered the FBI “to close off the offices of the Special Prosecutor, Attorney General, and Deputy Attorney General,” and secured their files. Afterward, Cox told the press, “Whether ours shall continue to be a government of laws and not of men is now for Congress and ultimately the American people.” There was an immediate outcry with 50,000 calls to the White House switchboard objecting to the President’s actions. A week later, an NBC News poll showed a majority of the public wanted Nixon impeached, with “44% in favor, 43% opposed, and 13% undecided.” Congress also began introducing their first impeachment resolutions with 21 members making resolutions. The backlash forced Nixon to agree to the appointment of a new Special Prosecutor. On November 1, Leon Jaworski was appointed the new Special Prosecutor to take over the investigation. While on November 14, Federal district judge Gerhard Gesell ruled that Cox’s firing had been illegal.
The firing turned the tide of support against Nixon. Congress and the public saw his firing the Special Prosecutor as an abuse of power. Jaworski would prove more determined to uncover broader corruption at the White House. Jawarski still pressed for the Oval Office tapes, Nixon agreed to hand over transcripts knowing national security matters would be redacted, however, a November 7 18-minute gap would mount more suspicion on the president. The tapes would be Nixon’s downfall when finally released 10 months later they would reveal that the president had been complicit in the Watergate cover-up from the beginning.
The president’s problems all began in the early morning hours of July 17, 1972, when five burglars were caught wiretapping and stealing documents from the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate complex beginning the Watergate scandal. All were associated with Nixon’s reelection campaign, the Committee to Re-Elect the President (CREEP) after the police discovered the committee’s phone number in the belongings. The burglars first bugged the DNC in May, and they were returning after the wiretapping did not work properly to fix it.
From the minute, President Nixon first found out about the burglary, he and members of his White House staff and cabinet went down the road of creating an elaborate cover-up to hide the president’s involvement. Nixon and his advisors decided to have the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) interfere in the FBI investigation and on August 1, Nixon ensured that hush money was given to the intruders, saying, “Well…they have to be paid. That’s all there is to that. They have to be paid.” In August, Nixon delivered a speech assuring the American voters neither he nor the White House was involved in the Watergate break-in. With the public assured, the story faded into the background and Nixon won his reelection bid against George McGovern in a landslide.
Just days after Nixon’s inauguration on January 30, 1973, five of the Watergate burglars and conspirators pled guilty at the president’s request two more were found guilty. When burglar James McCord claimed a letter that the burglars were forced to keep quiet, and perjury was committed at the Watergate trial Judge John Sirica began to be suspicious of a wider conspiracy.
Outside, the investigation continued, two young Washington Post reporters; Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward were set on uncovering the president and White House’s involved, and a source within only referred to as Deep Throat, help them unravel the conspiracy. The reporting was the basis of their Pulitzer Prize-winning book all the President’s Men and then revealing the Final Days. In 2005, Bernstein and Woodward announced that W. Mark Felt, a former associate director of the FBI was their source after his death.
Soon Nixon’s aides began to turn on each other and the president. Former president assistant and CREEP deputy director Jeb Stuart Magruder was one of the first turn against the White House claiming White House counsel John Dean and Former Attorney General John Mitchell were responsible for a cover-up. The Nixon’s cover-up began to crumble with Dean’s suspicion of the president and a possible recording system. Each time the trail led closer Nixon would fire and force the resignation of his aides, on April 30, advisers H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, and Attorney General Richard Kleindienst resigned but Dean was fired.
At the same time, the Senate formed the Watergate Committee chaired by Senator Sam Ervin, D-NC, to investigate the mounting evidence of a conspiracy and the Justice Department tapped a Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox to investigate. The Senate’s televised testimony captured the nation which began on May 18. On June 28, Dean’s testimony might have been the most damning revealing a possible recording system in place in the West Wing, accusing Attorney General John Mitchell of authorizing the Watergate break-in and top White House advisors John Ehrlichman and H.R. Haldeman were aware of the plan, while Nixon knew of the cover-up from almost the start. Soon after on July 13, Alexander Butterfield, the former presidential appointments secretary confirms Dean, testifying that Nixon has been recording his conversations since 1971.
The news of the tapes prompts Nixon to order the system disconnected but by July 23, the Senate Watergate Committee was demanding copies of the tapes. The tapes were Nixon’s downfall. Nixon and his lawyers tried to evade the Senate’s subpoena citing executive privilege eventually offering transcripts. The Saturday Night Massacre on October 20, 1973 was a turning point, where Nixon fired Cox, and Attorney General Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus resigned after refusing to comply with Nixon’s orders to fire the special prosecutor. Solicitor General Robert Bork finally fired Cox and appointed a new Special Prosecutor, Leon Jaworski to take over the investigation.
Afterward, Congress began earnestly talking impeachment, with 84 House representatives “co-sponsoring 17 resolutions” for impeachment. Even as Nixon declared on November 17, “I’m not a crook,” to the press, the evidence mounted against him, contradicted it. Nixon finally agreed to comply partially with the subpoena but an 18-minute gap in one of the tapes only added to questions about his involvement.
By 1974, Congress was well on its way to Impeaching the president, the first time in over 100 years. On February 6, the House passed H.Res. 803, the resolution allowed the House Judiciary Committee to investigate whether there were grounds to impeach the president. The House Judiciary Committee chaired by Peter W. Rodino ordered an impeachment inquiry, that included the hiring of 34 counsel with a total staff of 44 lawyers, and 100 overall, the inquiry took eight months. On April 11, the Judiciary Committee again demanded in a subpoena that Nixon had over the actual tapes, 42 with conversations possibly relating to Watergate, while Jaworski subpoenaed 69 more tapes. On April 29, Nixon released a version of the tape transcripts to the public, with redactions for expletives, and where he claimed were for national security reasons.
In March and April, the DC Grand Jury wind down their indictments of in the Watergate case indicting the Watergate seven among them, top aides John N. Mitchell, H. R. Haldeman, and John D.Ehrlichman, including naming Nixon an “unindicted co-conspirator.” In total 69 were indicted and 48 found guilty in association with the Watergate burglary and cover-up.
On May 9, 1974, the Judiciary Committee began its impeachment hearings, only the brief opening was televised the remaining two months were closed-door sessions. The emphasis was whether the president had obstructed justice. On July 9, the committee released their version of Nixon’s tapes “restoring” some of the “damaging “conversations that were deleted, based on testimony, and on July 12 they released all their evidence 3,888 pages.
On July 24, the committee resumed televising the hearings, allowing Americans to see “six days of 13 hours-per-day coverage,” this included Texas Democrat Barbara Jordan’s notable speech on July 25, supporting Nixon’s impeachment. One by one, the nation heard from Democrats and Republicans supporting impeachment, however, Nixon supporters claimed there was still not enough “specificity.”
The American public supported impeachment according to two new polls from July 1974. A Harris poll showed 53 percent of Americans supported impeachment, and 47 percent believed the Senate should convict Nixon, with 34 percent claiming he should be acquitted, and according to Gallup Nixon only had a 24 percent favorability rating. The polls, however, were released before Nixon complied and released the tapes and the “Smoking Gun” from June 23, 1972, proved he was behind the cover-up.
On July 27, 1974, the House Judiciary Committee recommends that President Richard Nixon is impeached with obstruction of justice the first of eventually three articles of impeachment. The decision came three days after the Supreme Court ruled on July 24, in the United States v. Nixon against the president stating he would have to hand over to the Federal Court the missing White House Tapes recordings his conversations in the West Wing. The Judiciary Committee would decide on two more articles of impeachment in the coming days, on July 29 for abuse of power and contempt of Congress on July 30.
On July 27, the House Judiciary Committee recommended the first article of impeachment for obstruction of justice. Article I passed with a vote of 27 to 11, with 21 Democrats and 6 Republicans voting in favor and 11 Republicans opposing:
On June 17, 1972, and prior thereto, agents of the Committee for the Re-election of the President committed unlawful entry of the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in Washington, District of Columbia, for the purpose of securing political intelligence. Subsequent thereto, Richard M. Nixon, using the powers of his high office, engaged personally and through his close subordinates and agents, in a course of conduct or plan designed to delay, impede, and obstruct the investigation of such illegal entry; to cover up, conceal and protect those responsible; and to conceal the existence and scope of other unlawful covert activities.
On July 29, the House Judiciary Committee recommended the second article of impeachment for abuse of power. Article II passed with a vote of 28 to 10, with 21 Democrats and 7 Republicans voting in favor and 10 Republicans opposing:
[Nixon] repeatedly engaged in conduct violating the constitutional rights of citizens, impairing the due and proper administration of justice and the conduct of lawful inquiries, or contravening the laws governing agencies of the executive branch and the purposed of these agencies.
On July 30, the House Judiciary Committee recommended the third article of impeachment for contempt of Congress, with 19 Democrats and 2 Republicans voting in favor and 2 Democrats and 15 Republicans opposing:
[Nixon] failed without lawful cause or excuse to produce papers and things as directed by duly authorized subpoenas issued by the Committee on the Judiciary of the House of Representatives on April 11, 1974, May 15, 1974, May 30, 1974, and June 24, 1974, and willfully disobeyed such subpoenas.
According to estimates with the Democratic majorities, the House would have impeached Nixon with 300 votes, and the Senate would have convicted him receiving the 60 votes necessary. Nixon would lose most of his support because of the July 24 Supreme Court ruling ordering Nixon to comply with the subpoenas. On July 30, Nixon hands over the tapes to special prosecutor Leon Jaworski. On August 5, the “Smoking Gun” is made public, the previously unreleased tape of a June 23, 1972, conversation between Nixon and Haldeman in the Oval Office devising a plan to have the CIA obstruct the FBI’s investigation into the Watergate burglary was finally made public among other recordings.
The tape proved that Nixon was part of the cover-up, and he lost the Republicans, who were supporting him in the Judiciary Committee, they now were intending to support Article I, the Obstruction of Justice charge. Most importantly, Nixon lost the support of California Rep. Charles E. Wiggins, who said, “The facts then known to me have now changed… These facts standing alone are legally sufficient in my opinion to sustain at least one count against the President of conspiracy to obstruct justice.”
On August 7, Sen. Barry Goldwater, R-Ariz., U.S. House Minority Leader John Rhodes, R-Ariz., and U.S. Senate Minority Leader Hugh Scott, R-Pa met with Nixon in the Oval Office, telling him he basically has no support in Congress, would be impeached and convicted. Certain, he would eventually be removed from office. Goldwater later wrote, Nixon “knew beyond any doubt that one way or another, his presidency was finished.” Rather than face certain impeachment and removal from office, Nixon decided to control the situation.
On August 8, Nixon spoke to the nation the last time, announcing to the American public this decision to resign effective at noon EST on August 9, 1974, because of lack of support in upcoming impeachment proceedings Congress was turning against him over his role in covering up the Watergate break-in scandal. To avoid the House of Representatives’ impeachment trial, Nixon decided to become the first president to resign from the office, when he did on August 9, 1974, over two years after the Watergate burglary began the president’s descent into a cover-up that consumed his presidency and launched the nation into a Constitutional Crisis.
Nixon announced in his address, “To continue to fight through the months ahead for my personal vindication would almost totally absorb the time and attention of both the President and the Congress in a period when our entire focus should be on the great issues of peace abroad and prosperity without inflation at home. Therefore, I shall resign the Presidency effective at noon tomorrow. Vice President Ford will be sworn in as President at that hour in this office.”
Nixon already made his decision to resign on August 7, after a meeting with Republican Congressional leaders, who said because of the “Smoking Gun” Oval Office tape recording,
Nixon did not have enough Congressional support to survive impeachment, something the president had been relying on. In his address from the Oval Office, Nixon acknowledged to the public, “By taking this action. I hope that I will have hastened the start of the process of healing which is so desperately needed in America.” The next day just before noon, Nixon left the White House one last time as president. Upon boarding a helicopter on the White House lawn, Nixon gave a victory salute before leaving almost six-years to the day; the Republican Party nominated him for president in 1968. A minute after Nixon departed Vice President Gerald R. Ford was sworn in becoming the 38th president.
Many historians see Watergate as the nation’s worst political scandal while clearly placing the blame on Nixon for the downfall of his presidency. Preeminent Watergate historian Stanley I. Kutler in his book The Wars of Watergate: The Last Crisis of Richard Nixon argued that Nixon was “at the center of Watergate,” and “The wars of Watergate are rooted in the lifelong personality of Richard Nixon. Kutler concludes, The Watergate scandal “consumed and convulsed the nation and tested the constitutional and political system as it had not been tested since the Civil War.” (Kutler, 616) London Times Washington Bureau Chief Fred Emery in his book Watergate: The Corruption of American Politics and the Fall of Richard Nixon called Watergate “a self-destruct tragedy for Richard Nixon.” Emery determines that Watergate “was a pattern of malfeasance by him and his men that led to the damning — and bipartisan — vote in Congress.” (Emery, xii)
Historian Joan Hoff in her revisionist history, Nixon Reconsidered, viewed Nixon’s presidency as “more than Watergate,” and “Watergate more than Nixon.” Hoff believes the scandal was a product of the times, concluding, “Watergate was a disaster waiting to happen, given the decline in political ethics and practices during the Cold War.” (Hoff, 341) While historian Allan Lichtman notes Watergate “was a widespread conspiracy. Several dozen people went to jail, including other very high officials of the [Nixon] campaign and of the Nixon administration. So a lot of people who should have known much better got sucked into this terrible scandal and it is a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions because in many ways Richard Nixon did a lot for the country.”
On August 9, Nixon left the White House flashing V for victory signs before boarding Marine One and becoming the first president to resign from the office. At the same time, Vice President Gerald Ford took the oath of office, and declared, “My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over.” A month later, Ford pardoned Nixon, and in time, Nixon’s image rehabilitated but the stain of Watergate remained on the nation and Nixon.
Forty-Five years after the Saturday Night Massacre, America is yet on the brink of another Constitutional Crisis as another Republican President Donald Trump and his administration is being investigated for an election scandal. Almost daily, Trump seems on the brink of firing Special Counsel Robert Mueller directed to investigate Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election and determine if the president and his campaign staff had been involved. Trump already fired FBI Director James Comey, who was responsible for investigating Russia’s interference, which forced the appointment of a special counsel. Trump regularly lets the public know his displeasure in Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from the matter. Trump was just recently on the verge of firing Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in charge of the special counsel but Republicans in Congress prefer possible impeachment. Newsweek notes, if Trump fires Mueller, “he risks an almighty backlash from Congress and the American public, and very possibly the same fate as Nixon — a disgraced exit from the White House.”
SOURCES & READ MORE
Emery, Fred. Watergate: The Corruption and Fall of Richard Nixon. London: Pimlico, 1995.
Farrell, John A. Richard Nixon: The Life. New York: Vintage Books, 2017, 2018.
Genovese, Michael A. The Watergate Crisis. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1999.
Hoff, Joan. Nixon Reconsidered. New York: BasicBooks, 1998.
Kutler, Stanley I. The Wars of Watergate: The Last Crisis of Richard Nixon. New York: Norton, 1992.
Kutler, Stanley I. Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes. London: Touchstone, 1999.
Small, Melvin. A Companion to Richard M. Nixon. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley Blackwell, 2011.
Bonnie K. Goodman has a BA and MLIS from McGill University and has done graduate work in religion at Concordia University. She is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor, and a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion and news. She has a dozen years experience in education & political journalism.