In October 1973, President Richard Nixon committed the “Saturday Night Massacre,” in which he fired the Watergate Special Prosecutor who had been appointed at the behest of Congress, which caused the U.S. Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General to resign. Nixon also abolished the office of the special prosecutor. This Constitutional crisis, which occurred nearly five years into Nixon’s presidency, ultimately led to Nixon’s impeachment and his resignation.
Last night, after just 10 days in the White House, Donald Trump had a Saturday Night Massacre of his own. Trump fired Acting Attorney General Sally Yates after Yates wrote a letter to top Justice Department lawyers, directing them not to defend Trump’s Muslim immigration ban in federal court. Trump also fired Acting Director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Daniel Ragsdale, for reasons thus far unspecified. Several days earlier, Trump fired top career officers in the State Department.
Four federal judges have already blocked part of Trump’s Muslim ban. Perhaps as a result of such judicial actions, Yates’ letter explained that she could not defend the ban in part because she was not “convinced that the Executive Order is lawful.” There were reports, however, that the Executive Branch was not complying with the court order or cooperating with Congress, including Customs and Border Protection officials and the State Department. All of this occurred against a backdrop of many protests around the U.S. and the world, against Trump’s Executive Order banning immigrants (including refugees) from seven predominantly Muslim countries (but curiously not including countries such as Saudi Arabia, where 15 of the 19 September 11, 2001 hijackers were from but where Trump does business).
Trump last night replaced Yates with U.S. Attorney Dana Boente, who presumably will go along with and defend Trump’s Muslim ban in court. Trump’s nominee for Attorney General, U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions, is awaiting his confirmation vote by the U.S. Senate. Such vote could come as early as today. Trump has also stated that he plans to announce his nominee to fill the vacant U.S. Supreme Court slot later today. You may recall that the Supreme Court seat is vacant because the Republicans who control the U.S. Senate majority refused to consider President Barack Obama‘s nominee, Judge Merrick Garland, whom Obama nominated back in March 2016 after Justice Antonin Scalia died the month before.
The U.S. Constitution establishes three co-equal branches of government: the Executive Branch, the Legislative Branch and the Judicial Branch. Richard Nixon tried to negate the other two branches, and it led to his downfall. The stakes couldn’t be higher, and Donald Trump would be unwise to follow in Nixon’s footsteps.
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