WASHINGTON – Somewhere in hell today, a deeply admiring Richard Nixon is watching Donald Trump and muttering to himself, “From him, I could learn.”
Dumb Nixon. In the swamp of Watergate, his moment of no return was ordering the firing of Archibald Cox and then, unthinkingly and completely out of character, telling the truth about why he did it.
Cox wanted Nixon’s famous tapes from the Oval Office. Nixon said no. Cox insisted he wanted them. Nixon said Cox was over-reaching and therefore ordered him fired.
But that was more than four decades ago. Donald Trump may be a slow learner (recall his insights into Andrew Jackson and Abe Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, etc.) but even Trump has learned a few things about lying, particularly since he does it so often.
Never mind all these historic comparisons you hear between Trump’s firing of his FBI director, James Comey, this week and Richard Nixon’s long-ago Saturday Night Massacre (which only started with Cox).
The big difference is the lying. Nixon told the truth about why he was firing Cox, and Trump did not. Trump instead told us it was all about Hillary Clinton, and how Comey handled his investigation of her emails.
He said Comey had been unfair to poor Hillary. This, after months of lauding Comey for it. This, after campaigning for the presidency on the very press conference Comey inexplicably held to talk about that investigation. Suddenly, Trump wishes to appear sympathetic toward Hillary.
The Democrats are going bananas over the Comey firing, of course. They thought Comey should have been dumped before the election – for his public remarks about Hillary. But, because they’re now going bananas over his firing, Trump calls them hypocrites, asking how they could criticize Comey months ago but want to defend him now.
That’s such baloney, even Trump must have a tough time keeping a straight face over it. It’s not that the Democrats are defending Comey – it’s that they’re questioning Trump’s phony reason for dumping him all of a sudden, when he’s been defending him up until now.
It has nothing to do with Hillary, and everything to do with Comey looking too closely at the Trump camp’s Russian ties.
But Trump can’t admit that. If he did, it would look like Nixon firing Cox for the actual reason that he did. In other words, what we sometimes call obstruction of justice.
Trump thought he was being pretty clever by avoiding all mention of Russia. He even took it a step further, in his cover letter to Comey, by pointing out that the FBI ex-chief told him “three times” that he, Trump, wasn’t under investigation.
Which brings us to another prickly question: What was Comey doing, discussing an investigation with a man – any man – who might have been the target of that investigation?
And what was Comey doing discussing it at a time when he was concerned about his own job?
But here’s one more comparison to be made with the Comey firing and Nixon’s firing of Cox.
Trump sat down with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and told him he didn’t like Comey. Rosenstein, brand new to the job, quickly nodded agreement with his boss. Trump then told him to put together a memorandum on Comey’s shortcomings.
There seems to be some confusion over whether Rosenstein knew what he was actually preparing – a bill of particulars that Trump would use as justification to fire Comey.
But that’s how the president used Rosenstein’s memo. In fact, he declared he was firing Comey under advice from Rosenstein and Attorney General Jeff Sessions (even though Sessions was supposed to have recused himself from anything touching the Russia investigation.)
But now Trump admits he’d already made up his mind to fire Comey some time earlier – that the Rosenstein memo only put into words what Trump was thinking.
So here’s the comparison with Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre that merely started with Cox. Nixon ordered his attorney general, Elliott Richardson, to do the firing. Richardson, citing the U.S. Constitution and his own integrity, said no.
So Nixon fired Richardson, and then ordered Richardson’s deputy, William Ruckelhaus, to carry out the firing. Ruckelshause, citing the same principles as Richardson, also said no. And he, too, was fired.
When last seen Rod Rosenstein and Jeff Sessions were still around.
Though, with Trump in the White House, all things are subject to change.