References to the co-called Saturday Night Massacre of 1973 abounded this week when President Donald Trump fired the acting attorney general, Sally Yates, for refusing to mount a legal defense for the president’s executive orders targeting immigrants and refugees.
For IU Bloomington law and public policy professor A. James Barnes, recollections of that night in 1973 were personal. He was at the Justice Department when the attorney general and deputy attorney general lost their jobs for refusing to fire the special prosecutor investigating President Richard Nixon.
“The event this week brought back very vivid memories,” said Barnes, a professor in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs and the Maurer School of Law. “I had a front-row seat to history being made.”
Barnes was an assistant to William Ruckelshaus, the deputy attorney general. He also served as a special assistant and chief of staff to Ruckelshaus at the Environmental Protection Agency, where Ruckelshaus was the agency’s first administrator.
In the fall of 1973, special prosecutor Archibald Cox was demanding access to recordings of White House conversations as part of his investigation of the Watergate break-in and subsequent cover-up. Nixon refused to hand over the tapes and demanded that Eliot Richardson, the attorney general, fire Cox.
On Oct. 20, Richardson refused and resigned rather than carry out an order to undermine the special prosecutor’s independence. That made Ruckelshaus the acting attorney general, and the order to fire Cox went next to him, via Gen. Al Haig, the president’s chief of staff. Ruckelshaus also refused and resigned in protest.
The three departures — of Richardson, Ruckelshaus and Cox — came to be labeled the Saturday Night Massacre. It caused public outrage, which eventually prompted Congress to launch its own investigation. Facing likely impeachment and removal from office, Nixon stepped down in August 1974.
“The Saturday Night Massacre ultimately was the catalyst that brought the impeachment proceedings along and put pressure on Nixon to resign,” Barnes said.
As unsettling as Watergate was, it wasn’t the only cloud over the nation’s government at the time. Spiro Agnew, the vice president, was being investigated for accepting bribes beginning when he was governor of Maryland. But Richardson arranged for Agnew to resign, averting a situation in which both the president and vice president could have been found unfit to serve.
In the days leading up to the Saturday Night Massacre, Barnes recalled, he had accompanied Ruckelshaus to a speaking engagement in Michigan. Two nights before the showdown, Ruckelshaus spent hours on the phone with Richardson and had a good idea what was about to happen.
“The next morning I put him on a plane to Washington,” Barnes said. “He said, ‘Get your khakis packed. We’re going to be leaving'” the attorney general’s office.
Barnes watched the news unfold while visiting his father in Michigan. When he returned to Washington, he went to the Justice Department offices and was struck to see piled on the floor “bag after bag” of telegrams responding to what had happened.
Trump’s firing of Yates on Monday was different in some ways from the Saturday Night Massacre but included some similarities, Barnes said. Unlike Richardson and Ruckelshaus, Yates was a career prosecutor at the Justice Department. Appointed deputy attorney general by President Barack Obama, she was confirmed in 2015 by the Senate. The Trump administration asked her to lead the department until Sen. Jeff Sessions, the attorney general appointee, could be confirmed.
Some critics said Trump’s executive orders were legal and Yates had an obligation to defend them. Some said she should have resigned if she disagreed. But her supporters said she reached a reasonable conclusion that the orders were not lawful and should not be defended.
“She had to make an assessment of how she took her responsibility,” Barnes said.
He said a key lesson from both the Yates firing and the Saturday Night Massacre — and a theme that Ruckelshaus often discussed — is that government officials need a strong moral compass to resist strong-arming by someone as powerful as the president of the United States.
“When you go into one of these positions,” Barnes said, “you really have to have a sense of where the line is that you’re not going to cross as a public official. You can’t always anticipate the pressure you’re going to be put under to comply.”