On Tuesday evening, President Donald Trump fired FBI Director James Comey. The move, whereby the president directly dismissed the man heading the investigation into Russian meddling, set off a flood of comparisons to America’s 37th president, Richard Nixon.
While Trump’s political instincts and rhetoric are often positively Nixonian, the move to oust Comey—a holdover from the Obama administration—bears close resemblance to Nixon’s attempts to keep incriminating Watergate tapes out of the hands of investigators. With an independent counsel pursuing the damning recordings Nixon secretly made of conversations in the Oval Office, Nixon decided to take drastic action and fired independent prosecutor Archibald Cox. The move, in the middle of the Watergate investigation, became known as the “Saturday Night Massacre” and prompted the resignations of Nixon’s attorney general and his deputy.
Here’s how the Washington Post reported the dramatic events, the morning after, on Oct. 21, 1973:
In the most traumatic government upheaval of the Watergate crisis, President Nixon yesterday discharged Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox and accepted the resignations of Attorney General Elliot L. Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William D. Ruckelshaus. The President also abolished the office of the special prosecutor and turned over to the Justice Department the entire responsibility for further investigation and prosecution of suspects and defendants in Watergate and related cases… Richardson resigned when Mr. Nixon instructed him to fire Cox and Richardson refused. When the President then asked Ruckelshaus to dismiss Cox, he refused, White House spokesman Ronald L. Ziegler said, and he was fired. Ruckelshaus said he resigned. Finally, the President turned to Solicitor General Robert H. Bork, who by law becomes acting Attorney General when the Attorney General and deputy attorney general are absent, and he carried out the President’s order to fire Cox.
Trump, of course, made his move to fire Comey with the support of his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, who has technically recused himself from the Russia investigation. (Trump has already fired one attorney general, acting AG Sally Yates, for refusing to defend his first Muslim ban.) But as New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand tweeted Tuesday night, “One way to exert control after recusal is by getting rid of [the] FBI Director.” The New York Times reports Sessions was shopping for reasons to justify Comey’s firing in the middle of a Russia-meddling investigation that has sent tremors through American democracy. The FBI falls under the jurisdiction of the Department of Justice.
The broad strokes of the two presidents—Trump and Nixon—outlines the appearance of two desperate and dangerous men attempting to keep damning information from the public. Nixon successfully fired the special prosecutor, but instead of halting the investigation into Watergate, it galvanized public support for impeachment and spurred Congress into action. So far, it appears Trump’s move may have had a similar effect.