On January 13, I published an essay in these pages (Political Resignations: Comparing the Watergate and Trump Eras), contrasting resignations from the Trump administration to the role political resignations played in toppling Richard Nixon over the Watergate scandal. Recent revelations show that the comparison to Watergate was even closer than suspected.
Richard Nixon triggered the infamous “Saturday Night Massacre” in 1973, when he ordered Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire the special prosecutor appointed to investigate the Watergate break-in into the offices of the Democratic National Committee. Richardson resigned instead, backed up by the resignation of the Deputy Attorney General, William Ruckelshaus.
According to The New York Times, in the last days of his presidency, Donald Trump tried his own version of the Saturday Night Massacre. Frustrated by the Acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen’s unwillingness to use the Justice Department to pursue false claims of election fraud, Trump plotted to fire Rosen and replaced him with Jeffrey Clark, acting head of Justice’s civil division, who was willing to pressure the Georgia Legislature to overturn that state’s election results.
The only thing that prevented Trump from firing Rosen was a meeting at the White House with Trump, where the remaining senior officials at Justice threatened to resign if Trump proceeded with his plans. These include Richard P. Donoghue, Deputy Attorney General, and Steven Engel, Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Counsel. Meanwhile, the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia, Byung J. Pak, abruptly resigned on January 4, rather than succumbing to Trump’s pressure to file false claims of election fraud in Georgia.
These resignations and threats of resignations may well have kept Trump from doing worse than he did on January 6, as a mob invaded the Capitol.
Meanwhile, as the Senate trial of Trump on impeachment charges approaches, the strategic use of resignations continues. All five lawyers on Trump’s original defense team have resigned and been replaced, rather than present false claims of election fraud to the Senate, as Trump has been urging them to do. The American Bar Association’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct forbid a lawyer from “engag[ing] in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation.
The Republican Senators, who remain loyal to and apparently afraid of Trump, could learn something from the resignation of Trump’s own defense team.