WASHINGTON — President Trump’s long-expected firing of Attorney General Jeff Sessions may be a prelude to an outrageous, blatant political crime that could make the Watergate scandal of the 1970s pale in comparison.
Trump’s accompanying appointment as acting attorney general of Matthew Whitaker, Sessions’ former chief of staff, immediately triggered speculation that Whitaker might scuttle the Russian elections investigation of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, as Trump has long sought.
Whitaker is on record advocating its abandonment, and thus removing the prime cloud over the Trump presidency throughout its tenure. Such an overt act by a new attorney general not confirmed by the Senate would unleash an outbreak of fervent protest in official Washington and heighten demands for the president’s impeachment.
The timing of the firing in conjunction with the surprise Whitaker appointment smacks of a hinted high-level political coup not seen here since the notorious Saturday Night Massacre of 1974, when President Richard Nixon sought to shut off the Justice Department investigation into the Watergate scandal.
Nixon ordered his own attorney general, Elliot Richardson, to fire Special Counsel Archibald Cox, who had gone to the Supreme Court to obtain White House tapes involved in the sensational case.
Richardson resigned rather than complying, and so did his chief deputy William Ruckelshaus, until the third man in line at Justice, Solicitor General Robert Bork, finally complied. The incriminating tapes eventually were key to Nixon’s resignation of the presidency on Aug. 3, 1974.
The difference then was that key Republican friends and allies of Nixon in the House and Senate like Sen. Barry Goldwater and Rep. John Rhodes, both of Arizona, personally convinced the president that he could not escape impeachment. This time around, there is no such influential GOP group poised to convey that message to Trump.
For one thing, the Republican Party, while having just lost control of the House, where the impeachment process must start, actually picked up more seats in the Senate. That fact makes it even more of a firewall for Trump in any impeachment that would move there for a vote on conviction.
The obvious negative optics of a hand-picked Trump loyalist like Whitaker stepping in to detour or kill the Mueller investigation in its crib would likely be seen as even worse than Nixon’s orders to Richardson and Ruckelshaus to fire Watergate special prosecutor Cox in the Watergate fiasco.
But Trump has never demonstrated any scruple in saving his skin, and has been all too willing to rally his rabid constituency to his defense in a crunch. He revels in his self-description as a counterpuncher who plays by his own rules and willfully ignores those of others.
Trump has repeatedly asserted that the Mueller investigation is no more than a “witch hunt” against him, in which the mainstream news media is a zealous collaborator and peddler of “fake news.” That view was openly on display in his raucous White House televised press conference Thursday.
For about 90 minutes, he repeatedly rebuked questioning reporters for their probing questions about the negative tone of his midterm elections, including accusing one black newswoman of posing what he called a “racist question.”
As for the Whitaker appointment, a Justice Department official confirmed that the new acting AG would replace Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein as overseer of the Mueller inquiry and, ominously, its operating budget.
Whitaker said he would be “committed to lead a fair department with the highest ethical standards, upholds the rule of law, and seeks justice of all Americans.” But he has a close relationship with a former Trump campaign official, Sam Clovis, and once wrote that investigating Trump’s personal and business affair had crossed a red line.
All this is enough to give doubters concern that Trump, wittingly or otherwise, may be treading in the footsteps of Richard Nixon 44 years ago, when he tried to derail another investigation into his questionable ethical and lawful presidential behavior, and ultimately paid dearly for it.
Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books.