Given what we now know about the events of the last two years, Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre resembles a routine weekend in the Trump administration.
And it is still going on, despite the fact that special counsel Robert Mueller has completed his investigation. Trump now has a willing lackey in Attorney General William Barr, who is aiding and abetting the president’s ongoing efforts to control the Justice Department and corrupt the country’s system of checks and balances.
The original Saturday Night Massacre ended far more quickly than Trump’s version.
On the night of October 20, 1973, President Richard Nixon ordered Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox. Nixon wanted Cox out because Cox had just subpoenaed the president and demanded that he turn over his Oval Office tape recordings. Nixon feared that Cox was getting too close to unraveling the Watergate scandal.
Richardson refused to fire Cox, instead resigning as attorney general that night. Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus also refused to do Nixon’s dirty work and also resigned. But by the end of that Saturday night, Nixon had found his hatchet man: Solicitor General Robert Bork agreed to fire Cox.
Given what we now know about the events of the last two years, Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre resembles a routine weekend in the Trump administration.
Much of the carnage is documented in the second volume of the Mueller report, which focuses on obstruction of justice. Mueller recounts Trump’s nonstop efforts to block the Trump-Russia investigation and details the firings, threats, and intimidation tactics Trump used to pressure key figures involved in the probe.
But Mueller may not have captured every aspect of Trump’s Saturday Night Massacre. That’s because Trump’s threats to fire the special counsel — combined with the president’s incessant public and private pressure on Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, the Justice Department official who supervised Mueller’s investigation — may have influenced both what is in the special counsel’s narrow and hesitant report, and what is conspicuously absent.
On March 2, 2017, less than two months after Trump took office, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from overseeing the Trump-Russia probe because of his own contacts with Russian officials during the campaign. As Sessions’s deputy, Rosenstein, a former U.S. attorney, took on the role of supervising Mueller’s special counsel investigation.
For the next two years, Rosenstein and Mueller had frequent confidential conversations about the status of the inquiry. During that time, the media often gave Rosenstein credit for protecting Mueller from Trump and allowing the special counsel to complete his investigation.
But it is now becoming clear that Rosenstein, like virtually everyone else in the administration, bent to Trump’s will. He may have done so to save his own skin.
Last year, the New York Times reported that Rosenstein had considered Trump unfit for office and had discussed the idea of wearing a wire during meetings with the president following James Comey’s firing. The report lent credence to the idea that Rosenstein was Mueller’s last line of defense, but also sparked talk that Rosenstein would be forced to resign.
Instead, on a call with Trump, the deputy attorney general argued that he should be allowed to continue to oversee the special counsel investigation because he lent it credibility, according to the Washington Post. He also claimed that he could “land the plane,” the Post reported.
That phrase — “land the plane” — can be interpreted in various ways. It could mean, as the Post reported, that Rosenstein would ensure that Mueller treated Trump fairly. But it could also have been interpreted, particularly by Trump, as a sign that Rosenstein would make sure the Mueller investigation remained narrow and constrained enough to satisfy the president.
Exactly how Trump’s constant pressure on Mueller and Rosenstein’s efforts to “land the plane” affected the outcome of the Trump-Russia investigation is still not known. But Mueller’s report offers some intriguing clues.
The report relies on extremely cautious interpretations of the uncovered evidence and the laws that Trump or those around him may have violated. Mueller decides just about every close call in Trump’s favor.
It’s clear that Mueller handled the Trump-Russia case in a far less aggressive way than previous independent prosecutors have handled other high-profile scandals. By contrast, both Lawrence Walsh, the independent counsel who investigated the Iran-Contra scandal during the Reagan administration in the 1980s, and Kenneth Starr, who investigated Bill Clinton in the Monica Lewinsky scandal in the 1990s, were criticized for being obsessive and even partisan in their investigations.
The question is: Why was Mueller so cautious?
Mueller has been careful throughout his career, so the narrow scope of the report may reflect his own nature as much as the pressure from Trump or his loyal lieutenant Rosenstein. One high-profile episode from Mueller’s years as FBI director reveals his incremental approach and his reluctance to take bold action.
Beginning in 2002, FBI agents assigned to Guantánamo Bay began to raise concerns about the abusive interrogation techniques the military was secretly using on terrorism suspects held there. Eventually, Mueller ordered FBI agents not to be involved in abusive interrogations at the prison.
But Mueller did not launch any significant effort to halt the abusive interrogations conducted by the CIA and the military or open criminal investigations into the personnel involved. Senior FBI officials raised concerns about the abusive interrogations with Justice Department officials, but little came of their discussions.
“We found no evidence that the FBI’s concerns influenced DOD interrogation policies,” a 2008 Justice Department inspector general report on the Department of Defense matter concluded. It wasn’t until after the Abu Ghraib torture scandal exploded in the press in 2004 that the FBI even issued formal written guidance about detainee treatment to its agents, according to the inspector general’s report.
In other words, Mueller received early warnings about the Bush administration’s use of torture on terrorism suspects, and his response was to make certain that his people were not involved, but not to take much action beyond that until after the scandal became public.
Similarly, Mueller’s special counsel report presents damning evidence against Trump and his circle, but then fails to follow through to conclusions that a more aggressive prosecutor might have reached.
The report details the frequent and often mysterious direct and indirect contacts between the Trump campaign and the Russians, including instances in which intermediaries for Moscow told people in the Trump circle that Russia had dirt on Hillary Clinton. But in several cases, Mueller never got to the bottom of those interactions, sometimes because people lied to him or refused to be interviewed, or were in Russia and out of reach.
In investigating links between the Trump campaign and Russia, Mueller limited himself to the question of whether he had evidence to connect Trump-Russia contacts directly to a Russian cyberoffensive against the Democratic Party, particularly the effort by Russian military intelligence to hack the Democrats and steal emails and other materials.
But that narrow scope meant that Mueller effectively ignored all the unresolved contacts between Trump and Russia if he could not find evidence linking them directly to Moscow’s cyberoffensive.
Bob Bauer, who was White House counsel to President Barack Obama, also found Mueller’s analysis of the evidence and the law extraordinarily narrow. He noted, for instance, that Mueller seemed to back away from the logic of his own investigation with his refusal to pursue charges that the Trump campaign violated campaign finance laws. Writing in Just Security, a national security website, Bauer argued that Trump and his campaign solicited and accepted help from Moscow, and that Mueller should have found them in violation of the law banning foreign national spending of any kind in federal elections and American support for those kinds of illegal campaign finance activities.
The Mueller report “treats the campaign finance issues almost cursorily — one could say superficially — even to the point of failing to identify and address all the applicable law,” Bauer wrote. “The results are an unconvincing decision to decline any prosecutions, and a major question about the enforcement of this law in 2020 and beyond.”
Mueller’s report also laid out a compelling case that Trump engaged in a two-year campaign to obstruct justice, but once again, the special counsel failed to follow the evidence to its logical conclusion.
Trump began applying pressure to block inquiries into his campaign’s relationship with the Russian government as soon as he took office, when in the first weeks of his presidency, he secretly and repeatedly demanded that Comey drop the FBI’s investigation of then-national security adviser Michael Flynn for lying about his conversations with the Russian ambassador during the transition.
Trump ultimately fired Comey for refusing to publicly clear him and reacted in fury when Sessions recused himself from the investigation. Trump tried repeatedly to get Sessions to “unrecuse,” and continually threatened to fire him for his decision to step aside from overseeing the investigation.
After Mueller was appointed to conduct an independent investigation, Trump told his own White House counsel, Don McGahn, to fire Mueller. The president then tried to get McGahn to fabricate a record to show that Trump had never directed McGahn to fire the special counsel.
Trump told Corey Lewandowski, his former campaign manager, to secretly pass a message to Sessions asking him to limit the scope of the special counsel’s investigation. Lewandowski was reluctant and ultimately asked a White House official, Rick Dearborn, to do it instead. But Dearborn wouldn’t do it either.
Trump orchestrated false talking points about the infamous June 9, 2016 Trump Tower meeting between his son and other campaign officials and a Russian lawyer. Trump also lied throughout the campaign about his business dealings in Russia. The president’s lawyers made it clear to Michael Cohen, Trump’s former personal lawyer, that he should stick to the Trump line when Congress asked him about the Moscow deal.
Often, Trump’s obstruction tactics seemed straight out of the Mafia playbook.
When Flynn cut a deal with Mueller, began cooperating with the Special Counsel’s Office, and ended a joint defense agreement with Trump, the president’s legal team began sending troubling messages to Flynn’s attorneys.
“Um, just for the sake of protecting all our interests if we can,” Trump’s personal counsel said in a voicemail left for Flynn’s lawyers, “remember what we’ve always said about the President and his feelings toward Flynn and, that still remains.”
When Flynn’s attorneys returned the call and reiterated that Flynn was no longer in a joint defense agreement with Trump, Trump’s lawyer “said that he interpreted what they said to him as a reflection of Flynn’s hostility towards the President and that he planned to inform his client of that interpretation,” according to Mueller’s report. “Flynn’s attorneys understood that statement to be an attempt to make them reconsider their position because the President’s personal counsel believed that Flynn would be disturbed to know that such a message would be conveyed to the President.”
After former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort was indicted in the investigation, Manafort told his former deputy, Rick Gates, who was also charged but ultimately decided to cooperate with Mueller, that he had talked to Trump’s lawyer and that the president was “going to take care of us,” the report says. “Manafort told Gates that it was stupid to plead, saying that he had been in touch with the President’s personal counsel and repeating that they should ‘sit tight,’ and ‘we’ll be taken care of.’ Gates asked Manafort outright if anyone mentioned pardons and Manafort said no one used that word.”
After Manafort’s bail was revoked because of new charges that he had engaged in witness tampering, Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani very publicly raised the possibility of a pardon for Manafort in interviews with the New York Daily News and others.
Trump again sounded like a mob boss when the FBI raided Cohen’s home, office, and hotel room last April. Trump initially criticized the FBI, calling the raid “a real disgrace” and “an attack on our country.” A few days later, the president privately called Cohen and told his longtime fixer to “hang in there” and “stay strong,” according to Mueller’s report. Trump tweeted that Cohen would not “flip.”
But after Cohen pleaded guilty to making false statements to Congress about the Trump Tower Moscow project and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors in November 2018, Trump changed his tone. He tweeted that Cohen a “weak person” and a “Rat” who had flipped because “the FBI did something which was absolutely unthinkable & unheard of until the Witch Hunt was illegally started. They BROKE INTO AN ATTORNEY’S OFFICE!”
Mueller said that he could not exonerate Trump of obstruction, yet he also declined to say whether he believes that Trump should be prosecuted. To avoid reaching a decision on whether to charge Trump, Mueller fell back on a longstanding Justice Department legal opinion that a sitting president cannot be indicted. Mueller argued that if Trump can’t be indicted, then his report should not conclude that the president committed a crime.
Yet Mueller’s abdication allowed Barr, Trump’s latest attorney general, to co-opt and spin the investigation’s endgame, with a little help from Rosenstein.
During a press conference before he released a redacted version of Mueller’s report, Barr said that since Mueller had not come to a conclusion about prosecuting Trump for obstruction, Barr and Rosenstein had come to a conclusion for him. They decided that Trump should not be prosecuted.
Many in the legal community found that outrageous. More than 650 former federal prosecutors have so far signed a statement challenging their decision. “Each of us believes that the conduct of President Trump described in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report would, in the case of any other person not covered by the Office of Legal Counsel policy against indicting a sitting President, result in multiple felony charges for obstruction of justice,” their statement said.
But Barr has gone further than declining Trump’s prosecution; he has been seeking to spin the overall narrative about the investigation in Trump’s favor. Before the report was released, with Rosenstein at his side, Barr used Trump-style talking points to proclaim that Mueller had found “no collusion.” Only after the redacted report was made public did it become clear how misleading and dishonest those statements were. Since then, Barr has continued to dissemble and mislead, acting more like Trump’s personal lawyer and shill than the chief law enforcement officer of the United States.
Mueller’s letter to Barr complaining about Barr’s press conference revealed a rift that Barr had tried to keep secret. Before the letter surfaced, Barr had told Congress that he didn’t know what was behind press reports that some Mueller staffers were upset about his pre-release press conference.
During testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, Barr was again by turns evasive and openly partisan as he defended Trump against the report’s evidence of obstruction and defended himself against accusations that he had misled Congress and the nation. After his testimony in the Republican-controlled Senate, Barr refused to appear before the Democratic-controlled House Judiciary Committee, setting up a potential battle over whether he is guilty of contempt of Congress.
Before the week was out, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had accused Barr of lying to Congress, an accusation that certainly endeared Barr to Trump.
Trump meanwhile, was busy talking to Russian President Vladimir Putin. The two talked for more than an hour by phone on Friday, including about the Mueller investigation. Trump and Putin were both eager to put the Mueller report behind them.
“I sort of smiled when he said something to the effect that it started off as a mountain and ended up as a mouse,” Trump said.