Flashback: Nixon White House defends “Saturday Night Massacre”

"Saturday Night Massacre"
"Saturday Night Massacre" 18:27

After news broke Tuesday that President Trump had fired FBI Director James Comey, many likened the incident to the "Saturday Night Massacre" that precipitated the Watergate scandal – and ultimately led to the resignation of former President Richard Nixon.

President Trump fired Comey just as the FBI's investigation into possible collusion between Mr. Trump's presidential campaign and Russia seemed to be gathering steam, though the White House claims his termination had nothing to do with that probe.

Comey firing timeline 05:14

Roughly forty-three years ago, then-President Nixon also fired the man leading an investigation into wrongdoing by his campaign associates.

On October 20, 1973. Mr. Nixon, incensed at the ongoing investigation of the break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters during the 1972 campaign, ordered his Department of Justice to terminate the special prosecutor tasked with probing the scandal, a man named Archibald Cox. The Attorney General, Elliot Richardson, refused to carry out the order and resigned. His deputy, William Ruckelshaus, also refused the order and resigned. The third-in-command at the department, Robert Bork, fired Cox, and the trio of terminations became known as the "Saturday Night Massacre."

Nixon's chief of staff, Gen. Alexander Haig, appeared on "Face the Nation" on October 28, 1973, and was asked about both the firings and the broader scandal that seemed to be engulfing the White House.

"General, didn't the President really precipitate the kind of thing – the reaction and so forth of last Saturday night a week ago, when he fired Cox, and all of the ensuing reaction which you said you miscalculated completely?" asked Veteran White House correspondent Helen Thomas, one of the questioners on the broadcast.

April 29th, 1974 marked the beginning of the ... 02:07

Haig explained that Cox had been fired, in part, because he disregarded an order to cease and desist his demands for presidential tapes and memoranda that the Nixon White House had deemed classified. "We have provided him with a full array of documentary evidence," Haig insisted. "Where the president has taken issue with Professor Cox has been on the subject of those limited documents involving personal discussions by the president himself and memoranda covering the substance of those discussions."

Haig later tried to explain why Attorney General Elliot Richardson decided to step down rather than fire Cox after the special prosecutor defied Nixon's order to stand down. "When Professor Cox determined to move against the directions of the president, it was then that the issue of Elliot Richardson's future tenure first came into sharp perspective, and he, for his own reasons…decided that his own commitment, his personal commitment at the time of his confirmation before the Senate Judiciary Committee required him, as a matter of conscience, not to be the instrument of the order to separate Professor Cox."

You can see more of Haig's appearance on "Face the Nation" in 1973 in the video above. And tune into "Face the Nation" this Sunday for the latest political news and analysis.