The Saturday Night Massacre

During the Watergate scandal, a special prosecutor, Archibald Cox, was appointed by President Nixon’s Attorney General. The special prosecutor insisted that the President comply with a subpoena to produce tape recordings of conversations in the Oval Office. The special prosecutor’s decision was announced at a press conference on a Friday night. The next evening President Nixon ordered his Attorney General to sack the special prosecutor. The Attorney General refused and resigned in protest. The President then ordered the Deputy Attorney General to sack the special prosecutor; he also refused and resigned in protest. Finally, Nixon ordered the Solicitor General to fire Cox, and he did so. Upon being fired Cox declared, “Whether ours shall be a government of laws and not of men is now for Congress … to decide.” And Congress did decide, commencing the impeachment proceedings which led to Nixon’s resignation.

Aside from all his other misdeeds, Nixon’s actions that Saturday night alone justified his removal from office, because he interfered with the activities of a bureaucrat in a case in which he had a personal interest. The president thus violated the fundamental principle that a trustee must never use his office to benefit himself.

The need for structural independence

Nixon’s interference with the prosecutor was technically legal. This should not have been the case; ideally, an investigation of the executive should be conducted by an independent prosecutor answerable to the legislature, not to the executive.

This article is an extract from the book ‘Principles of Good Government’ by Matthew Bransgrove