In the aftermath of President Trump’s firing of acting attorney general Sally Yates, Democrats have compared Trump’s actions to the so-called Saturday Night Massacre. In 1973, President Richard Nixon infamously demanded the firing of independent prosecutor Archibald Cox during the Watergate investigation, then fired Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus for failing to carry out his orders. Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) immediately commented, “President Trump has commenced a course of conduct that is Nixonian in its design and execution and threatens the long-vaunted independence of the Justice Department.” Senator Pat Leahy (D-VT) accused Trump of “put[ting] his Cabinet on notice: if you adhere to your oath of office to defend the Constitution, you risk your job.” Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) called Trump’s action a “Monday Night Massacre.”
Here’s what you need to know about Trump’s action.
1. It’s Perfectly Legal. Yates didn’t even bother to claim that Trump’s executive order on immigration and refugees was illegal. She instead said that she had to “seek justice and stand for what is right.” That is not actually what’s in her job description. The Constitution gives the president unitary executive power. And Yates’ job requires her to “represent the United States in legal matters generally.” Yates should have quit or done her job – or she should have been fired.
2. It’s Not Like The Saturday Night Massacre. The Saturday Night Massacre occurred because Nixon was attempting to cover up his own malfeasance – because Archibald Cox was doing his duty -- not because he was firing Cox for failing to do his duty. As Carl Bernstein, who broke Watergate, said, “The Saturday Night Massacre was really about firing the attorney general when Nixon was the target of an investigation and was actively obstructing justice.” It’s worth noting that it was perfectly legal for Nixon to fire his attorney general and deputy attorney general as well – it actually led Justice Scalia to later rule that independent counsel laws violated the separation of powers.
3. It’s Not Unprecedented. In 2015, the entire left unified around the notion that a Kentucky court clerk should be jailed for failing to implement same-sex marriage rulings by the Supreme Court. As I wrote at the time, “The First Amendment does not protect the employment of people who violate their job descriptions as a general rule; when it comes to government jobs, the First Amendment does not protect your ability to disobey the law.” But that didn’t make the jailing right. That’s the argument Democrats should be making today, not that Trump did something deeply illegal. And at least in Davis’ case, she was arguing that the Supreme Court decision was unconstitutional. Yates isn’t even making that claim. And, as Jim Treacher points out at Daily Caller, President Obama fired General Stanley McChrystal in 2010 for the sin of “insubordination” thanks to remarks made in Rolling Stone.
The Attorney General failing to defend perfectly defensible law is abdication of duty. As I pointed out yesterday, California attorney general Kamala Harris singlehandedly overruled the will of the people of her state by failing to defend Proposition 8. The Supreme Court then idiotically justified that decision by refusing to adjudicated Proposition 8 on the basis that nobody was defending it. No such constitutional issues should take place on the federal level. Trump did the right thing.