Forty-five years ago, the president tried to fire an independent special prosecutor who was investigating him.
Two men of principle – the attorney general and his deputy – refused. They quit rather than carry out President Richard Nixon’s clearly improper order, an order later ruled illegal.
They stood on principle against a president who had none.
The question of principle versus political self-interest is hotly relevant in light of the release of comments made by the president’s chief congressional justice obstructer, Devin Nunes, at a recent Spokane Club fundraiser for 5th District Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash. Nunes talked about how important it is for the GOP to keep Congress in order to “clear” the president, and his desire – which is surely no secret – to impeach the deputy attorney general, Ron Rosenstein.
“If Sessions won’t unrecuse and Mueller won’t clear the president, we’re the only ones, which is really the danger,” he can be heard saying on the recording, first aired by “The Rachel Maddow Show.”
“I mean, we have to keep all these seats. We have to keep the majority.”
On the recording, Nunes talks about blocking the Mueller investigation as if he were plotting an advertising campaign. Just political spadework. Nunes has been shoveling continually as the chief misleader in Congress on behalf of the president’s frantic “witch hunt” hysteria.
He’s done all this, remember, about an investigation into the possibility that the president teamed up with a dictator who was manipulating our elections – a possibility that seems less preposterous every day. Even if turns out to be nothing, though, the only way you could know right now that the president should be cleared is by having inoculated yourself against hearing the facts when they emerge.
The fact that this conspiratorial view is as widespread as it is, with its disregard for the gravity of the investigation and dishonest attack on the investigators, puts a mark on the wall for how far we’ve sunk since 1973.
What would those men of principle from 1973 make of all this? The ones who would not obey the president because they were obeying their consciences?
One of them just told us. He’s dismayed.
“It’s hard to believe that, 45 years later, we may be in store for another damaging attack on the foundations of our democracy,” wrote William D. Ruckelshaus in a recent op-ed in the Washington Post.
“Yet the cynical conduct of this president, his lawyers and a handful of congressional Republicans is frightening to me and should be to every citizen of this country. We are not playing just another Washington political game; there is much more at stake.”
The Nunes recording reveals someone cynically playing a Washington political game – power over country. He’s already distinguished himself as a manipulator of the truth, releasing a memo attempting to undermine the investigation that could charitably be called disingenuous. He is the tactical reincarnation of a Trump tweet, and the chief symbol of congressional fiddling in the shadow of a White House inferno.
Ruckelshaus is a giant of public service and a Washington state icon. He was acting director of the FBI and deputy attorney general, and also served as the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency during two separate stints, in the 1970s and 1980s. He was a moderate Republican and Nixon appointee, who would later endorse Obama and then Hillary Clinton for president.
He has lived in Seattle for more than 30 years, served in many legal and corporate capacities for a long list of companies, nonprofits and government commissions. A joint project of Washington State University and the University of Washington devoted to collaborative problem-solving bears his name, and he remains chairman of the center’s advisory board.
He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015.
In 1973, he was the deputy attorney general under Elliot Richardson. Nixon, caught in the tightening web of the Watergate investigation and increasingly isolated, ordered them to fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox.
Ruckelshaus and Richardson quit, in what has come to be known as the Saturday Night Massacre. They recognized that they were not working for the president. They were working for the people.
Today’s congressional aiders and abetters recognize no such thing. As Ruckelshaus puts it, they are willing to damage American institutions and ideals to protect their power, and either blind to – or disregarding of – the long-term consequences.
“The vehemence and irresponsibility of the rhetoric attacking the Mueller investigation tear at the very structure of our governance,” Ruckelshaus wrote. “Men who have sworn to use and protect our institutions of justice are steadily weakening them.”
At its core, Trumpism is an assault on factuality. The attempt to undermine the rule of law in the Mueller investigation follows the now-standard template: Attack the finders of fact before they have found the facts, in order to cast doubt on the facts.
Nunes has been the lead agent of this strategy in Congress. While McMorris Rodgers has been circumspect and careful about all things Trump, the fact that she invited him to help suck money from the wallets of donors – a special guest star! – says more about where she stands than anything that comes out of her mouth.
“We need leaders who tell the truth,” Ruckelshaus wrote in his op-ed. “This is not now happening. Mueller is living up to his superior reputation as a model public servant. His is a search for the truth; we should not complicate his job. Support him, and when he has finished his work, listen to what he has found.”