A Brief History Of Nixon's 'Saturday Night Massacre' This weekend marks the 45th anniversary of the "Saturday Night Massacre," when Richard Nixon purged legal officials from the Justice Department. It led to Nixon's resignation the following year.
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A Brief History Of Nixon's 'Saturday Night Massacre'

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A Brief History Of Nixon's 'Saturday Night Massacre'

A Brief History Of Nixon's 'Saturday Night Massacre'

A Brief History Of Nixon's 'Saturday Night Massacre'

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This weekend marks the 45th anniversary of the "Saturday Night Massacre," when Richard Nixon purged legal officials from the Justice Department. It led to Nixon's resignation the following year.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Forty-five years ago this Sunday morning, America was waking up to the news of Richard Nixon's Saturday Night Massacre. President Nixon had upended the Justice Department, having let go of his attorney general, deputy attorney general and the special counsel investigating the Watergate scandal. President Trump is vocally frustrated with Robert Mueller's investigation, so could it happen again? Here's Ron Elving, NPR's senior editor and correspondent, with the story of the Saturday Night Massacre. It's why we call him professor Ron.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: The Democratic National Committee is trying to solve a spy mystery.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Most Americans alive today hadn't even been born in 1972, the year five men were discovered inside the Democratic National Committee headquarters and arrested.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: The five men carried cameras and apparently planted electronic bugs. The Democrats say they have no idea who would want to spy on them.

ELVING: We learned soon after the burglars had ties to the Nixon re-election campaign. And an even larger story began to trickle out thanks to two Washington Post reporters who pursued it when few others were paying much attention - Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Nixon was re-elected in a landslide that November. But in the early months of his new term, there was trouble within his inner circle.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Good evening. The biggest White House scandal in a century - the Watergate scandal - broke wide open today.

ELVING: In April of 1973, he suddenly let go of his top two White House aides.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Out is H.R. Haldeman, chief of staff. Also quitting under fire is John Ehrlichman.

ELVING: On that same day...

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: The president's White House legal counsel, John Dean, has been fired. Reportedly, Dean is implicated in efforts to cover up the Watergate scandal. The Attorney General Richard Kleindienst has resigned because...

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RICHARD NIXON: As the new attorney general, I have today named Elliot Richardson.

ELVING: That new Attorney General Elliot Richardson was a longtime Republican insider.

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NIXON: I have directed him to do everything necessary to ensure that the Department of Justice has the confidence and the trust of every law-abiding person in this country.

ELVING: But he appointed a special prosecutor, a law school professor named Archibald Cox, to look into a host of allegations about Nixon's campaign.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: Good morning. At this hour, a select committee of the United States Senate is about to begin public hearings on something called Watergate.

ELVING: And the Senate Watergate committee began its nationally televised hearings. Nixon's former White House counsel John Dean testified under oath...

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JOHN DEAN: I began by telling the president that there was a cancer growing on the presidency.

ELVING: ...Implicating the White House in covering up the burglars' ties to the Nixon campaign.

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DEAN: I concluded by saying that this is going to take continued perjury and continued support of these individuals to perpetuate the cover-up. And I did not believe it was possible to so continue it.

ELVING: And then, a bombshell.

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FRED THOMPSON: Mr. Butterfield, are you aware of the installation of any listening devices in the Oval Office of the president?

ALEXANDER BUTTERFIELD: I was aware of listening devices, yes, sir.

ELVING: Alexander Butterfield of the White House staff revealed that Nixon had an audio taping system in the Oval Office recording every word that was said there. Prosecutor Cox wanted to hear those tapes. When the White House would not cooperate, he went and got a subpoena. After weeks of pushing back, Nixon had reached the end of his rope. On an autumn Saturday, October 20, 1973...

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #6: The following historic events occurred - the president of the United States demanded that the attorney general fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox.

ELVING: Richardson, deeply conflicted, in the moment of crisis, found the will to resist. He refused the order and resigned.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #6: The president then ordered the assistant attorney general, William Ruckelshaus, to fire the special prosecutor. Ruckelshaus refused. The president immediately fired Ruckelshaus. Solicitor General Robert Bork quickly was named acting attorney general. Bork was ordered to fire special prosecutor Cox. He did.

ELVING: The White House felt it had done what needed to be done. Now, presumably, the investigation would end. Nixon apparently believed this, in part, because there was so much else going on in the news. In the midst of a Middle East war that would lead to a gasoline panic, the White House thought the world would be distracted. Instead...

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #7: More than 50,000 telegrams poured in on Capitol Hill today - so many, Western Union was swamped. Most of them demanded impeaching Mr. Nixon.

ELVING: They woke up on Sunday morning to a world of shock.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #7: After the events of the weekend, there is growing sentiment here for the impeachment of the president.

ELVING: It would come to be known as the Saturday Night Massacre. From that night on, the battle over the White House tape recordings transfixed much of official Washington. Both the House and Senate were controlled by Democrats and swiftly obsessed by the tapes. Nixon fought on in private and in public.

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NIXON: Because people have got to know whether or not their president's a crook. Well, I'm not a crook. I've earned everything I've got.

ELVING: But he yielded to pressure and allowed a new special counsel to be named in Cox's place - Leon Jaworski. He would later say that he had believed the whole Watergate matter was overblown until the night of October 20. Jaworski picked up where Cox left off.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The meeting will come to order.

ELVING: In the spring of 1974, the House of Representatives began impeachment hearings.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: To investigate fully and completely whether sufficient grounds exist to impeach Richard M. Nixon, president of the United States of America.

ELVING: In July, a unanimous Supreme Court ruled the tapes would have to be made public. Three days later...

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PETER RODINO: Mr. Donohue.

HAROLD DONOHUE: Aye.

RODINO: Mr. Brooks.

JACK BROOKS: Aye.

ELVING: ...The House Judiciary Committee approved three articles of impeachment.

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RODINO: Resolve - that Richard M. Nixon, president of the United States, is impeached for high crimes and misdemeanors.

ELVING: A vote on the House floor was next, its outcome a foregone conclusion. Senate Republicans sent a message to the president - they could not protect him. The necessary two-thirds majority was ready to remove him from office.

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NIXON: Good evening. This is the 37th time I have spoken to you from this office.

ELVING: On August 9, 1974, Richard Nixon resigned, just shy of 10 months after the upheaval still remembered as the Saturday Night Massacre. Ron Elving, NPR News, Washington.

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