A Watergate veteran on a Nixonian moment for President Trump

Demonstrators outside Tom Bradley International Terminal during a protest by airport service workers from United Service Workers West union on Jan. 30, 2017, at Los Angeles International Airport. The vigil is in support of travelers affected by the executive order restricting travel from seven primarily Muslim countries. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)Demonstrators outside Tom Bradley International Terminal during a protest by airport service workers from United Service Workers West union on Jan. 30, 2017, at Los Angeles International Airport. The vigil is in support of travelers affected by the executive order restricting travel from seven primarily Muslim countries. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

Reading this morning of the abrupt dismissal of the acting attorney general, Sally Q. Yates, Philip A. Lacovara noticed some similarities to his epic experience more than 43 years ago during Watergate’s infamous Saturday Night Massacre. Not exactly enough to provoke a swooning sense of déjà vu—but “there are similarities,” he said.

In the latest of a number of swirling and interconnected controversies less than two weeks into his presidency, President Donald J. Trump removed Ms. Yates as the nation’s top law enforcement officer on Jan. 30. Her termination came just hours after she bluntly refused to defend an executive order closing the nation’s borders to refugees and people from a number of predominantly Muslim countries—and ordered her prosecutors to do the same.

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“It’s quite extreme in the sense that the president took the step of firing her, but her action itself was extreme,” Mr. Lacovara, a member of the America Media board of directors, said. “Rarely does the Department of Justice refuse to enforce an act of Congress or the direct order of a president.” In his assessment, only in the clearest legal circumstances would an attorney general be justified in deciding that a law or executive order were indefensible.

“That is apparently what Sally Yates decided here, although when I originally read her statement she seems to be mixing legal judgment with [political] policy.” As a result, Mr. Lacovara was not surprised to learn of Ms.Yates’s dismissal. “I’m reluctant to say that President Trump is justified in anything he is doing,” he said wryly, “but I think he has the legal authority to do what he did, which was to replace her.”

On Oct. 20, 1973, Mr. Lacovara, then counsel to Watergate special prosecutors Archibald Cox, had a front row seat at the infamous Saturday Night Massacre, a cascading constitutional crisis that saw not one but two attorneys-general (first A.G. Elliot Richardson, then acting A.G. William Ruckelshaus) removed over the same night—each for refusing in turn then-President Richard Nixon’s order to fire Mr. Cox. The special prosecutor had requested the tapes of Mr. Nixon’s Oval Office conversations.

Mr. Lacovara fielded a phone call from then solicitor general at the Justice Department, Robert Bork, the third man to be put in the position of acting attorney general that night and the one who finally agreed to terminate Mr. Cox. But that decision did not come easily. Mr. Lacovara remembers that Mr. Bork agonized over it before concluding that it was his responsibility “to carry out the president’s lawful orders.”

Then, as now, “that’s the key constitutional issue,” Mr. Lacovara said.

Returning to the nation’s contemporary showdown, he explains that the president’s executive order freezing refugee applicants and turning back even those who have already been vetted for resettlement, “while offensive on many grounds, is probably within the president’s legal authority or at least it is arguable that it is within his legal authority.”

Mr. Lacovara describes the former acting attorney general’s defiance of Mr. Trump’s order as a “career ending” act, but one that will likely be held in high regard by the U.S. legal community. Her abrupt professional departure, he says, reminded him of a line from “MacBeth”: “Nothing in his life/ became him like the leaving it.”

Surveying the remarkable series of executive orders that have roiled the nation over the last 11 days, he speculates that in the coming months other career legal professionals—working at the Department of Justice, the F.B.I., C.I.A., Homeland Security and a number of other federal departments and agencies—may be forced to confront a similar drama.

He believes many of them are going to decide: “‘The president may have the power to do this, but I don’t have to be a willing participant.’”

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Lisa Weber
1 year 5 months ago

I admire Sally Yates. Her refusal to enforce the order may have been partly or mostly politically motivated, but she stepped up at the right time.

Tom Maher
1 year 5 months ago

The office of the Attorney General has once again been politicized by the insubordination of Acting Attorney General Sally Yates who refused to do her job and who ordered everyone else in the Justice Department not to do their job. Yates insubordination recklessly disrupted for several hours the proper functioning the Justice Department in supporting and carrying out the President's directives. Accordingly she was promptly fired for her failure to properly do her critical job of leading the Justice Department in support of the President.

In America insubordinate people in critical government positions do not get to usurp the power of the President for their own political goals. If she does not want to serve the President as the job requires she is free to leave her office. Yates has no legal authority to refuse to carry out the President's directives. The appointed acting Attorney General does not direct the President; the elected President directs the acting Attorney General. The Attorney General has no political role of publically disapproving of or criticizing the President.

By her insubordination Yates grossly and publically failed to show proper respect for the Office of the President. Yates acted politically by publically challenging the President's directives in disregard for Presidential Authority and the basic requirement of her office to serve the President.

Insubordination and disrespect for the Office of the President is completely unacceptable political behaviors that are disreputable and loathsome to most Americans.

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