“ … if I win, I am going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation because there has never been so many lies, so much deception, there has never been anything like it and we’re going to have a special prosecutor.” – Donald Trump to Hillary Clinton, Oct. 9, 2016
Donald Trump, the Republican Party’s standard bearer as its presidential nominee, carried a laborious weight into his second debate with Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton. She emerged the superior as she did in the first debate, according to live online polls, while Trump – discredited by his now infamous raunchy “grab them by the p*ssy” sex tape – avoided a total meltdown that some feared was imminent.
Instead, as one newspaper editorialized, Trump “stopped the bleeding” in both his campaign and entire Republican Party by re-energizing his base – the one that shares Trump’s vision of populist nationalism – and apparently slowed the exodus of GOP office-holders who are putting distance from Trump, a third of whom have revoked their endorsements of his candidacy.
The hemorrhage resumed two days later, however, when Trump set out on another of his infamous Twitter tirades in which he declared war on his own party. Presumably, Trump was enraged a day after House Speaker Paul Ryan gave up and said he would no longer work toward Trump’s election and instead would focus on holding onto Republicans’ majority in Congress.
As the latest melodramatic chapter in the Trump saga unfolded, newspaper editorials and online columnists took on Trump’s unveiled threat to Mrs. Clinton during their second debate that, as president, he will instruct his attorney general to appoint a special prosecutor “to look into (her) situation.” Interpreted as a threat to see the Democratic front-runner in jail, commentators rightfully pointed out that a president does not have authority to incarcerate anyone. But they did not explain why.
Simply, Trump apparently could use a civics lesson. The federal Constitution gives the judiciary sole authority to decide who gets jailed or imprisoned and why. The independence and autonomy of the judiciary are protected from influence by the two other branches of government – the executive and legislative – just as they are guaranteed autonomy from the other two branches.
A day after the debate, Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s third campaign manager, repeated a previously used excuse that her boss was “just kidding” when he threatened Mrs. Clinton with jail. Nonetheless, just a few hours later, Trump repeated his threat at a campaign event.
In conveying a poor knowledge of the federal separation of powers, Trump’s remarks also evoked memories from another dark chapter in American history – the events of Oct. 20, 1973, known to history as the Saturday Night Massacre. It provoked what up until then was the most serious threat to constitutional law but was averted when its antagonist, President Richard Nixon, backed down amid a national backlash that infused calls for his impeachment.
By October 1973, Nixon was fully enshrouded in the Watergate scandal in which five burglars who paid by contributions to Nixon’s Committee to Re-Elect the President – CREEP, as it came to be insidiously known – broke into Democratic national headquarters in the Watergate hotel in Washington, D.C. The purpose of the burglary was to plant electronic eavesdropping and recording devices for Republicans to obtain damaging information against Democrats in Nixon’s 1972 re-election campaign.
As later proven, Nixon was aware of the break-in after the fact but approved the payment of hush money to the burglars and became part of burglary’s cover-up. The cover-up had little to do with the burglary itself but was intended to prevent detection of other covert (and illegal) operations that Nixon and his operatives started even before his first inauguration in 1969.
His back against the wall Oct. 20, 1973, three months after it was discovered conversations about the burglary had been recorded in the Oval Office and were under subpoena, Nixon ordered his attorney general to fire Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox. Nixon’s hand-picked attorney general, Elliot Richardson, refused to carry out the president’s order, however, citing his commitment to the autonomy and independence of the special prosecutor.
Richardson swiftly resigned, and his deputy AG, William Ruckelshaus, was fired after he also refused to execute the order. It fell to the third-in-charge at the Justice Department, Solicitor General Robert Bork, to carry out Nixon’s order.
National fury exploded in the wake of the Saturday Night Massacre and within three days, Western Union in Washington was overwhelmed by telegrams from voters to the congressmen. Most of them demanded their elected representatives to call for Nixon’s impeachment.
At the heart of the uproar was the threat by the executive branch to the judiciary and the fear that Nixon was trying to remake the presidency into a dictatorship. But the dreaded challenge to constitutional law and its scope was averted when Nixon backed down within days and appointed a second special prosecutor.
In less than 10 months, in August 1974, Nixon became the first and only president to resign the presidency after transcripts of the tapes – which he never released – confirmed his active participation in the cover-up of the burglary.
The risk to the country that it might again endure anything like the Saturday Night Massacre and another presidential interference with the judiciary seem unlikely, however.
As a seasoned CNN commentary pointed out just two days after the debate in which Trump threatened Mrs. Clinton, no presidential candidate who trailed the front-runner by as few as four points with Election Day just four weeks out overcame the deficit to win the election. A national Wall Street Journal poll released two days after the second Trump-Clinton debate and four days after release of Trump’s universally condemned tape, showed Trump with a deep 11-point deficit, significant enough to hint at an Electoral College blowout for Mrs. Clinton.
If she can hold onto that advantage, the country may never know that it was spared another national crisis that engulfed it the night of Oct. 20, 1973.