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Watergate Veterans: Just Like Nixon, Donald Trump Appears to Think He is Above the Law

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On Monday night, after Trump fired acting Attorney General Sally Yates over her refusal to defend Trump’s Muslim ban, many commentators compared the incident to the infamous Saturday Night Massacre in 1973, when then-Attorney General Elliot Richardson and his deputy resigned after President Richard Nixon ordered Richardson to fire the special prosecutor investigating the Watergate scandal. For more, we speak with two women who played key roles during the Nixon years. Elizabeth Holtzman is a former U.S. congresswoman from New York who served on the House Judiciary Committee that voted to impeach Richard Nixon. Jill Wine-Banks was an assistant Watergate special prosecutor and the first woman to serve as U.S. Army general counsel.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: President Donald Trump fired acting Attorney General Sally Yates on Monday night, just hours after she announced the Justice Department would not defend Trump’s executive order banning temporarily all refugees, as well as all citizens, from the seven Muslim-majority nations Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about the news, again, we’re joined by two guests, Elizabeth Holtzman, former U.S. congresswoman from New York. She was the youngest member serving on the House Judiciary Committee that voted to impeach Richard Nixon. Jill Wine-Banks is also with us, from Arizona, assistant Watergate special prosecutor, first woman to serve as U.S. Army general counsel.

Why don’t we start off with Jill Wine-Banks? Your response to President Trump firing Sally Q. Yates, the acting attorney general, for refusing to enforce the refugee and Muslim ban?

JILL WINE-BANKS: I’d say it was a big mistake, that if Sally had been the attorney general to Richard Nixon, or the White House counsel, there wouldn’t have been a Watergate, that he made a mistake both in terms of the substance and the appearance. And the turning point in the Watergate investigation, in many ways, was the Saturday Night Massacre, when we were inundated with what were then telegrams, but would today probably be emails, and public opinion turned against Richard Nixon. I’d like to point out that he served a very short time after that, although he had been elected with a landslide, because public opinion turned against him and the evidence was there of his culpability.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Jill Wine-Banks, you’ve made the point, though, with Nixon, he was already in his second term as president. We’re dealing with a president who’s in his second week as president. And the speed with which this kind of a crisis has occurred, I’m wondering if you could talk about the—your perspective on the comparison and also the role of women so far in standing up to this president?

JILL WINE-BANKS: I think that’s one of the most remarkable points, is about the women. If you look at—all the judges that have ruled on this have been women. The acting attorney general, of course, is a woman. And in the Nixon era, less than 5 percent of all lawyers were women. So, you would have never had that as anything involved, and that one of the lessons of Watergate is that you can’t surround yourself with yes men. And in this case, of course, it turns out you shouldn’t surround yourself with yes women, either, and he hasn’t. So, that’s the good news, is that the women have had the courage to stand up to the president. If John Dean had stood up much sooner than he did, this whole Watergate episode could have been avoided. But people are afraid to tell truth to power. And I’m so proud to be part of the women’s group that is standing up to him.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go back to 1973. This is how NBC’s John Chancellor broke the news of what became known as the Saturday Night Massacre.

JOHN CHANCELLOR: Good evening. The country tonight is in the midst of what may be the most serious constitutional crisis in its history. The president has fired the special Watergate prosecutor, Archibald Cox. Because of the president’s action, the attorney general has resigned. Elliot Richardson has quit, saying he cannot carry out Mr. Nixon’s instructions. Richardson’s deputy, William Ruckelshaus, has been fired. Ruckelshaus refused, in a moment of constitutional drama, to obey a presidential order to fire the special Watergate prosecutor. And half an hour after the special Watergate prosecutor had been fired, agents of the FBI, acting at the direction of the White House, sealed off the offices of the special prosecutor, the offices of the attorney general and the offices of the deputy attorney general. All of this adds up to a totally unprecedented situation, a grave and profound crisis in which the president has set himself against his own attorney general and the Department of Justice.

AMY GOODMAN: That was John Chancellor announcing the Saturday Night Massacre. You were the youngest congressmember at the time and the youngest one on the House Judiciary Committee, Liz Holtzman.

ELIZABETH HOLTZMAN: Well, I was the youngest woman ever elected to Congress until a couple of years ago, so that’s—I don’t about the youngest member of that committee. I never checked that point.

AMY GOODMAN: But so talk about that night. Talk about what happened, the significance, and then the parallels that you see to today—or don’t see.

ELIZABETH HOLTZMAN: Well, it was an extraordinary abuse of power, what Richard Nixon did, the firing of Archibald Cox, having him fired. It was an impeachable offense; it would form part of the articles of impeachment. Why? Because President Nixon was using the powers of his office not for the benefit of the United States of America, but to cover up a crime—namely, the break-in at the Watergate Hotel by operatives of the White House and by operatives of his re-elect committee. So that was a cover-up and part of keeping the cover-up going. And it was abuse of power, because Richard Nixon didn’t care about the law. He wanted the special prosecutor out of the way.

And while there’s not an exact similarity here, because so far we don’t know that there’s a cover-up, but what we have is the same mentality of abusing power, of taking power into your own hands and saying, "I’m first"—not "America First," "I’m first." If the attorney general says that this may not pass legal muster, that this may not be lawful, don’t you think the president ought to be asking, "Wow! How do we get this to be lawful? What’s wrong here? I want to obey the law." No, the president put himself above the law. He didn’t want to find out why this wasn’t lawful, what the qualms were, what the problems were. And that’s the mentality that will bring this president down. You cannot, in the end, put yourself above the law time after time after time.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, this issue of putting yourself above the law, interestingly, when Sally Yates was being confirmed, she was questioned by Jeff Sessions, who will this week, obviously, take over the job of attorney general, specifically about—he asked her about the issue of what you would do if you disagreed with the president. And let’s hear what he asked her at the time.

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: Do you think the attorney general has a responsibility to say no to the president if he asks for something that’s improper? A lot of people have defended the Lynch nomination, for example, by saying, "Well, he appoints somebody who’s going to execute his views. What’s wrong with that?" But if the views the president wants to execute are unlawful, should the attorney general or the deputy attorney general say no?

SALLY YATES: Senator, I believe that the attorney general or the deputy attorney general has an obligation to follow the law and the Constitution and to give their independent legal advice to the president.

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: Like any CEO with a law firm, sometimes the lawyers have to tell the CEO, "Mr. CEO, you can’t do that. Don’t do that. We’ll get a suit. It’s going to be in violation of the law. You’ll regret it. Please," no matter how headstrong they might be. Do you feel like that’s the duty on the Attorney General’s Office?

SALLY YATES: I do believe that that’s the duty of the Attorney General’s Office, to fairly and impartially evaluate the law and to provide the president and the administration with impartial legal advice.

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: And just as in a fraud case or any other drug case you might have prosecuted—excellently, it appears—over the years, immigration law is important to be consistently and effectively enforced, should it not?

SALLY YATES: I believe that all of our laws should be consistently and effectively enforced and within the confines of the Constitution.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was Sally Yates in 2015 at her confirmation hearing, being questioned by Jeff Sessions, and specifically on the very issue over which she now has been fired. Liz Holtzman, your response?

ELIZABETH HOLTZMAN: Well, of course, the irony is overwhelming. But I just want to go back to the point that was made by the White House when they attacked her. I thought she showed enormous courage in standing up for what she believed was right and in talking about the law. That’s the Department of Justice. What does the law say? We’re a law-abiding country. The president of the United States, in attacking her, the White House statement said she was weak on illegal immigration. That’s not her job to be strong or weak on immigration. Her job is to be strong on the law. He didn’t care about the law. The president doesn’t care about the law. That’s the problem here, and that’s what we’re seeing. The amazing thing is, he didn’t even vet this executive order with lawyers beforehand—maybe the Judiciary Committee staff, it’s not clear, but he didn’t vet it with the Justice Department. He didn’t vet it, apparently, with the homeland security lawyers. So—

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, the story on the front page of the Times was that General Kelly, head of—

ELIZABETH HOLTZMAN: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: —one of the few people who have been confirmed so far, was on the phone with the White House giving his input on the executive order, when an aide pointed to a TV showing Donald Trump signing the executive order.

ELIZABETH HOLTZMAN: Right. They didn’t care what the law was, how this was going to be done. This is the president über alles. And I use that terminology very deliberately.

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