October 23, 1973 – “Saturday Night Massacre”

In June 1972, five men associated both with the CIA and with the Committee for the Re-Election of the President (i.e., President Richard Nixon) broke into the Democratic National Committee’s offices in the Watergate Complex in Washington, D.C. They were discovered by a security guard, and a scandal erupted.

The Watergate Complex from the air

The Watergate Complex from the air

That August, President Nixon announced that John Dean, who served as White House Counsel for United States President Richard Nixon from July 1970 until April 1973, completed an investigation into the Watergate case and found no involvement with anyone in the White House.

John Dean while serving as White House Counsel

John Dean while serving as White House Counsel

Nevertheless, on February 7, 1973, the U.S. Senate created a Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities to begin its own investigation. Various Nixon administration officials, including Dean, who made a deal to cooperate with investigators, alleged that Nixon’s innermost circle had orchestrated both the break-in, the cover-up of the break-in, and other illegal activities.

Honoring a promise that he had made during his confirmation hearings, Attorney General Elliott Richardson appointed lawyer Archibald Cox to serve as a special prosecutor to investigate the Watergate case if his own nomination garnered approval.

Elliot Richardson is sworn in as Secretary of Defense in February of 1973.

Elliot Richardson is sworn in as Secretary of Defense in February of 1973.

Cox demanded that Nixon produce tape recordings he had made in the Oval Office during the time period in question, and Nixon refused, claiming “executive privilege.”

On the night of October 23, Nixon ordered Richardson to fire Cox. Because Richardson had promised Congress he would appoint Cox, Richardson refused, and resigned in protest. Nixon then ordered Deputy Attorney General Ruckelshaus to fire Cox, and Ruckelshaus also refused and resigned. The Solicitor General, Robert Bork, agreed to fire Cox, in what became known as the “Saturday Night Massacre.”

Former Watergate Special Prosecutor, Archibald Cox in 1983. Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post

Former Watergate Special Prosecutor,
Archibald Cox in 1983.
Lucian Perkins — The Washington Post

Congress was so outraged it introduced bills of impeachment, charging Nixon with abuse of power and obstruction of justice. Meanwhile, Cox’s successor, Leon Jaworski, followed in Cox’s footsteps, much to Nixon’s chagrin. The Supreme Court weighed in as well, and on July 24, 1974, Chief Justice Burger announced the Court’s decision in United States v. Nixon (418 U.S. 683, 1974) requiring Nixon to produce the Oval Office tapes. However, there was an eighteen-minute gap in the transcripts, never found, that Nixon claimed resulted from an error by his secretary.

But what had not been deleted was damaging enough, and on August 8, 1974, Nixon became the first U.S. President to resign from office. Vice President Gerald Ford assumed the presidency, and on September 8, 1974, he pardoned Nixon for any crimes associated with the Watergate affair.

U.S. President Richard M. Nixon as he announces his resignation on television  (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

U.S. President Richard M. Nixon as he announces his resignation on television (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

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