The parallels between Trump and Nixon have been around a while. Some seemed to be self-consciously evoked—the “secret plan” to defeat ISIS and Trump’s dark and stormy version of Nixon’s “law and order” address at the RNC, for instance, were both straight out of the Nixon playbook. His attacks on the media also evoke Nixon—same goes for the paranoia, the martyrdom complex, and the consuming fear of illegitimacy. There are important differences between the two men—as Rick Perlstein wrote earlier this month, Nixon, unlike Trump, was introspective—but they share a win-at-all-costs mentality and a consuming sense of vengeance.
On Monday, the tenth day of Donald Trump’s already excruciatingly long presidency, Trump went full Nixon. After it emerged that acting attorney general (and Obama appointee) Sally Q. Yates ordered the Justice Department not to defend Trump’s executive order banning refugees and travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries, the Trump administration canned her. The move was reminiscent—if, it must be said, on a much-smaller scale—of the famous “Saturday night massacre,” when Nixon ordered the firing of the special prosecutor investigating Watergate and both the attorney general and deputy attorney general refused in protest. The Saturday night massacre was a constitutional crisis—Trump’s low-rent approximation isn’t, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t disturbing.
The Trump-ian language of the release announcing Yates’s firing was bombastic—it accused Yates of “betraying” her government and suggested she was “very weak” on immigration. It’s a remarkable document, one that suggests that the Trump administration has no taste whatsoever for dissenters of any stripe.
One possible explanation for the heated response was that Yates’s refusal to comply with the order clashed with the administration’s justification for it. Stephen Miller, who helped write the order with Steve Bannon, Rudy Giuliani, and congressional staffers who quietly signed NDAs, had told officials to ignore the “hysterical” response to the order and insisted that it was deeply popular with the American people. The spontaneous protests that have erupted nationwide and Yates’s response suggest otherwise. Miller lashed out at Yates on MSNBC on Monday night, saying without any self-awareness or irony, “It’s sad that our politics have become so politicized, that you have people refusing to enforce our laws.”
Firing an attorney general who wouldn’t comply with an executive order does not a constitutional crisis make. But we’re apparently headed for one, and Nixonian moves of the kind we saw on Monday suggest it may come sooner rather than later.