Forty-five years ago, the U.S. was witness to the “Saturday Night Massacre” when then embattled President Richard Nixon ordered Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire independent special prosecutor Archibald Cox, who was investigating the Watergate scandal.
Richardson refused to obey Nixon’s order and resigned. The president had initially said he fired the attorney general.
Nixon then ordered Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus to get rid of Cox. Ruckelshaus refused and tendered his resignation.
Finally, Nixon found someone in the Justice Department who would do his bidding: Solicitor General Robert Bork.
Cox’s firing triggered a national political crisis and hastened the Republican president’s resignation. Nixon was facing almost certain impeachment and removal from office.
That chapter in America’s history came to mind recently when President Donald J. Trump, also a Republican, went on a public rant against U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
In a tweet dealing with the ongoing investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, Trump wrote: “If we had a real Attorney General, this Witch Hunt would not have been started. Looking at the wrong people.”
Trump’s public attacks on the nation’s top lawyer and chief law-enforcement officer of the federal government began shortly after Sessions recused himself from the Russian probe.
The president has said that he would have “put a different attorney general in” had he known Sessions would be stepping aside, thus leaving his deputy, Rod Rosenstein, to handle the Russian probe. It was Rosenstein who appointed Mueller as special counsel.
Trump obviously believes the attorney general of the United States is the president’s lawyer, as reflected in his comments last year to the New York Times.
He told the Times that Sessions “was very unfair to the president” when he recused himself from the Russian probe.
Trump’s advisers might want to give their boss a primer on the creation of the position of attorney general by the Judiciary Act of 1789.
Eighty-one years later, Congress created the Justice Department with the attorney general as its head.
Here are the principal duties of the nation’s top lawyer that the American people should bear in mind as the Trump-Sessions battle rages:
Represent the United States in legal matters.
Supervise and direct the administration and operation of the offices, boards, divisions, and bureaus that comprise the department.
Furnish advice and opinions, formal and informal, on legal matters to the president and the Cabinet and to the heads of the executive departments and agencies of the government, as provided by law.
Make recommendations to the president concerning appointments to federal judicial positions and to positions within the department, including U.S. attorneys and U.S. marshals.
Represent or supervise the representation of the United States Government in the Supreme Court of the United States and all other courts, foreign and domestic, in which the United States is a party or has an interest as may be deemed appropriate.
Perform or supervise the performance of other duties required by statute or Executive Order.
Although the president appoints the attorney general, with the advice and consent of the U.S. Senate, and, therefore, has the power to remove him or her from office, the legal standard for such action should be extremely high. That’s because the American people must have confidence in the decisions made by the nation’s chief lawyer.
Political pressure on the attorney general from the president, as Nixon exerted four decades ago and Trump is now exerting, undermines the credibility of the office and the Justice Department.
The department’s official website offers this description:
“The mission of the Office of the Attorney General is to supervise and direct the administration and operation of the Department of Justice, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Drug Enforcement Administration, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Bureau of Prisons, Office of Justice Programs, and the U.S. Attorneys and U.S. Marshals Service, which are all within the Department of Justice.”
In other words, neither the department nor the attorney general serves at the pleasure of the president. They work on behalf of the nation and their duty is to the citizens of the United States.