After Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox refused President Nixon’s offer of a “compromise” on the issue of the White House tapes, Nixon orders--through his chief of staff Alexander Haig--Attorney General Elliot Richardson fire Cox. Richardson refuses the presidential order, and resigns on the spot. Haig then orders Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus to fire Cox. Ruckelshaus also refuses, and also resigns.
Haig finally finds a willing Justice Department official in Solicitor General Robert Bork, who is named acting attorney general and fires Cox. Bork tells reporters, “All I will say is that I carried out the president’s directive.” White House press secretary Ronald Ziegler announces that the Office of the Special Prosecutor has been abolished.
FBI agents are sent to prevent Cox’s staff from taking their files out of their offices. Ziegler justifies the firing by saying that Cox “defied” Nixon’s instructions “at a time of serious world crisis” and made it “necessary” for Nixon to discharge him.
After his firing, Cox says, “Whether ours shall continue to be a government of laws and not of men is now for Congress and ultimately the American people.”
The press dubs Cox’s firings and the abolishment of the OSP the “Saturday Night Massacre,” and the public reacts with a fury unprecedented in modern American political history. In a period of ten days, Congress receives more than a million letters and telegrams demanding Nixon’s impeachment. Soon after Congress launch an impeachment inquiry.
Former Washington Post editor Barry Sussman writes in 1974 that Cox’s firing was not a result of impetuous presidential anger. Nixon had been more than reluctant to accept a special prosecutor for Watergate. Cox, named special prosecutor in the spring of 1973, had quickly earned the ire of White House officials and of Nixon himself, and by October 7, Nixon had announced privately that Cox would be fired. Sound familiar?