Op-Ed

I stayed through Watergate probe. The FBI’s Wray and Rosenstein should not resign now

In 1973, President Nixon fired special prosecutor Archibald Cox, who was investigating the Watergate scandal.
In 1973, President Nixon fired special prosecutor Archibald Cox, who was investigating the Watergate scandal. AP

The long tradition of the House Intelligence Committee — heretofore an island of bipartisan protection of national security within an ever more partisan Congress — has become collateral damage in the quest to protect President Trump from the conclusion of the Mueller investigation.

Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein and FBI Director Christopher Wray urged Trump not to allow the public release of an inaccurate memo that recklessly reveals classified national security sources and methods. Now that he has allowed the memo to be made public, many will ask whether Wray and Rosenstein should resign in protest.

They should not do so. America needs these principled public servants to stay at their posts.

In the aftermath of the Saturday Night Massacre in 1973, I and other members of the Watergate special prosecutor’s office absorbed the concussive shock of the firing of special prosecutor Archibald Cox, only to realize that despite President Nixon’s announcement to the contrary, we hadn’t actually been fired. Some of us expressed the view that we should resign to protest his craven attempt to derail the investigation into the Watergate coverup. Indeed, it became clear that Nixon’s violation of his attorney general’s ironclad promise that Cox would be allowed to pursue an independent investigation without interference from the administration was but another overt act in an ongoing conspiracy to obstruct justice.

Bloodied but unbowed, we decided to soldier on and do our jobs for as long as we were able. On Nixon’s orders, the FBI had entered our secure offices to take possession of our files and dispossess us from our workplace. A physical confrontation between the uniformed Secret Service officers who provided 24/7 security for our office and the invading FBI special agents was narrowly averted. But this naked use of force by a president acting in fear of our pursuit of what he knew was damning evidence of his own criminal actions would not stand. To an overwhelming and vocal majority of Americans, including many members of the president’s party in Congress, these actions against a legally empowered special prosecutor was akin to the actions of tin-pot dictators around the world infamous for using such tactics to silence critics and maintain power. Public revulsion to Cox’s firing caused Nixon to reverse course, producing the subpoenaed tape recordings (albeit with deliberate erasures) and selecting a new special prosecutor — Leon Jaworski — to lead our team.

The campaign of denigration directed against special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, the firing of FBI Director James B. Comey, the demands for personal loyalty from government officials whose first loyalty is to their oath of office and the Constitution are among a growing mountain of evidence that raises the question: “Why does the president fear the results of an unfettered Mueller investigation?”

Instead of rallying to protect the rule of law and allowing Mueller to conclude his investigation without interference, the vast majority of Republican members of Congress have stood by or encouraged the president in his attacks on the FBI, the Justice Department and the intelligence community, including the CIA and the National Security Agency.

The president’s desire to fire Mueller in June reportedly was thwarted by White House counsel Donald McGahn’s refusal to implement Trump’s impulsive decision. That doesn’t mean he won’t try again, or employ some other gambit to derail Mueller from completing his work. The playbook of autocrats is filled with tactics to distract their populations from domestic troubles, including cooking up foreign crises.

We need our most capable public servants at their posts to help the nation navigate what could be the most serious constitutional crisis since Watergate.

Richard Ben-Veniste was chief of the Watergate Task Force of the Watergate Special Prosecutor’s Office.

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