As It Happens

Comey firing worse than Nixon's 'Saturday Night Massacre,' former White House ethics lawyer says

U.S. President Donald Trump's unexpected firing of FBI Director James Comey has drawn comparisons to the Watergate scandal, but one former presidential ethics lawyer says this situation is much worse.
The White House says FBI Director James Comey was fired over his handling of the Hillary Clinton email scandal, but a former presidential ethics lawyer says it's clearly all about Russia. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

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U.S. President Donald Trump's unexpected firing of FBI Director James Comey has drawn comparisons to the Watergate scandal, but one former presidential ethics lawyer says this situation is much worse.

Trump on Tuesday fired Comey amid an FBI probe into allegations of collusion between the president's administration and the Russian government.

In the 1973 Saturday Night Massacre, president Richard Nixon sacked Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor charged with investigating his involvement in a break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington.

The Watergate scandal eventually proved Nixon's undoing, and if Trump isn't careful, he may follow down the same path, says Richard Painter, chief ethics lawyer under president George W. Bush. 

Painter, now a law professor at the University of Minnesota, spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off. Here is a part of their conversation. 

If the president continues to conduct himself in this manner I don't think he's going to stay in office very long.- Richard Painter, University of Minnesota

Carol Off: Many people are comparing Donald Trump's move to Nixon and Watergate. Would you agree?

Richard Painter: In some respects this is a much more serious situation than Watergate with respect to the underlying facts, which involve Russian espionage inside the United States and the fact that some Americans may very well have co-operated with that. That is very different than the Watergate situation, which was really a third-rate burglary by America that didn't involve Russian espionage.

The real issue is how is the president going to respond to this? I was hoping that President Trump would not make the same mistakes as Nixon, that he would not cover up the wrongdoing, that he would find out who co-operated with the Russians and throw them out of the White House.

Unfortunately, at this point, it looks like President Trump is heading down the same road as Nixon.

Richard Painter, who served as chief ethics lawyer for president George W. Bush, says Donald Trump could face impeachment if he doesn't agree to the appoint of special prosecutor to investigation allegations of Russian collusion. (Herb Moyer/YouTube)

CO: President Trump said that he fired Comey for his "mishandling" of the investigation into [former secretary of state] Hillary Clinton's private email server. Why do you think it's a cover-up?

RP: That's a complete farce. If there's one thing President Trump has to be grateful for with respect to Director Comey it's what Director Comey did in investigating the Clinton email server and then writing a letter to Congress a week before the election.

What he is upset about is the fact that the FBI is not only investigating aggressively the Trump-Russia connections, but that Director Comey has made several statements in public that conflict with what the president has said. Director Comey confirmed that president Obama was never spying on President Trump.

It is clear that Director Comey was investigating associates of President Trump for collaborating with the Russians. The president does not like that. He's fired him. And I think that's quite clear that that's the reason.

CO: The optics, he must have known or been advised, would be extreme. ... Is it possible that the consequences of that investigation continuing are large enough that it was worth doing what he did?

RP: Ever since the beginning of the campaign, President Trump ... has been advised that the optics of his saying various things and doing various things were terrible. He went ahead and did it anyway, and he has been constantly rewarded for doing that — up 'till this point.

I do not think he's gonna get away with it. What he would have to do at this point is agree with Congress on the appointment of an independent special prosecutor to preside over the entire investigation of the links with Russia.

CO: You've said elsewhere that the next step has to come from Congress and that there's a possibility that impeachment is the answer. Why do you say that?

JP: If the president is not willing to co-operate and the president is not willing to provide information to Congress about the Trump-Russia investigation, he's not willing to appoint an independent special prosecutor, I think then the only alternative would be for the House judiciary committee to meet and seriously consider if the president is fit for his job.

CO: We saw what Watergate did to Richard Nixon. Do you think this event could have the same effect on the Trump presidency?

RP: If the president continues to conduct himself in this manner I don't think he's going to stay in office very long.

This interview was edited for length and clarity. For more, listen to our full interview with Richard Painter. 

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