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U.S. Politics What was the Saturday Night Massacre? A look at the Nixon controversy Wilson-Raybould mentioned in her SNC testimony

Jody Wilson-Raybould leaves a Justice committee meeting in Ottawa, Feb. 27, 2019.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

On the evening of Oct. 20, 1973, Richard Nixon had the prosecutor investigating the Watergate scandal fired, and forced out his attorney-general along the way. The episode, nicknamed the “Saturday Night Massacre,” became a notorious example of executive interference in the judiciary and marked the beginning of the end of Mr. Nixon’s presidency.

Former Canadian attorney-general Jody Wilson-Raybould evoked the infamous incident in her testimony to a legislative committee on Wednesday, as she recounted pressure on her from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his top advisers to stop the corruption prosecution of SNC Lavalin.

“I said that I was having thoughts of the Saturday Night Massacre, but that I was confident that I had given the Prime Minister my best advice to protect him and to protect the constitutional principle of prosecutorial independence,” Ms. Wilson-Raybould said she told chief civil servant Michael Wernick in a telephone conversation in December of last year.

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Read the full text of Ms. Wilson-Raybould's opening statement

The former attorney-general explains how she was asked to help SNC-Lavalin avoid prosecution, raising the spectre of job losses in Quebec during an election. The Canadian Press

The following month, Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s prediction came true: After she continued to refuse demands from Mr. Trudeau and his office to go easy on SNC, Mr. Trudeau demoted her to veterans-affairs minister.

The two situations do not exactly parallel one another, but there are some similarities. Both involved attorneys-general who lost their jobs for refusing their boss’s demands that they interfere in politically sensitive judicial files.

During the Saturday Night Massacre, Mr. Nixon told attorney-general Elliot Richardson to fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox. Mr. Cox was investigating the Watergate scandal, during which a group of political operatives broke into Democratic Party headquarters. Mr. Cox was seeking Oval Office tapes that implicated Mr. Nixon in efforts to cover up the operatives’ connection to a larger “dirty tricks” operation funded by the president’s re-election committee.

Mr. Richardson refused Mr. Nixon’s demand and resigned. Mr. Richardson’s deputy, William Ruckelshaus, also refused to fire Mr. Cox and resigned as well. Finally, solicitor-general Robert Bork agreed to carry out the order and turfed Mr. Cox.

In a statement on his ouster, Mr. Cox seemed to immediately grasp the moment’s historical importance. “Whether ours shall continue to be a government of laws and not of men is now for Congress and ultimately the American people,” he said.

The move abruptly backfired: A court ruled it illegal, and Mr. Bork appointed another special prosecutor to take Mr. Cox’s place. After refusing for several more months to release the Oval Office tapes, Mr. Nixon was finally forced to give in by the Supreme Court. As Congress prepared to impeach him the following summer, Mr. Nixon resigned.

A former Canadian cabinet minister comparing the sitting Prime Minister’s actions to those of Mr. Nixon is extraordinary enough in the hyper-disciplined, message-tracked world of Ottawa. But the Saturday Night Massacre analogy is particularly stinging, not only for its implication that Mr. Trudeau is engaging in a serious violation of constitutional norms, but for the dire consequences it evokes.

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The incident itself is frequently discussed in Washington, particularly in the age of President Donald Trump: His firing of FBI director James Comey over the investigation into alleged collusion between the Russian government and Mr. Trump’s campaign to tip the election drew comparisons to Mr. Nixon’s actions.

And just last month, Walter Shaub, a former U.S. federal government ethics chief, evoked the incident to describe how Mr. Trump is angling to keep a lid on the potential fallout from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election hacking: Mr. Trump pushed out former attorney-general Jeff Sessions, who had recused himself from overseeing the probe, and appointed William Barr, who has previously written that he believes Mr. Mueller’s investigation is too expansive.

“The Senate is about to ratify President Trump’s slow-motion sequel to the Saturday Night Massacre,” Mr. Shaub wrote on CNN of Mr. Barr’s confirmation.

Read more: Wilson-Raybould alleges ‘consistent and sustained’ effort by Trudeau, officials to ‘politically interfere’ in SNC-Lavalin case

Globe editorial: Jody Wilson-Raybould’s accusation goes to the very heart of Canadian justice

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