Watergate 2: Watergate Harder

Back in March, John Oliver debuted a segment on his HBO series, Last Week Tonight, which he dubbed "Stupid Watergate." The purpose of the segment was to review recent news surrounding the Trump-Russia situation, which Oliver described as "a scandal with all the potential ramifications of Watergate, but where everyone involved was stupid and bad at everything."

It was funny and topical, like most things Oliver does. But it was mostly dismissed as nothing more than a comedy bit. After all, while the Russia situation certainly appeared sketchy, it certainly hadn't escalated to the point where it was truly comparable to the scandal that brought down the Nixon White House.

Now, almost five months later, we appear to be square in the middle of 2 Water 2 Gate.

To understand why this is beginning to look like a frighteningly apt comparison, you need to understand the Saturday Night Massacre. Here's the abridged version: a special prosecutor, Archibald Cox, had been appointed by Richard Nixon's attorney general, Elliot Richardson, to look into the break-in of the Democratic Party's offices at the Watergate Hotel. Cox's investigation started getting too close to Nixon for the president's comfort, and on October 20, 1973, Nixon ordered Richardson to fire Cox. Richardson refused and resigned in protest. The president then gave the same order to the deputy attorney general, who also immediately resigned. Finally, Nixon was able to convince the next man in line, Robert Bork, to do the deed.

The Saturday Night Massacre is generally seen as the beginning of the end of the Nixon administration, with the president resigning in disgrace less than a year later.

It also seems strikingly familiar to those of us living through the insanity of the Trump administration.

Trump arguably had a "mini-massacre" of his own when he fired FBI director James Comey last spring, an act which the president admitted was motivated by the way Comey was handling the Russia investigation. And he now finds himself in an even more direct parallel to Nixon, butting heads with his attorney general because of a special prosecutor's investigation that is making the president far too nervous.

We have known for a while now that Trump has been furious with Jeff Sessions ever since the AG recused himself from the Russia investigation after "forgetting" about several conversations he had with the Russian ambassador during the campaign.  Trump felt that the move made him look weak and made Sessions appear to have done something wrong, two cardinal sins against the overly image-conscious president. And he blames Sessions for the appointment of Robert Mueller to oversee the Russia investigation, something which only happened because the recusal made Rod Rosenstein the top Justice Department official on Russian matters.

If there was any doubt that the president felt this way, it evaporated last week when Trump gave a bizarre interview to the New York Times. Trump flat-out stated that he wouldn't have picked Sessions for the role if he knew that the AG would recuse himself and that he felt it was "very unfair to the president." The chance to vent to the Times seems to have broken the dam holding back Trump's anger at the former senator from Alabama, as he has taken to Twitter several times in the past week to blast his former ally as "beleaguered" and having "taken a very week position on Hillary Clinton Crimes!" When asked directly if he planned to fire Sessions, Trump said only that he was "very disappointed" in him and that "time will tell." It has become a full-on public shaming of the man who had been his longest-running ally in Congress and the first (and only) senator to endorse him before he locked up the party's nomination.

At this point, it's obvious Trump wants Mueller gone. He warned the former FBI director about looking into his finances, something that the special prosecutor has begun to do as he follows the threads tying Russia and the Trump campaign together. And he repeatedly claims that the entire investigation is a "witch hunt" distracting the nation from his agenda. But he can't fire Mueller; that power lies with the head of the Justice Department. Since Sessions has recused himself, that means he would have to order Rosenstein to pull the plug. It's unlikely the deputy AG would do so, as he is the one who appointed Mueller in the first place. If Rosenstein resigned, it would literally be Saturday Night Massacre 2.0.

And so Trump needs Sessions out of the position he has held for a scant six months. He has to appoint a new attorney general, one who has not recused himself on Russia and who would be able to hinder or even terminate the Mueller probe. The AP reports that Trump has had conversations with aides about firing him, but at the moment his tactic of choice seems to be simply to shame Sessions into resigning. If he can get a resignation from him soon, he could even bypass the Senate on a replacement by recess-appointing someone during the August break.

What the president doesn't seem to understand is that getting rid of Mueller, or Sessions, or Rosenstein won't make the investigation into Russia go away. Sacking Jim Comey only served to light the fire that put Trump in this position to begin with. If he does make the decision to fire Sessions (who still has a number of friends in Congress) and Mueller (who is highly respected on both sides of the aisle), all he will do is further escalate the current crisis.

Of course, the Republicans in Congress showed the backbone to stand up to Nixon when he went on his power trip. The group currently on Capitol Hill has not given us much of a reason to believe they will demonstrate such courage.