President Donald Trump’s firing of a politically motivated official—now-former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates, for her refusal to enforce the laws of the nation and carry out the administration’s policy—harkens back to a previous president who faced a similar crisis at the beginning of his administration.
CNN has been framing this in its lower-third chyron throughout the evening as “the Monday Night Massacre”—a reference to President Richard Nixon’s firing of both his Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General when they refused to get rid of a special prosecutor who was investigating him—with the intent to paint Trump as an off-the-rails tyrant. But even Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein, appearing on CNN late Monday night, rejected the comparison his own network CNN was making to the Nixon administration’s “Saturday Night Massacre.”
“There’s a big difference, because the Saturday Night Massacre was really about firing the attorney general when Nixon was the target of an investigation and was actively obstructing justice,” Bernstein said. “I think the president is within his rights here to fire the attorney general, that he has that ability.”
The reference that is much more accurate in this case is a reference to a different previous GOP president, an outsider battling to gain control of the federal government in his early days in office. Former White House political director Jeffrey Lord, who served under President Ronald Reagan, told Breitbart News that this matches Reagan’s battles with the bureaucracy at the beginning of his administration.
“I remember vividly when President Reagan fired the air traffic controllers—the PATCO union which had endorsed him as a candidate—in 1981,” Lord said in an email. “All of Washington was saying this was a mistake. He did it anyway, totally violating the Washington political and media elite conventional wisdom of the day. Kudos to President Trump for doing the 21st century version of Reagan’s bold firing to uphold principle. Elites will hate it but Americans will love it. More to the point they will get it.”
Back when President Reagan first took office, in the spring of 1981 while he was still recovering from the failed assassination attempt by John Hinckley, his Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis informed him that the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) planned to strike.
The Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan wrote about the pivotal moment years later:
The union’s 17,000 workers manned radar centers and air traffic control towers across the country. These were tough, high-stakes, highly demanding federal jobs. The union’s contact was up, they had been working under increasingly difficult conditions, and they wanted a big pay increase. Lewis told me Reagan was sympathetic: The increased pressures of the job justified a pay increase, and he offered an 11% jump—this within a context of his budget cutting. But Patco demanded a 100% increase. This would cost taxpayers an estimated $700 million. Reagan rejected it outright. He told Lewis to tell the union that he would not accept an illegal strike, nor would he negotiate a contract while a strike was on. He instructed Lewis to tell the head of the union, Robert Poli, something else: As a former union president he was the best friend they’ve ever had in the White House.
PATCO was one of the few unions that backed Reagan in the 1980 presidential election, in which the then-newly seated president beat incumbent President Jimmy Carter in a shocking landslide win, and Reagan was—as Noonan wrote—someone who considered himself a “union man” and “didn’t want to be seen as a Republican union buster.” Noonan wrote:
Still, Reagan believed no president could or should tolerate an illegal strike by federal employees, especially those providing a vital government service. Not only was there a law against such strikes, each member of Patco had signed a sworn affidavit agreeing not to strike. Talks resumed, fell apart, and by the summer 70% of the air controllers walked out. They had thought Reagan was bluffing. He wouldn’t fire them, they thought, because it would endanger the economy and inconvenience hundreds of thousands of passengers—and for another reason, which we’ll get to in a moment.
Then, when the walkout happened, she wrote that it “became a crisis.” So, naturally, Reagan—a conservative with backbone—“did what he said he would do.”
“He refused to accept the strike and refused to resume negotiations,” she wrote. “He called reporters to the Rose Garden and read from a handwritten statement he’d composed the night before. If the strikers did not return to work within 48 hours, they would be fired—and not rehired. The 48 hours was meant as a cooling-off period. In the meantime, Reagan made clear, nonstriking controllers and supervisory personnel would keep the skies open.”
After a political catastrophe played itself out in the media on the world stage, Reagan won: He broke the strike by firing the more than 11,000 striking air traffic controllers and worked feverishly to replace them after banning them from federal service for life (Bill Clinton later lifted the ban). And, more importantly, he regained control. President Reagan showed he was in control of the federal bureaucracy, the millions-strong federal workforce that generally votes for Democrats not Republicans, and that the government was under his command. It was a defining moment.
Fast forward to early 2017, and President Trump is less than two weeks into his administration after defeating Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton in a shocker landslide electoral college victory—where he won 306 electoral votes from 30 and a half states—stunning the media, the political class, and the federal bureaucracy to ascend to the highest office in the land. As an aside, Clinton’s failure to win even 20 full states was an embarrassment—especially since basically everyone in the political, cultural, and financial elite universe thought she would succeed.
Nonetheless, it was mostly smooth sailing for President Trump for his first week in office. Occasional media blowups from the usual anti-Trump suspects and scarce political opposition helped the newly inaugurated president of the United States make it through his first seven days in office easily. But on the seventh day, this past Friday, President Trump signed an executive order restricting immigration from seven terror-prone countries and putting a temporary pause on the refugee program. And over the weekend into early this week, all hell broke loose. The media lost control, Trump’s political opponents in both parties unleashed fierce criticism of the president, his policy, and the rollout process, while the media fanned the flames.
Then, on Monday evening, the storyline hit critical mass: Sally Yates, the Acting Attorney General of the United States, issued a directive to Justice Department employees that they should not enforce the president’s new executive order.
Yates, a political appointee from Trump’s predecessor, Democratic President Barack Obama, in the role of Deputy Attorney General, had agreed to stay on to help the peaceful transition of power to the Trump administration after the election. She was named, until her successor is confirmed, as the acting Attorney General. That means she agreed to follow the laws of the United States and execute the policies of the president of the United States—even ones with which she disagreed politically. The question she faced is whether Trump’s order was legally defensible. Trump’s team ran the order through the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel. They determined it was legal. Therefore, Yates’ duty was to enforce the laws of the United States—and uphold the Constitution—as directed by the President of the United States, something she knew when she accepted the position to help with the peaceful transition of power.
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), the incoming Attorney General, is likely to be confirmed by the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday and by the full U.S. Senate later this week. That means Yates’ decision to break her oath to uphold the laws and Constitution of the United States and the policies of the president comes just days before she was going to lose her temporary appointment anyway. But, it also presented a critical moment for President Trump. Let career government bureaucrats and politically motivated ex-Obama officials who are serving in similar capacities throughout the administration—sources with direct knowledge of transition efforts tell Breitbart News there are approximately 50 such politically-appointed ex-Obama officials still serving in key governmental positions as the transition continues—run over him and cause him to lose control? Or show the millions-strong governmental workforce, regardless of any particular government worker’s ideology, who is the boss?
Trump chose the latter and, in true Trumpian fashion, treated America and the world to his signature catchphrase from The Apprentice reality television show: “You’re Fired.” Trump canned Yates almost instantly. Then, he brought in a new Acting Attorney General, Dana Boente—the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia—to enforce the laws of the nation.
The press release from the White House was strong, ripping Yates for her “betrayal” of the Department of Justice and for being “weak” on immigration and national security. the Trump White House said:
The acting Attorney General, Sally Yates, has betrayed the Department of Justice by refusing to enforce a legal order designed to protect the citizens of the United States. This order was approved as to form and legality by the Department of Justice Office of Legal Counsel. Ms. Yates is an Obama Administration appointee who is weak on borders and very weak on illegal immigration. It is time to get serious about protecting our country. Calling for tougher vetting for individuals travelling from seven dangerous places is not extreme. It is reasonable and necessary to protect our country. Tonight, President Trump relieved Ms. Yates of her duties and subsequently named Dana Boente, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, to serve as Acting Attorney General until Senator Jeff Sessions is finally confirmed by the Senate, where he is being wrongly held up by Democrat senators for strictly political reasons.
The statement then quoted Boente as saying he intends to uphold the laws of the country and faithfully execute the office of the Attorney General while he is acting in that position—something Yates, for political purposes, refused to do.
“I am honored to serve President Trump in this role until Senator Sessions is confirmed. I will defend and enforce the laws of our country to ensure that our people and our nation are protected,” Boente, identified after the quote as Acting Attorney General of the United States of America, said.
The White House is playing this bold move, in which President Trump retook control and showed the government who’s in charge, cool for now.
“The president acted to protect the country and its citizens,” Sean Spicer, White House Press Secretary, told Breitbart News late Monday evening.
But outside allies and top Trump supporters are ecstatic. Rick Manning, the president of Americans for Limited Government, told Breitbart News:
Donald Trump demonstrated today that he refuses to allow a politically motivated Obama appointee who fell into the role of Acting Attorney General due to the intransigence of Democrats in the Senate to overturn the will of the people. The immediate replacement of this remnant of Obama’s open borders policy was both warranted and necessary. America is fortunate to have a decisive leader in the White House who is determined to not allow those who lost the election to dictate how he will govern.
“President Trump is to be commended for upholding the rule of law in firing Yates for her politicization of the Justice Department,” Judicial Watch president Tom Fitton added in an emailed statement to Breitbart News.
While the political class and media are ripping Trump and his administration over this for now, this may prove—when the history books are written—to be one of the most decisive moments in his presidency. And while there are certainly questions as to whether–despite the widespread popularity of Trump’s action–the rollout of his executive order was done effectively, Yates’ betrayal and Trump’s quick seizure of the moment could be the pivot point that turns the tide of the narrative back in his direction after a rough past few days. For now, Trump is winning again–and he’s in charge.