Yesterday, when President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey — the man who was leading the investigation into the Trump administration’s ties to Russia — the immediate comparison everyone made was to Richard Nixon’s “Saturday Night Massacre,” the evening Nixon fired Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox. And while the comparison makes sense, it’s far from the only (pick your adjective) controversial, ballsy, self-serving or CYA pink slip issued by a sitting U.S. president. In fact, whether it’s Trump bouncing Comey from the FBI or Nixon letting Cox go, there’s a long tradition of embattled commanders-in-chief looking to get rid of someone whose mere presence could lead to their undoing.
President: Abraham Lincoln
Who He Fired: Gen. George B. McClellan
Why: Because McClellan failed to pursue the Southern Rebels time and again, resulting in a long period of stagnation in the Civil War. It also probably didn’t help that he regularly referred to Lincoln as a “baboon.”
Fallout: While Lincoln fired several generals until he finally found someone he could work with — i.e., Ulysses S. Grant — his firing of the popular McClellan would cause the most significant blowback. McClellan even ran against Lincoln in the 1864 presidential election and was doing quite well against the Great Emancipator until the tide of the war finally turned in the North’s favor in the summer of 1864, resulting in a resounding victory for Lincoln.
President: Andrew Johnson
Who He Fired: Secretary of War Edwin Stanton
Why: When Lincoln was assassinated, Stanton remained in office, but he vocally opposed Johnson’s soft policies on Reconstruction. Sensing an upcoming showdown, Congressional Republicans passed the Tenure of Office Act, which forbade Johnson (a Democrat) from firing cabinet members without the Senate’s approval — a gross violation of the separation of powers.
Fallout: The Republicans set a trap for Johnson, and he took the bait. When he violated the Tenure of Office Act by firing Stanton, Johnson was brought up for impeachment, though he would be spared removal from office by a single vote.
President: William Howard Taft
Who He Fired: Chief of the U.S. Forest Service Gifford Pinchot
Why: Pinchot, basically the father of conservation in America, was pressuring Taft to get rid of his boss, Secretary of the Interior Richard Ballinger, for his anti-conservationist policies. Instead, Pinchot himself got canned for insubordination.
Fallout: This, along with several other factors, would help to split the Republican Party between the conservatives backing Taft and the progressives brought to power by Theodore Roosevelt, the previous president. In 1912, this split would cause Roosevelt to run under the progressive banner against Taft, which split the Republican vote and handed the election to Democrat Woodrow Wilson.
President: Harry Truman
Who He Fired: Gen. Douglas MacArthur
Why: The egomaniacal MacArthur and fairly modest Truman had feuded for months over the direction of the Korean War. While Truman advocated a “limited war,” MacArthur basically wanted the U.S. to declare war on all of Asia. This back-and-forth finally reached a breaking point went MacArthur started to go public with his views, forcing Truman to fire him. Truman would later say, “I fired him because he wouldn’t respect the authority of the president. … I didn’t fire him because he was a dumb son of a bitch, although he was.”
Fallout: The backlash against Truman was swift — especially from Republicans and the Japanese, whose country was being rebuilt under MacArthur’s command. Truman would never recover and left office with dismal approval ratings.
President: Lyndon Johnson
Who He Fired: Defense Secretary Robert McNamara
Why: While McNamara was the chief architect of the Vietnam War, over time he’d become skeptical of America’s ability to win the war. When he issued a private memo to Johnson proposing to scale down war efforts, Johnson ignored him and McNamara lost his job. In his 1995 book, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, McNamara wrote, “I do not know to this day, whether I quit or was fired.”
Fallout: The unpopular Vietnam War continued, and more and more people lost their lives. Johnson became so unpopular that he opted not to run in 1968, despite being eligible for another term.
President: Richard Nixon
Who He Fired: The aforementioned Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox
Why: In May 1973, Cox was appointed by Attorney General Elliot Richardson to head the Watergate investigation. In October, Cox subpoenaed the president for the recordings he made of conversations in the Oval Office. Nixon refused and instructed Richardson to fire Cox. Richardson refused and resigned. Next, Nixon turned to Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus, who also refused and resigned. Eventually, Nixon got Solicitor General Robert Bork to do his bidding, and Cox was dumped.
Fallout: The “Saturday Night Massacre” would further crumble the Nixon administration, and Nixon would resign in August 1974.
President: Jimmy Carter
Who He Fired: His whole cabinet
Why: By July 1979, everyone was pretty sick of Jimmy Carter. There was a terrible energy crisis, inflation had skyrocketed and unemployment was high. In order to fix things, Carter went on TV to basically tell Americans that their consumerism and materialism was what was wrong with America. The address, later dubbed the “Malaise Speech,” was popular at first, but then Carter tried to turn over a new leaf by disbanding nearly his whole cabinet.
Fallout: Instead of such a bold move being applauded, it seemed to Americans that Carter was admitting guilt for America’s woes and the cabinet members were the scapegoats. This move, combined later with the Iran Hostage Crisis, would lead to a landslide victory for Ronald Reagan in 1980.
President: Donald Trump
Who He Fired: FBI Director James Comey
Why: Supposedly because Comey held a press conference last year revealing an investigation into Hillary Clinton. At the time, Trump praised Comey for this, as it helped his campaign. But apparently, it’s been bugging Trump ever since, and so, Comey got the boot. It certainly has nothing to do with the fact that Comey was investigating the Trump 2016 Election Team for ties to Russia. No way.
Fallout: We’ll see, but we’re guessing it’ll be yuge.