On a Saturday night in October 1973, U.S. Sen. Sam Ervin was dining at Asheville’s Grove Park Inn with hundreds of fellow North Carolina Democrats when an aide came up and whispered in his ear.
President Richard Nixon had just fired the special Watergate prosecutor and accepted the resignations of two top Justice Department officials, the aide told him.
“Let’s put it this way, his eyebrows went into high gear,” recalls the aide, Rufus Edmisten, deputy counsel to the Watergate Committee that Ervin chaired.
Now, 43 years later, another North Carolina senator is leading a probe into a different president who, like Nixon, fired the man investigating him.
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Sen. Richard Burr chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is looking into Russia’s interference with the 2016 election and its possible ties to President Donald Trump’s campaign. Like Ervin, he suddenly finds himself in the glare of national attention. He was even profiled on the front page of Sunday’s New York Times.
As Ervin was catapulted to fame because of Watergate, the same could happen to Burr. These are the historical moments that define careers.
Karl Campbell, a Sam Ervin biographer
“As Ervin was catapulted to fame because of Watergate, the same could happen to Burr,” said Karl Campbell, a historian at Appalachian State and Ervin biographer. “These are the historical moments that define careers.”
There are differences to be sure. Ervin was a Democrat heading a select committee investigating a Republican president. Burr is overseeing a Senate probe of a fellow Republican, whose problems appear to be mounting.
Last week Trump fired FBI Director James Comey. This week came revelations that he disclosed classified intelligence to Russian officials in the Oval Office. And Tuesday night came reports of a Comey memo that documented the president’s apparent request that he drop an investigation of former National Security Director Michael Flynn.
Another difference with Watergate is that partisan rancor is higher in 2017 than in the early 1970s, when Republicans as well as Democrats came around to believing in Nixon’s guilt.
But circumstances have elevated the national profiles of both senators. Erwin was not well-known before Watergate. The low-key Burr, now in his third term, has rarely sought public attention. And the sudden firing of presidential prosecutors bothered both men.
“I am troubled by the timing and reasoning of Director Comey’s termination,” Burr said in a statement Tuesday. “(His) dismissal further confuses an already difficult investigation by the Committee.” He called the firing “a loss for the Bureau and the nation.”
Ervin was angry at Nixon’s firing of Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox, which was accompanied by the resignations of Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus, who both refused to fire Cox. He shared his feelings with Edmisten.
“He was extremely upset,” Edmisten recalls. “He said, ‘They’re not going to get by with that. This will be his downfall. Nixon doesn’t understand; he’s digging his own grave.’ ”
You simply don’t go out there and fire people who are investigating you. It either makes you look guilty or completely incompetent.
Elaine Kamarck, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution
Elaine Kamarck, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution, this week compared the current Senate investigation to Watergate.
“There’s so many historical parallels,” she said Wednesday. “It feels the same. There’s the sense in Washington of people being astounded at the arrogance and at the violation of our Constitutional norms. You simply don’t go out there and fire people who are investigating you. It either makes you look guilty or completely incompetent.”
In 1973, Nixon would appoint another special prosecutor, Leon Jaworski, who pursued the investigation with the help of Nixon’s once-secret tapes. Edmisten, who went on to serve as North Carolina attorney general, thought about that when he heard of Comey’s firing.
“I thought, ‘My God, does that crowd not read history?’ ” he said. “If they knew anything about the Saturday Night Massacre, it was a huge catalyst in Nixon leaving office.”
Charlotte’s Anne Tompkins, former U.S. attorney and a Democrat, said with or without a special prosecutor, “Sam Ervin and the Judiciary Committee simply did their job as oversight of the Justice Department.” But she believes the current situation calls for a special prosecutor.
“It is clear that the only way the American people will trust the outcome of an investigation is if there is a special prosecutor,” she said. “Along with that, we need the Intelligence Committee and Sen. Burr to do their jobs. And actually, the signals are that he will. I’m optimistic.”
Burr has rejected calls for a special prosecutor, though he has threatened to subpoena Trump campaign aides if they ignore committee deadlines to turn over records.
Burr was not available for comment Wednesday. In the morning he told reporters in Washington that the timing of Comey’s firing “incites people to believe that something’s being covered up.” Any interruption in the committee’s access to documents or witnesses, he added, “would be harmful to our investigation.”
Campbell, the Ervin biographer, said this is a chance for another North Carolina senator to make a place in history.
“I think that Burr has an opportunity to rise to this occasion as Ervin did,” Campbell said. “They’re different men and different personalities and different partisan circumstances. But Burr should seize this opportunity to rise above the politics of the moment.”