The Medina resident was deputy attorney general when he refused President Nixon’s order to fire a special prosecutor assigned to Watergate. He talked about the "Saturday Night Massacre" and President Trump’s firing of the acting AG who defied him.

Share story

Not many people know what it’s like to publicly say no to the most powerful man in the world, who also happens to be your boss.

Sally Yates does. On Monday, Yates, a holdover from the Obama administration, refused to defend President Trump’s controversial refugee and immigrant ban. Hours later, he fired her from her post as acting attorney general.

William Ruckelshaus also knows what it’s like.

He was deputy attorney general in 1973 when he refused an order from President Nixon to fire the special prosecutor who was investigating Watergate.

More on travel ban


“In my judgment the decision to fire Archibald Cox was fundamentally wrong, as far as the president was concerned,” Ruckelshaus, 84, who lives in Medina, said in a phone interview Monday night. “I couldn’t in good conscience do it.”

Ruckelshaus and Attorney General Elliot Richardson were both fired the night of Oct. 20, 1973, which became known as the “Saturday Night Massacre.”

Ruckelshaus recognizes the parallels between the two situations. Both he and Yates were asked to carry out a presidential order and refused. In Ruckelshaus’ case, however, he was asked by the president to thwart an investigation into the president. Yates was only asked to defend the president’s policy in court.

Ruckelshaus, who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015, says he doesn’t know enough about the specifics to judge Yates’ actions, but it comes down to that concept of “fundamentally wrong.”

“Just because you don’t get your way with the president doesn’t necessarily mean you refuse to take his orders, refuse to carry out his commands,” he said. “What I’ve seen on television is they’re mostly arguing the legal points, and for me that’s not as important as whether, under all the circumstances involved, she was asked to do something that she believed was fundamentally wrong. I don’t know that.”

Disobeying the president isn’t an action to take lightly.

“The president, after all, is elected; you weren’t,” Ruckelshaus said. “Whether or not he’s carrying out the wishes of the people that elected him is a matter of some (debate), you could argue about that.”

Ruckelshaus knew the moment he defied Nixon he would be fired. He’d sent a letter of resignation along with his refusal to fire Cox. That night, Nixon’s chief of staff announced Ruckelshaus was fired. The next day Nixon announced Ruckelshaus had resigned.

“Depending on your point of view, I was both fired and resigned,” he said.

Yates’ firing was not a surprise to him.

“If he ordered her to carry out one of his orders, and she refused to do it, he doesn’t have an awful lot of choices if he wants the order carried out,” Ruckelshaus said.

Ruckelshaus, who has voted Democratic since President Obama’s first election, had one bit of advice for Trump.

“I would just, without being too effrontery about it, caution the president to exercise a little more care in these types of orders,” he said.

“Because they can end this way, and that doesn’t help him discharging his responsibilities.”