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For some, Sally Yates' firing resembles Saturday Night Massacre

Acting Attorney General Sally Yates' firing over her refusal to enforce President Trump's immigration ban made waves on social media Monday night.

And, as news spread of the ouster, critics thought of another clash between a president and attorney general that ended in an ouster: the Saturday Night Massacre.

Many compared what happened to Yates, an Obama holdover who defied Trump's executive order suspending immigration from seven majority-Muslim countries, to former President Richard Nixon's clash with his Attorney General's Office over the handling of the Watergate investigation. That disagreement led to the resignations of Attorney General Elliot L. Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William D. Ruckelshaus.

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Saturday Night Massacre started trending on Twitter with more than 29,000 tweets, as did Monday Night Massacre.

Not everyone blasted Trump's decision to fire Yates. Former speaker of the House Newt Gingrich applauded Trump for taking action. Ted Cruz, a bitter opponent of Trump's in the GOP presidential primaries, said, "President Trump was exactly right to fire an acting Attorney General who refused to carry out her constitutional duty to enforce and defend the law."

Presidents and their attorneys general have clashed time and time again. Attorney General John Ashford almost resigned in 2004 after two White House officials tried to push him to approve former President George W. Bush's secret wiretapping program — all while in the hospital for pancreatitis, according to Salon. But Yates' is the first public ouster of an attorney general since the Nixon-era. Enter the Internet drawing parallels between Yates and Richardson, two attorney generals who left their post after refusing to follow the president's orders.

"Clashes between presidents and attorney generals aren't unprecedented, but neither are they common," said Sean P. Cunningham, a history professor at Texas Tech University.

He didn't compare Yates' firing to the Saturday Night Massacre on Oct. 20, 1973, but he pointed out that it was the most famous example of a federal government shakeup.

What is the Saturday Night Massacre?

The Saturday Night Massacre was one of several key developments in the investigation into the Watergate scandal, which led to Nixon's resignation. At the time, The Washington Post called the resignations "the most traumatic government upheaval of the Watergate crisis."

Richardson, who had previously served as secretary of Education and secretary of Defense, became attorney general in April 1973. Six months into the job, Nixon ordered Richardson to fire Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor on the federal Watergate investigation. Why? Because Cox had subpoenaed tapes of key White House conversations and refused to comply with Nixon's workaround: an agreement with the Senate Watergate committee that Cox could get summaries of relevant tapes and documents.

Not only that. Earlier that day, Cox spoke out about the agreement in a news conference and publicly vowed to press for the tapes, the Post reported.

Richardson refused to fire him. He resigned. So did his deputy, Ruckelshaus.

Solicitor General Robert H. Bork, serving as acting attorney general in their absence, fired Cox. The president shut down the office of the special prosecutor that night, turning over the Watergate investigation to the Justice Department.

"One of the important takeaways is that Nixon's efforts to control the attorney general and control the Watergate narrative, backfired badly," Cunningham said. "By that point, most Americans already distrusted Nixon, but Nixon's aggressive actions dramatically eroded the public's already fading trust in the presidency."

Eventually, investigators obtained the tapes and Nixon's role in the Watergate scandal came to light. Facing the prospect of impeachment, Nixon resigned on Aug. 8, 1974.

Why are people comparing Yates' firing to the 'massacre?'

Critics are drawing parallels between the Saturday Night Massacre and Yates' firing because they see a dissident defying a president (as Cox, Richardson and Ruckelshaus did) resulting in them leaving their posts. Nixon's shakeup came as he was trying to hide his role in the Watergate scandal, which was illegal. Trump's came as he was trying to enforce an immigration order he signed Friday. While Trump says the order is meant to protect Americans from terrorists abroad, the order's constitutionality likely will be challenged in court on the basis that it discriminates against Muslims and violates protections to exercise freedom of religion.

In an op-ed for CNN, historian Julian Zelizer, drew parallels between Yates' firing and the Watergate moment, called the firing the "Monday Night Massacre." Senate Democrats, he said, should see the latest events as a wake-up call.

"In his nominations, Trump has put forth people who likely will be mostly yes men and who will interact with a sympathetic and protective Republican Congress," he wrote. "Perhaps, Senate Democrats will see Monday night's events at the Justice Department as a wake-up call to slow down the confirmation of Senator Sessions before there is no one left around to place some restraints on the Trump presidency."