KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
We're going to get some historical context now to this surprising development today. And to do that, we have NPR senior editor and correspondent Ron Elving. Hello there, Ron.
RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Kelly.
MCEVERS: So Ron, has this ever happened before? First of all, I think it's important to know. Has an FBI director ever been fired?
ELVING: There has been one. William Sessions in July of 1993 was fired by President Bill Clinton early in the first Clinton term. There was a controversy at the time about the handling of Mr. Sessions' taxes. He had had a car driving him that he hadn't properly declared, and he had also had a sweetheart deal on a house and some other things of that nature.
There had been an investigation internally that recommended that this all be dealt with sternly, and he refused to resign. Now, there have been other directors of the FBI that people have leaned on to resign, but they always were willing to do it one way or another. And in the case of Mr. Sessions, he held out and had to be fired.
MCEVERS: James Comey's firing is already being compared to something called the Saturday Night Massacre. This happened under President Nixon back in 1973. Why don't you take us back to there? Tell us what that was about and why people are making that comparison now.
ELVING: Well, it was in fact a Saturday night, October 20, 1973. And this was in the depths of the Watergate investigation. And the tapes that Richard Nixon had made in the Oval Office had been revealed, and there was already quite a scuffle over who was going to be in possession of them, who was going to get to hear them and whether or not they would exonerate or in some sense implicate President Nixon in the cover-up of the Watergate burglary and all the other crimes associated with that at that time. So it was a critical moment.
And there was a special prosecutor working on the case named Archibald Cox. Richard Nixon thought he had gotten a little too close, so he wanted him fired. So he told the attorney general, then Elliot Richardson, fire Archibald Cox. And of course, Elliot Richardson refused. And then his deputy took over, William Ruckelshaus. He also refused to fire Archibald Cox, and so he was also replaced. And they finally brought in temporarily a fellow by the name of Robert Bork, who was then the solicitor general, and he agreed to fire Archibald Cox.
MCEVERS: That's right. Well, do you think it's a fair comparison now that people are making to this event?
ELVING: It's a political comparison. It's not a direct legal comparison. The situation is not comparable in the sense of where things stood in the Nixon investigation, the Watergate investigation or in terms of the offices involved. Now...
ELVING: William Ruckelshaus had been acting FBI director in the recent past of the time when he was deputy AG, so a lot of people remembered him as acting FBI director and thought that was the office he held when he was fired in the Saturday Night Massacre. But in fact, he had moved on.
MCEVERS: Well, I'm glad you cleared it up for us. Thank you. I mean the White House is saying that this has nothing to do with the fact that James Comey was leading the agency that was investigating President Trump's campaign's ties to Russia. They say he was fired because of the way he handled the investigation into Hillary Clinton's emails while she was secretary of state. Which do you think it is (laughter)?
ELVING: Yes, it is hard to hear that explanation without suddenly thinking of ironic responses. Obviously all through 2016, candidate Trump was quite delighted with the way that the exposure of Hillary Clinton's email server problems had been handled by FBI Director Comey, except that he wanted Comey to have actually recommended that she be indicted and tried. And so he was disappointed in that aspect of it but no other aspect of it that he ever let on in public.
MCEVERS: And that's why you hear Democrats now saying - crying foul and saying, you know, how could you be fine with it at the time but be critical of it now. In fact, it's grounds for his firing now.
ELVING: Just last week, we heard Hillary Clinton once again attributing her loss to the way Comey handled the email server issue.
MCEVERS: That's NPR's Ron Elving. Thanks for coming in.
ELVING: Thank you, Kelly. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.