In October, 1973, after Richard Nixon ordered Attorney General Elliott Richardson to fire Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox because he had subpoenaed the Oval Office tapes, Richardson resigned. When Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus also resigned rather than obey Nixon's order, Nixon ordered Solicitor General Robert Bork, then acting head of the Justice Department, to fire Cox, and Bork did so, to his eternal shame.
The firing of Acting Attorney General Sally Yates is not comparable, in many ways, most notably because she is a hold-over from the Obama Administration, on her way out anyway. Nixon was in his second term and all of the players in that affair were his appointees. Nevertheless, the sequence of events yesterday is genuinely frightening, not least precisely because Trump is a newly inaugurated President clearly being guided by, if not under the thumb of, a White Nationalist fascist with openly expressed desires to seize control of the American government.
I have no idea how this is going to play out, but let me reiterate and expand on the observation I made yesterday, this time without cute allusions to a footnote in a book one hundred and fifty years old. The power of the President [or of any other figure in a modern government, democratic or otherwise] consists at bottom in his or her ability to get large number of other people to do what he or she says. We are so accustomed to regular, predictable obedience that we unthinkingly suppose that it is a property of the office, inseparable from that office. Whether it is a policeman directing traffic or a group of legislators passing a law or a military commander ordering troops or a court issuing a stay of a presidential directive, we take it for granted that the order will be obeyed. We talk about the "powers of the presidency" or the "powers of the Supreme Court" or even the power of a bureaucrat in an office to stamp a passport or approve a zoning variance, as though the mere occupancy of the position automatically conferrs the power to compel compliance.
What happens, then, when a President issues a directive, a court orders a stay, and the President simply ignores the stay? One possibility is that the men and women actually carrying out the directive in airports and elsewhere ignore the court order and continue doing what the President has said, even though that is a violation of the rules supposedly governing our nation. This in turn might lead to massive popular protests at airports, say in New York City, interfering with the ability of the immigration officials at the airports to carry out the President's directive. This might stop the President from doing what he has announced that he intends to do. But it might also lead the President to order Governor Cuomo to call out the New York National Guard to disperse the crowds, using all force necessary. Governor Cuomo might order the New York National Guard, of which he is the commander, to stand down. President Trump might then order the New York National Guard federalized, and Cuomo might countermand that order. And so forth. It all comes down to the same question: Will the people with the weaponry and physical capacity to enforce the President's commands obey him, or side with Governor Cuomo and the demonstrators?
I am not kidding, folks, this is what we could be looking at, and I genuinely do not know how it come out. That is why I describe it as frightening.