Washington, Oct. 20–President Nixon, reacting angrily tonight to refusals to obey his orders, dismissed the special Watergate prosecutor, Archibald Cox, abolished Mr. Cox’s office, accepted the resignation of Elliot L. Richardson, the Attorney General, and discharged William D. Ruckelshaus, the Deputy Attorney General.
The President’s dramatic action edged the nation closer to the constitutional confrontation he said he was trying to avoid.
Senior members of both parties in the House of Representatives were reported to be seriously discussing impeachment of the President because of his refusal to obey an order by the United States Court of Appeals that he turn over to the courts tape recordings of conversations about the Watergate case, and because of Mr. Nixon’s dismissal of Mr. Cox.
The President announced that he had abolished the Watergate prosecutor’s office as of 8 o’clock tonight and that the duties of that office had been transferred back to the Department of Justice, where his spokesman said they would be “carried out with thoroughness, and vigor.”
These were the events that led to the confrontation between the President and Congress and the Government’s top law enforcement officers:
Mr. Cox said in a televised news conference that he would return to Federal court in defiance of the President’s orders to seek a decision that Mr. Nixon had violated a ruling that the tapes must be turned over to the courts.
Attorney General Richardson, after being told by the President that Mr. Cox must be dismissed, resigned.
Deputy Attorney General Ruckelshaus was ordered by Mr. Nixon to discharge Mr. Cox. Mr. Ruckelshaus refused and was dismissed immediately.
The President informed Robert H. Bork, the Solicitor General, that under the law he was the acting Attorney General and must get rid of Mr. Cox and the special Watergate force.
Mr. Bork discharged Mr. Cox and had the Federal Bureau of Investigation seal off the offices of the special prosecutor, which Mr. Cox had put in a building away from the Department of Justice to symbolize his independence. Some members of the Cox staff were still inside at the time.
The F.B.I. also sealed off the offices of Mr. Richardson and Mr. Ruckelshaus.
Mr. Richardson had no comment tonight, but he scheduled a news conference for Monday. Mr. Ruckelshaus said, “I’m going fishing tomorrow.”
Mr. Cox’s reaction was brief: “Whether we shall continue to be a government of laws and not of men is now for Congress and ultimately the American people [to decide],” he said.
The President’s decisions today raised new problems.
For one, he must seek his third Attorney General in a year, now that Mr. Richardson has followed Richard G. Kleindienst as a victim of the Watergate affair.
Moreover, he has risked the possibility of a public and Congressional outcry over disbanding the Watergate force assembled last spring under Mr. Cox to allay suspicions that a Justice Department responsible to the President might not have been prosecuting those responsible for the Watergate break-in and cover-up with enough vigor.
Ford Backs Nixon
In addition, the confirmation of Representative Gerald R. Ford, the Michigan Republican who was designated by Mr. Nixon as his choice for Vice President after Spiro T. Agnew resigned, may run into trouble in Congress. Mr. Ford issued a statement tonight supporting Mr. Nixon’s actions.
The announcement of the President’s decisions came at 8:24 P.M. at an unusual Saturday night briefing by Ronald L. Ziegler, the White House press secretary.
By late this evening, some public reaction was already visible at the White House. Crowds of young people gathered at the northwest gate, some shouting anti-Nixon slogans. One youth held up a large sign saying, “Resign.”
All evening, the White House switchboard was so swamped with calls that it was almost impossible to get through. Lights in the offices in the West Wing burned late into the night.
All day, newsmen in unusual numbers for a weekend wandered aimlessly through the press area of the White House, waiting for Mr. Cox’s televised news conference from the National Press Building, and then for the President’s reaction.
What Mr. Cox said when he appeared, relaxed and amiable as he slouched at a table, was that the President’s proposal to make an edited summary of the tapes available to the Senate Watergate committee and the grand jury had created “insuperable difficulties” for him in conducting a criminal investigation.
“I think it is my duty as the special prosecutor, as an officer of the court and as the representative of the grand jury, to bring to the court’s attention what seems to me to be non-compliance with the court’s order,” he declared.
Making it clear that he would defy the President’s order “not to seek to invoke the judicial process further to compel production of recordings, notes or memoranda regarding private Presidential conversations,” Mr. Cox added:
“I’m going to go about my duties on the terms of which I assumed them.”
No Official Reaction
But for hours after Mr. Cox’s news conference, there was no official reaction from the White House.
During the day, White House sources continued to provide background briefings to small groups of newsmen on Mr. Nixon’s reasons for not appealing the appellate court’s ruling on the Watergate tapes, but seeking instead to provide a summary that would be verified by Senator John C. Stennis, Democrat of Mississippi.
About 4:45 P.M., Mr. Richardson’s limousine appeared in the driveway, and disappeared a half- hour later. But for hours, no one would even confirm that Mr. Richardson had seen the President.
Then, shortly before 8:30 P.M., a grim-faced Mr. Ziegler appeared at the podium in the press room with his deputy, Gerald Warren.
Reading from a prepared statement and later refusing to take questions, Mr. Ziegler reported that the President had discharged Mr. Cox and broken up the special Watergate prosecutor force.
Mr. Ziegler said the President had sought by his move tonight “to avoid a constitutional confrontation by an action that would give the grand jury what it needs to proceed with its work with the least possible intrusion of Presidential privacy.”
“That action taken by the President in the spirit of accommodation that has marked American constitutional history was accepted by responsible leaders in Congress and the country,” Mr. Ziegler added. “Mr. Cox’s refusal to proceed in the same spirit of accommodation, complete with his announced intention to defy instructions from the President and press for further confrontation at a time of serious world crisis, made it necessary for the President to discharge Mr. Cox and to return to the Department of Justice the task of prosecuting those who broke the law in connection with Watergate.”
Then, in four brief paragraphs, he announced the resignation of Mr. Richardson and the dismissal of Mr. Ruckelshaus.