The Watergate scandal was a political scandal that occurred in the United States in the 1970s as a result of the June 1972 break-in at theDemocratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office complex in Washington, D.C., and the Nixon administration’s attempted cover-up of its involvement. The scandal eventually led to the resignation of Richard Nixon, the President of the United States, on August 9, 1974, the only resignation of a U.S. President. The scandal also resulted in the indictment, trial, conviction and incarceration of 43 people, including dozens of Nixon’s top administration officials.
The affair began with the arrest of five men for breaking and entering into the Democratic National Committee (DNC) headquarters at the Watergate complex on June 17, 1972. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) connected cash found on the burglars to a slush fund used by the Committee for the Re-Election of the President, a fundraising group for the Nixon campaign. In July 1973, as evidence mounted against the president’s staff, including testimony provided by former staff members in an investigation conducted by the Senate Watergate Committee, it was revealed that President Nixon had a tape-recording system in his offices and he had recorded many conversations. Recordings from these tapes implicated the president, revealing he had attempted to cover up the questionable (and illegal) goings-on that had taken place during his administration, both before and after the break-in. After a protracted series of bitter court battles, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the president had to hand over the tapes to government investigators; he ultimately complied.
Facing near-certain impeachment in the House of Representatives and a strong possibility of a conviction in the Senate, Nixon resigned the presidency on August 9, 1974. His successor, Gerald Ford, then issued a pardon to Nixon.
Wiretapping of the Democratic Party’s headquarters
In January 1972, G. Gordon Liddy, general counsel to the Committee for the Re-Election of the President (CRP), presented a campaign intelligence plan to CRP’s Acting Chairman Jeb Stuart Magruder, Attorney General John Mitchell, and Presidential Counsel John Dean, that involved extensive illegal activities against the Democratic Party. Mitchell viewed the plan as unrealistic, but two months later is alleged to have approved a reduced version of the plan which involved burgling the Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) headquarters at the Watergate Complex in Washington, D.C., the ostensible purpose of which was to photograph documents and install listening devices. Liddy was nominally in charge of the operation, but has since insisted that he was duped by Dean and at least two of his subordinates. These included former CIA officers E. Howard Hunt and James McCord, then CRP-Security Coordinator. (John Mitchell had by then resigned as Attorney General to become chairman of the CRP.)
After two attempts to break into the Watergate Complex failed to yield information of value, the order for yet another break-in was given to Liddy by Jeb Magruder, either acting on his own or on orders from Dean.
Shortly after midnight on June 17, 1972, Frank Wills, a security guard at the Watergate Complex, noticed tape covering the latches on doors in the complex (allowing the doors to close but remain unlocked). He removed the tape, and thought nothing of it. He returned an hour later, and having discovered that someone had retaped the locks, Wills called the police. Five men were discovered and arrested inside the DNC’s office. The five men were Virgilio González, Bernard Barker, James W. McCord, Jr., Eugenio Martínez, and Frank Sturgis, who were charged with attempted burglary and attempted interception of telephone and other communications. On September 15, a grand jury indicted them, as well as Hunt and Liddy, for conspiracy, burglary, and violation of federal wiretapping laws. The five burglars who broke into the office were tried by Judge John Sirica and convicted on January 30, 1973.
Coverup and its unraveling
Within hours of the burglars’ arrest, the FBI discovered the name of E. Howard Hunt in the address books of Barker and Martínez. Nixon administration officials were concerned because Hunt and Liddy were also involved in another secret activity, known as the White House Plumbers, which was set up to stop security “leaks” and to investigate other sensitive security matters. Dean would later testify he was ordered by top Nixon aide John Ehrlichman to “deep six” the contents of Howard Hunt’s White House safe. Ehrlichman subsequently denied that and, in the end, the evidence from Hunt’s safe was destroyed (in separate operations) by Dean and the FBI’s Acting Director, L. Patrick Gray. Nixon’s own reaction to the break-in, at least initially, was one of incredulity. Watergate prosecutor James Neal was sure Nixon hadn’t known in advance of the break-in. As evidence, he cited a June 23 taped conversation between the President and his Chief of Staff, H.R. Haldeman, in which Nixon asked, “Who was the asshole who ordered it?” Nonetheless, Nixon subsequently ordered Haldeman to have the CIA block the FBI’s investigation into the source of the funding for the burglary.
A few days later, Nixon’s Press Secretary, Ron Ziegler, described the event as “a third rate burglary attempt”. On August 29 at a news conference, President Nixon stated Dean had conducted a thorough investigation of the matter, when in fact Dean had not conducted any investigation at all. Nixon also said, “I can say categorically that… no one in the White House staff, no one in this Administration, presently employed, was involved in this very bizarre incident.” On September 15, Nixon congratulated Dean, saying, “The way you’ve handled it, it seems to me, has been very skillful, because you—putting your fingers in the dikes every time that leaks have sprung here and sprung there.”
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On June 19, 1972, it was publicly revealed that one of the Watergate burglars was a Republican Party security aide. Former Attorney General John Mitchell, who at the time was the head of the Nixon re-election campaign (CRP), denied any involvement with the Watergate break-in or knowledge of the five burglars. On August 1, a $25,000 cashier’s checkearmarked for the Nixon re-election campaign was found in the bank account of one of the Watergate burglars. Further investigation by the FBI would reveal still more thousands had supported their travel and expenses in the months leading up to their arrests. Examination showed links to the finance committee of CRP.
Several donations (totaling $86,000) were made by individuals who thought they were making private donations by certified and cashier’s checks for the President’s re-election. Investigators’ examination of the bank records of a Miami company run by Watergate burglar Barker revealed an account controlled by him personally had deposited a check and then transferred it (through the Federal Reserve Check Clearing System).
The banks that had originated the checks were keen to ensure the depository institution used by Barker had acted properly in ensuring the checks had been received and endorsed by the check’s payee, before its acceptance for deposit in Bernard Barker’s account. Only in this way would the issuing banks not be held liable for the unauthorized and improper release of funds from their customer’s accounts.
The investigation by the FBI, which cleared Barker’s bank of fiduciary malfeasance, led to the direct implication of members of the CRP, to whom the checks had been delivered. Those individuals were the Committee bookkeeper and its treasurer, Hugh Sloan.
The Committee, as a private organization, followed normal business practice in allowing only duly-authorized individual(s) to accept and endorse on behalf of the Committee. Therefore, no financial institution could accept or process a check on behalf of the Committee unless it had been endorsed and by a duly-authorized individual. On the checks deposited into Barker’s bank account was the endorsement of Committee treasurer Hugh Sloan, who was authorized by the Finance Committee. But once Sloan had endorsed a check made payable to the Committee, he had a legal and fiduciary responsibility to see that the check was deposited into the accounts which were named on the check and only the accounts so named. Sloan failed to do that. When he was confronted with the potential charge of federal bank fraud, he revealed he had been directed by Committee deputy director Jeb Magruder and finance director Maurice Stans to give the money to G. Gordon Liddy.
Liddy gave the money to Barker and attempted to hide its origin. Barker had attempted to disguise the funds by depositing them into bank accounts which were located in banks outside of the United States. What Barker, Liddy, and Sloan did not know was that the complete record of all such transactions are held for roughly six months. Barker’s use of foreign banks to deposit checks and withdraw the funds via cashier’s checks and money orders in April and May 1972 guaranteed the banks would keep the entire transaction records until October and November 1972.
On September 29, 1972 it was revealed that John Mitchell, while serving as Attorney General, controlled a secret Republican fund used to finance intelligence-gathering against the Democrats. On October 10, the FBI reported the Watergate break-in was only part of a massive campaign of political spying and sabotage on behalf of the Nixon re-election committee. Despite these revelations, Nixon’s campaign was never seriously jeopardized, and on November 7, the President was re-elected in one of the biggest landslides in American political history.
Role of the media
The connection between the break-in and the re-election committee was highlighted by media coverage — in particular, investigative coverage by The Washington Post, Time Magazine, and The New York Times. The coverage dramatically increased publicity and consequent political repercussions. Relying heavily upon anonymous sources, Postreporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein uncovered information suggesting that knowledge of the break-in, and attempts to cover it up, led deeply into the Justice Department, the FBI, the CIA, and the White House.
Chief among the Post’s anonymous sources was an individual whom Woodward and Bernstein had nicknamed Deep Throat; 33 years later, in 2005, he was confirmed to be William Mark Felt, Sr., the former Deputy Director of the FBI. Felt met secretly with Woodward, telling him of Howard Hunt’s involvement with the Watergate break-in, and that the White House staff regarded the stakes in Watergate extremely high. Felt warned Woodward that the FBI wanted to know where he and other reporters were getting their information, as they were uncovering a wider web of crimes than first disclosed. In one of their last meetings, all of which took place at an underground parking garage somewhere in Rosslyn, VAat 2:00 am, Felt cautioned Woodward that he might be followed and not to trust their phone conversations to be secure. Felt also planted leaks about Watergate to Time Magazine, the Washington Daily News and other publications. While Carl Bernstein has ascribed Felt’s motives to truth telling and protecting the justice system against Presidential abuse, historian Max Holland in his 2012 book Leak: Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat claimed Felt planted the leaks to obtain the FBI director’s job (the leaks hurt L. Patrick Gray, Nixon’s friend who had recently been chosen for the director’s position over Felt). John Dean remarked that “Max has got it right—he nailed it”. Bob Woodward who was interviewed for the book said the idea that they were reporting just what prosecutors had already found is “factually wrong” and a lot of the book is speculations and conjecture. Carl Bernstein said the book is part of the revisionism and debunking industries.
During this early period, most of the media failed to grasp the full implications of the scandal, and concentrated reporting on other topics related to the 1972 Presidential election.After the revelation that one of the convicted burglars wrote to Judge Sirica alleging a high-level coverup, the media shifted its focus. Time Magazine described Nixon as undergoing “daily hell and very little trust”. The distrust between the press and the Nixon administration was mutual and greater than usual due to lingering dissatisfaction with events from theVietnam War. Public distrust of the media reached over 40%.
Nixon and top administration officials discussed using government agencies to “get” what they perceived as hostile media organizations. The discussions had precedent. At the request of Nixon’s White House in 1969, the FBI tapped the phones of five reporters. In 1971, the White House requested an audit of the tax return of the editor of Newsday, after he wrote a series of articles about the financial dealings of a friend of the President’s.
The Administration and their supporters accused the media of making “wild accusations”, putting too much emphasis on this story, and of having a liberal bias against the Administration. Nixon said in a May 1974 interview with a supporter that if he had followed the liberal policies which he thought the media preferred, “Watergate would have been a blip.” The media noted that most of the reporting turned out to be accurate and the competitive nature of the media guaranteed massive coverage of the political scandal.Applications to journalism schools reached an all-time high in 1974.
Scandal blows wide open
On March 23, 1973, Judge Sirica read the court a letter from Watergate burglar James McCord alleging perjury had been committed in the Watergate trial, and defendants had been pressured to remain silent. Trying to make them talk, Sirica gave Hunt and two burglars provisional sentences of up to 40 years. On March 28 on Nixon’s orders, aide John Ehrlichman told Attorney General Richard Kleindienst that nobody in the White House had prior knowledge of the burglary. On April 13, Magruder told U.S. attorneys that he had perjured himself during the burglars’ trial, and implicated John Dean and John Mitchell.
Two days later, Dean told Nixon that he had been cooperating with the U.S. attorneys. On that same day, U.S. attorneys told Nixon that Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Dean and other White House officials were implicated in the coverup.
On April 30, Nixon asked for the resignation of H. R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, two of his most influential aides, both of whom were indicted, convicted and ultimately sentenced to prison. He fired White House Counsel John Dean, who went on to testify before the Senate and became the key witness against the president. Writing from prison forNew West and New York Magazine in 1977, Ehrlichman claimed Nixon had offered him a large sum of money, which he declined.
The President announced the resignations in an address to the American people:
In one of the most difficult decisions of my Presidency, I accepted the resignations of two of my closest associates in the White House, Bob Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, two of the finest public servants it has been my privilege to know. Because Attorney General Kleindienst, though a distinguished public servant, my personal friend for 20 years, with no personal involvement whatsoever in this matter has been a close personal and professional associate of some of those who are involved in this case, he and I both felt that it was also necessary to name a new Attorney General. The Counsel to the President, John Dean, has also resigned.
On the same day, Nixon appointed a new Attorney General, Elliot Richardson, and gave him authority to designate a special counsel for the Watergate investigation who would be independent of the regular Justice Department hierarchy. In May 1973, Richardson named Archibald Cox to the position.
Senate Watergate hearings and revelation of the Watergate Tapes
On February 7, 1973, the United States Senate voted 77–0 to approve S.Res. 60 and establish a select committee to investigate Watergate, with Sam Ervin named chairman the next day. The hearings held by the Senate Committee, in which Dean and other former administration officials testified, were broadcast from May 17 to August 7, 1973. The three major networks of the time agreed to take turns covering the hearings live, each network thus maintained coverage of the hearings every third day, starting with ABC on May 17 and ending with NBC on August 7. An estimated 85% of Americans with television sets tuned in to at least one portion of the hearings.
On Friday, July 13, 1973, during a preliminary interview, the Deputy Minority Counsel Donald Sanders asked White House assistantAlexander Butterfield if there was any type of recording system in the White House. Butterfield said he was reluctant to answer, but finally stated there was a new system in the White House that automatically recorded everything in the Oval Office, the Cabinet Roomand others, as well as Nixon’s private office in the Old Executive Office Building.
On Monday, July 16, 1973, in front of a live, televised audience, the Chief Minority Counsel Fred Thompson asked Butterfield if he was “aware of the installation of any listening devices in the Oval Office of the President?” Butterfield’s revelation of the taping system transformed the Watergate investigation yet again. Special Prosecutor Cox immediately subpoenaed the tapes, as did the Senate, but Nixon refused to release them, citing his executive privilege as President of the United States, and ordered Cox to drop his subpoena. Cox refused.
On February 6, 1974, the United States House of Representatives voted 410-4 to approve H.Res. 803, giving the Judiciary Committee authority to investigate impeachment charges against the President.
”Saturday Night Massacre”
When Cox refused to drop his subpoena, on October 20, 1973, Nixon demanded the resignations of Attorney General Richardson and his deputy William Ruckelshaus for refusing to fire the special prosecutor. Nixon’s search for someone in the Justice Department willing to fire Cox ended with the Solicitor General Robert Bork. Though Bork claims to believe Nixon’s order to be valid and appropriate, he considered resigning to avoid being “perceived as a man who did the President’s bidding to save my job.” To prevent further damage to the Justice Department, Richardson and Ruckelshaus persuaded him not to resign. As the new acting department head, Bork carried out the presidential order and dismissed the special prosecutor.
These actions met considerable public criticism. Responding to the allegations of possible wrongdoing, in front of 400 Associated Press managing editors on November 17, 1973, Nixon stated emphatically, “I’m not a crook.” He needed to allow Bork to appoint a new special prosecutor; he chose Leon Jaworski to continue the investigation.
Legal action against Nixon Administration members
On March 1, 1974, a grand jury in Washington, D.C., indicted several former aides of President Nixon, who became known as the “Watergate Seven“: Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Mitchell, Charles Colson, Gordon C. Strachan, Robert Mardian and Kenneth Parkinson, for conspiring to hinder the Watergate investigation. The grand jury secretly named President Nixon as an unindicted co-conspirator. The special prosecutor dissuaded them from an indictment of Nixon, arguing that a President can only be indicted after he leaves office. John Dean, Jeb Stuart Magruder, and other figures had already pled guilty. On April 5, 1974, Dwight Chapin, the former Nixon appointments secretary, was convicted of lying to the grand jury. Two days later, the same grand jury indicted Ed Reinecke, the Republican lieutenant governor of California, on three charges of perjury before the Senate committee.
Release of the transcripts
The Nixon administration struggled to decide what materials to release. All parties involved agreed that all pertinent information should be released. Whether to release profanity and vulgarity unedited divided his advisers. His legal team favored releasing the tapes unedited, while Press Secretary Ron Ziegler preferred using an edited version where “expletive deleted” would replace the raw material. After several weeks of debate, they decided to release an edited version. Nixon announced the release of the transcripts in a speech to the nation on April 29, 1974. Nixon noted that any audio pertinent to national security information could be redacted from the released tapes.
Initially, Nixon was given a positive reaction for his speech. As people read the transcripts over the next couple of weeks, however, former supporters among the public, media and political community called for Nixon’s resignation or impeachment. Vice President Gerald Ford said, “While it may be easy to delete characterization from the printed page, we cannot delete characterization from people’s minds with a wave of the hand.” The Senate Republican Leader Hugh Scott said the transcripts revealed a “deplorable, disgusting, shabby, and immoral” performance on the part of the President and his former aides. The House Republican Leader John Jacob Rhodes agreed with Scott, and Rhodes recommended that if Nixon’s position continued to deteriorate, he “ought to consider resigning as a possible option.” The editors of the newspaper The Chicago Tribune, a publication that had supported Nixon, wrote, “He is humorless to the point of being inhumane. He is devious. He is vacillating. He is profane. He is willing to be led. He displays dismaying gaps in knowledge. He is suspicious of his staff. His loyalty is minimal”. The Providence Journal wrote, “Reading the transcripts is an emetic experience;” “One comes away feeling unclean.” This newspaper continued, that, while the transcripts may not have revealed an indictable offense, they showed Nixon contemptuous of the United States, its institutions, and its people. According to Time magazine, the Republican Party leaders in the Western United States felt that while there remained a significant number of Nixon loyalists in the party, the majority believed that Nixon should step down as quickly as possible. They were disturbed by the bad language and the coarse, vindictive tone of the conversations in the transcripts.
The issue of access to the tapes went to the Supreme Court. On July 24, 1974, in United States v. Nixon, the Court, which did not include the recused Justice William Rehnquist(who had recently been appointed by Nixon and had worked served as Assistant Attorney General of the Office of Legal Counsel in the Nixon Justice Department), ruled unanimously that claims of executive privilege over the tapes were void. They ordered the president to release them to the special prosecutor. On July 30, 1974, President Nixon complied with the order and released the subpoenaed tapes.
Release of the tapes
The tapes revealed several crucial conversations that took place between the President and his counsel, John Dean, on March 21, 1973. In this conversation, Dean summarized many aspects of the Watergate case, and focused on the subsequent coverup, describing it as a “cancer on the presidency.” The burglary team was being paid hush money for their silence and Dean stated: “That’s the most troublesome post-thing, because Bob [Haldeman] is involved in that; John [Ehrlichman] is involved in that; I am involved in that; Mitchell is involved in that. And that’s an obstruction of justice.” Dean continues and states that Howard Hunt is blackmailing the White House, demanding money immediately, and President Nixon replies that the blackmail money should be paid: “…just looking at the immediate problem, don’t you have to have – handle Hunt’s financial situation damn soon? […] you’ve got to keep the cap on the bottle that much, in order to have any options.”
At the time of the initial congressional impeachment, it was not known if Nixon had known and approved of the payments to the Watergate defendants earlier than this conversation. Nixon’s conversation with Haldeman on August 1, 1972, is one of several that establishes this. Nixon states: “Well…they have to be paid. That’s all there is to that. They have to be paid” During the congressional debate on impeachment, some believed that impeachment required a criminally indictable offense. President Nixon’s agreement to make the blackmail payments was regarded as an affirmative act to obstruct justice.
On December 7, 1973, it was found that an 18½ minute portion of one recorded tape had been erased. Nixon’s longtime personal secretary, Rose Mary Woods, said she had accidentally erased the tape by pushing the wrong pedal on her tape player when answering the phone. The press ran photos showing that it was unlikely for Woods to answer the phone and keep her foot on the pedal. Later forensic analysis determined that the tape had been erased in several segments – at least five, and perhaps as many as nine.
Final investigations and resignation
Resignation speech of President Richard Nixon, delivered August 8, 1974.
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Nixon’s position was becoming increasingly precarious. On February 6, 1974, theHouse of Representatives approved H.Res. 803 giving the Judiciary Committee authority to investigate impeachment of the President. The House Judiciary Committee voted 27-11 on July 27, 1974 to recommend the first article of impeachment against the president: obstruction of justice. The second: abuse of power, and third: contempt of Congress articles were passed on July 29, 1974 and July 30, 1974, respectively. (On August 20, 1974, the Committee would formally submit H. Rept. 93-1305 which included the text of the resolution impeaching President Nixon and setting forth articles of impeachment against him.)
”Smoking Gun” tape
On August 5, 1974, the White House released a previously unknown audio tape from June 23, 1972. Recorded only a few days after the break-in, it documented the initial stages of the coverup: it revealed Nixon and Haldeman meeting in the Oval Office and formulating a plan to block investigations by having the CIA falsely claim to the FBI that national security was involved. Haldeman introduces the topic as follows:
“…the Democratic break-in thing, we’re back to the–in the, the problem area because the FBI is not under control, because Gray doesn’t exactly know how to control them, and they have… their investigation is now leading into some productive areas […] and it goes in some directions we don’t want it to go.”
After explaining how the money from CRP was traced to the burglars, Haldeman explained to Nixon the coverup plan: “the way to handle this now is for us to have Walters [CIA] call Pat Gray [FBI] and just say, ‘Stay the hell out of this …this is ah, business here we don’t want you to go any further on it.'” President Nixon approved the plan, and after he is given more information about the involvement of his campaign in the break-in, he tells Haldeman: “All right, fine, I understand it all. We won’t second-guess Mitchell and the rest.” Returning to the use of the CIA to obstruct the FBI, he instructs Haldeman: “You call them in. Good. Good deal. Play it tough. That’s the way they play it and that’s the way we are going to play it.”
Before the release of this tape, President Nixon had denied political motivations in his instructions to the CIA, and claimed he had no knowledge before March 21, 1973 of involvement by senior campaign officials such as John Mitchell. The contents of this tape persuaded Nixon’s own lawyers, Fred Buzhardt and James St. Clair, that “The tape proved that the President had lied to the nation, to his closest aides, and to his own lawyers – for more than two years.” The tape, which was referred to as a “smoking gun” by Barber Conable, damaged Nixon politically. The ten congressmen who had voted against all three articles of impeachment in the committee announced that they would all support impeachment when the vote was taken in the full House.
In the week before Nixon’s resignation, Ehrlichman and Haldeman unsuccessfully tried to get Nixon to grant them the pardons which Nixon had promised them before their April 1973 resignations.
Throughout this time, Nixon denied any involvement in the scandal. After being told by key Republican Senators that enough votes existed to remove him, he decided to resign. In a nationally televised address from the Oval Office on the evening of August 8, 1974, the president said,
In all the decisions I have made in my public life, I have always tried to do what was best for the Nation. Throughout the long and difficult period of Watergate, I have felt it was my duty to persevere, to make every possible effort to complete the term of office to which you elected me. In the past few days, however, it has become evident to me that I no longer have a strong enough political base in the Congress to justify continuing that effort. As long as there was such a base, I felt strongly that it was necessary to see the constitutional process through to its conclusion, that to do otherwise would be unfaithful to the spirit of that deliberately difficult process and a dangerously destabilizing precedent for the future….
I would have preferred to carry through to the finish whatever the personal agony it would have involved, and my family unanimously urged me to do so. But the interest of the Nation must always come before any personal considerations. From the discussions I have had with Congressional and other leaders, I have concluded that because of the Watergate matter I might not have the support of the Congress that I would consider necessary to back the very difficult decisions and carry out the duties of this office in the way the interests of the Nation would require.
I have never been a quitter. To leave office before my term is completed is abhorrent to every instinct in my body. But as President, I must put the interest of America first. America needs a full-time President and a full-time Congress, particularly at this time with problems we face at home and abroad. To continue to fight through the months ahead for my personal vindication would almost totally absorb the time and attention of both the President and the Congress in a period when our entire focus should be on the great issues of peace abroad and prosperity without inflation at home. Therefore, I shall resign the Presidency effective at noon tomorrow. Vice President Ford will be sworn in as President at that hour in this office.
The morning that his resignation was to take effect, President and Mrs. Nixon and their family said farewell to the White House staff in the East Room. A helicopter carried them from the White House to Andrews Air Force base in Maryland. Nixon later wrote that he thought, “As the helicopter moved on to Andrews, I found myself thinking not of the past, but of the future. What could I do now?…” At Andrews, he and his family boarded Air Force One to El Toro Marine Corps Air Station in California, and then were transported to his home in San Clemente.
President Ford’s pardon of Nixon
With President Nixon’s resignation, Congress dropped its impeachment proceedings. Criminal prosecution was still a possibility both on the Federal and State level. Nixon was succeeded by Vice President Gerald Ford as President, who on September 8, 1974, issued a full and unconditional pardon of Nixon, immunizing him from prosecution for any crimes he had “committed or may have committed or taken part in” as president. In a televised broadcast to the nation, Ford explained that he felt the pardon was in the best interest of the country. He said that the Nixon family’s situation “is an American tragedy in which we all have played a part. It could go on and on and on, or someone must write the end to it. I have concluded that only I can do that, and if I can, I must.”
Nixon proclaimed his innocence until his death in 1994. In his official response to the pardon, he said that he “was wrong in not acting more decisively and more forthrightly in dealing with Watergate, particularly when it reached the stage of judicial proceedings and grew from a political scandal into a national tragedy.”
Some commentators have argued that pardoning Nixon contributed to President Ford’s loss of the presidential election of 1976.Allegations of a secret deal made with Ford, promising a pardon in return for Nixon’s resignation, led Ford to testify before the House Judiciary Committee on October 17, 1974.
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In his autobiography A Time to Heal, Ford wrote about a meeting he had with Nixon’s Chief of Staff, Alexander Haig. Haig was explaining what he and Nixon’s staff thought were Nixon’s only options. He could try to ride out the impeachment and fight against conviction in the Senate all the way, or he could resign. His options for resigning were to delay his resignation until further along in the impeachment process to try and settle for a censure vote in Congress, or to pardon himself and then resign. Haig told Ford that some of Nixon’s staff suggested that Nixon could agree to resign in return for an agreement that Ford would pardon him.
Haig emphasized that these weren’t his suggestions. He didn’t identify the staff members and he made it very clear that he wasn’t recommending any one option over another. What he wanted to know was whether or not my overall assessment of the situation agreed with his.[emphasis in original]… Next he asked if I had any suggestions as to courses of actions for the President. I didn’t think it would be proper for me to make any recommendations at all, and I told him so.
Final legal actions and effect on the law profession
Charles Colson pleaded guilty to charges concerning the Daniel Ellsberg case; in exchange, the indictment against him for covering up the activities of the Committee to Re-elect the President was dropped, as it was against Strachan. The remaining five members of the Watergate Seven indicted in March went on trial in October 1974. On January 1, 1975, all but Parkinson were found guilty. In 1976, the U.S. Court of Appeals ordered a new trial for Mardian; subsequently, all charges against him were dropped. Haldeman, Ehrlichman, and Mitchell exhausted their appeals in 1977. Ehrlichman entered prison in 1976, followed by the other two in 1977. Since Nixon and many senior officials involved in Watergate were lawyers, the scandal severely tarnished the public image of the legal profession.
The Watergate scandal resulted in 69 government officials being charged and 48 being found guilty. The principals were:
- John N. Mitchell, Attorney General of the United States, convicted of perjury.
- Richard Kleindienst, Attorney General, convicted of “refusing to answer questions” given one month in jail.
- Jeb Stuart Magruder, Head of Committee to Re-elect the President, pled guilty to 1 count of conspiracy, August 1973
- Frederick C. LaRue, Advisor to John Mitchell, convicted of obstruction of justice.
- H. R. Haldeman, Chief of Staff for Nixon, convicted of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and perjury.
- John Ehrlichman, Counsel to Nixon, convicted of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and perjury.
- Egil Krogh, aide to John Ehrlichman, sentenced to six months.
- John W. Dean III, counsel to Nixon, convicted of obstruction of justice.
- Dwight L. Chapin, deputy assistant to Nixon, convicted of perjury.
- Herbert W. Kalmbach, personal attorney to Nixon, convicted of illegal campaigning.
- Charles W. Colson, special counsel to Nixon, convicted of obstruction of justice.
- Herbert L. Porter, aide to the Committee to Re-elect the President. Convicted of perjury.
- G. Gordon Liddy, Special Investigations Group, convicted of burglary.
- E. Howard Hunt, Security consultant, convicted of burglary.
- James W. McCord Jr., convicted of six charges of burglary, conspiracy and wiretapping.
- Virgilio Gonzalez, convicted of burglary.
- Bernard Barker, convicted of burglary.
- Eugenio Martinez, convicted of burglary.
- Frank Sturgis, convicted of burglary.
To defuse public demand for direct federal regulation of lawyers (as opposed to leaving it in the hands of state bar associations or courts), the American Bar Association (ABA) launched two major reforms. First, the ABA decided that its existing Model Code of Professional Responsibility (promulgated 1969) was a failure. In 1983 it replaced it with theModel Rules of Professional Conduct. The MRPC have been adopted in part or in whole by 49 states (and is being considered by the last one, California). Its preamble contains an emphatic reminder that the legal profession can remain self-governing only if lawyers behave properly. Second, the ABA promulgated a requirement that law students at ABA-approved law schools take a course in professional responsibility (which means they must study the MRPC). The requirement remains in effect.
On June 24 and 25, 1975, Nixon gave secret testimony to a grand jury. According to news reports at the time, Nixon answered questions about the 18-1/2 minute tape gap, altering White House tape transcripts turned over to the House Judiciary Committee, using the Internal Revenue Service to harass political enemies, and a $100,000 contribution from billionaire Howard Hughes. Aided by the Public Citizen Litigation Group, the historian Stanley Kutler, who has written several books about Nixon and Watergate, sued for release of the transcripts of the testimony. President Obama’s justice department opposed the transcripts release on privacy grounds. On July 29, 2011, the U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth granted Kutler’s request, saying that historical interests trumped privacy interests. He noted that Nixon and other key figures likely to be mentioned were deceased and most of the surviving figures had testified under oath, written about or were interviewed about Watergate. The transcripts were not immediately released pending the government’s decision on whether to appeal. They were released in their entirety on November 10, 2011, although the names of people still alive were redacted.
Texas A&M University-Central Texas professor Luke Nichter wrote the chief judge of the federal court in Washington to in an effort release hundreds of pages of sealed records of the Watergate 7. In June 2012 The U.S. Department of Justice wrote the court that it would not object to the materials release with some exceptions.
Political and cultural reverberations
The effect on the 1974 Senate election and House election three months later was significant. The Democrats gained five seats in the Senate and 49 in the House. Watergate led to Congress passing legislation making changes in rules for campaign financing. The scandal contributed to Congress’ amending the Freedom of Information Act in 1974, as well as to laws requiring new financial disclosures by key government officials, such as the Ethics in Government Act. While not legally required, other types of personal disclosure, such as releasing recent income tax forms, became expected. Presidents since Franklin D. Roosevelt had recorded many of their conversations, but after Watergate, this practice purportedly ended.
According to Thomas J. Johnson, a professor of journalism at Southern Illinois University, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger predicted during Nixon’s final days that history would remember Nixon as a great president and that Watergate would be relegated to a “minor footnote.”
When Congress investigated the scope of the President’s legal powers, it belatedly found that the United States had been declared by presidential administrations to be in a continuous open-ended state of emergency since 1950. Congress enacted the National Emergencies Act in 1976 to regulate such declarations.
The Watergate scandal left such an impression on the national and international consciousness that many scandals since then have been labeled with the suffix “-gate“.
In 2010 Congressman Ron Paul questioned whether the Federal Reserve Bank had been used to funnel illegal money during Watergate and other scandals. This led House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank to ask the agency to investigate the charges. In April 2012, the Federal Reserve bank inspector general released a report that found “we did not find any evidence of undue political interference with or improper actions by Federal Reserve officials related to the cash found on the Watergate burglars.”
In the aftermath of Watergate, “follow the money” became part of the American lexicon and is widely believed to have been uttered by Mark Felt to Woodward and Bernstein. The phrase was never used in the book “All The President’s Men” and did not become associated with “All the President’s Men” until the movie version of the book was released.
Purpose of the break-in
Despite the enormous impact of the Watergate scandal, the actual purpose of the break-in of the DNC offices has never been conclusively established. Some hypotheses suggest that the burglars were after specific information. The likeliest of these hypotheses suggests that the target of the break-in was the offices of Larry O’Brien, the Chairman of the DNC. In 1968, O’Brien was appointed by Vice President Hubert Humphrey to serve as the national director of Humphrey’s presidential campaign and, separately, by Howard Hughes, to serve as Hughes’ public-policy lobbyist in Washington. O’Brien was elected national chairman of the DNC in 1968 and 1970. In late 1971, the President’s brother, Donald Nixon, was collecting intelligence for his brother at the time and was asking Meier about Larry O’Brien. In 1956, Donald Nixon had borrowed $205,000 from Howard Hughes and never repaid the loan. The fact of the loan surfaced during the 1960 presidential election campaign embarrassing Richard Nixon and became a real political liability. According to author Donald M. Bartlett, Richard Nixon would do whatever was necessary to prevent another Hughes-Nixon family embarrassment. From 1968 to 1970, Hughes withdrew nearly half a million dollars from the Texas National Bank of Commerce for contributions to both Democrats and Republicans, including presidential candidates Humphrey and Nixon. Hughes wanted Donald Nixon and Meier involved but Richard Nixon was opposed to their involvement.
Meier told Donald that he was sure the Democrats would win the election because they had considerable information on Richard Nixon’s illicit dealings with Howard Hughes that had never been released, and that Larry O’Brien had the information. O’Brien, who had received $25,000 from Hughes, didn’t actually have any documents but Meier claims to have wanted Richard Nixon to think he did. It is only a question of conjecture then that Donald called his brother Richard and told him that Meier gave the Democrats all the Hughes information that could destroy him and that O’Brien had the proof. The fact is Larry O’Brien, elected Democratic Party Chairman, was also a lobbyist for Howard Hughes in a Democratic controlled Congress and the possibility of his finding out about Hughes’ illegal contributions to the Nixon campaign was too much of a danger for Nixon to ignore and O’Brien’s office at Watergate became a target of Nixon’s intelligence in the political campaign. This hypothesis has been proposed as a motivation for the break-in.
Numerous hypotheses have persisted in claiming deeper significance to the Watergate scandal than that commonly acknowledged by media and historians:
- In the book The Ends of Power, Nixon’s chief of staff H. R. Haldeman claimed that the term “Bay of Pigs“, mentioned by Nixon in a tape-recorded White House conversation as the reason the CIA should put a stop to the Watergate investigations, was used by Nixon as a coded reference to a CIA plot to assassinate Fidel Castro during the John F. Kennedy administration. The CIA had not disclosed this plot to the Warren Commission, the commission investigating the Kennedy assassination, despite the fact that it would attribute a motive to Castro in the assassination. Any such revelation would also expose CIA/Mafia connections that could lead to unwanted scrutiny of suspected CIA/Mafia participants in the assassination of the president. Furthermore, Nixon’s awareness as vice-president of the Bay of Pigs plan and his own ties to the underworld and unsavory intelligence operations might come to light. A theoretical connection between the Kennedy assassination and the Watergate Tapes was later referred to in the biopic, Nixon, directed by Oliver Stone.
- Silent Coup, is a bestselling 1992 book written by Len Colodny and Robert Gettlin in which they contend that former Nixon White House counsel John Dean orchestrated the 1972 Watergate burglary at Democratic National Committee headquarters to protect his future wife, Maureen Biner, by removing information linking her to a call-girl (prostitute) ring that worked for the DNC. The authors also argued that Alexander Haig was not Deep Throat but was a key source for Bob Woodward, who as a Naval officer had briefed Haig at the White House in 1969 and 1970. Time Magazine considered but decided not to publish an article that made similar claims. Dean sued the publisher of the book resulting in a 9 year legal battle. As of October 2011 Dean was writing a book where transcripts of previously unheard tapes will be published and put in context.
James F. Neal who prosecuted the Watergate 7 did not believe Nixon had ordered the break in because of Nixon’s surprised reaction when he was told about it. He cited the June 23, 1972, conversation when Nixon asked Haldeman: “Who was the asshole that did it?”.