Before There Was #TrumpRussia, There Was Watergate

A botched burglary at the DNC, a stilted cover-up, and the greatest scandal in American political history

President Richard Nixon at his resignation speech via the National Archives and Records Administration, public domain/CC0)

President Richard Nixon at his resignation speech via the National Archives and Records Administration, public domain/CC0)

Political scandal, conspiracy theories, harried reporters, an intelligence community racked with biased partisan leanings, and a cast of characters trying to save their own skins — sound familiar? Don’t worry, this isn’t another thinkpiece on #TrumpRussia or analysis on whether Carter Page or Paul Manafort will reach a deal for immunity first. Today, we’re taking a trip to the early 70s — a time where the hair was long and the protests were radical. When America was embroiled in a war that its citizens wanted nothing to do with, and a corrupt President obsessed with popularity fell into a paranoid rabbit hole that would ultimately be his downfall.

If these situations seem to reek of deja vu, you’re not alone. To many millennials, the scandal known as “Watergate” is a topic in social studies textbooks, and nothing more. However, as we enter a time in our own narrative where the pendulum seems to be swinging back towards fear and legally ambiguous situations, it is imperative that we understand our own history. Corruption in American politics is not unprecedented.

Richard Nixon, however, was.

The Cast

No good true crime story is complete without a company of players to complicate matters with their own motivations and desires. Other supporting characters will weave their way in and out of the story, but these are the guys you want to remember.

And of course,

The Crime(s)

Richard Nixon was elected President in 1968, in the midst of the Vietnam War. While he campaigned on a promise to end the war, his first term was marked with increased anti-war demonstrations as the violence in Vietnam escalated. In one of the first instances of Nixon’s paranoia being revealed, the President issued a secret executive order to find out who was behind the movement. This would have required the government to spy on its citizens without a warrant — a move that we all know is highly controversial and about as illegal as it gets.

J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the FBI at the time, disallowed this, prompting Nixon’s men to take the matter into their own hands. John Ehrlichman took point and a private eye was enlisted with the task of finding out information on Nixon’s “enemies.” If you think this is starting to sound like a Ian Fleming novel, we haven’t even scratched the surface.

In 1971, as Nixon was preparing for his re-election campaign, a man named Daniel Ellsberg leaked The Pentagon Papers to the New York Times. Ellsberg was a military analyst who had become disaffected with the Vietnam War. The information he gave to the press included a detailed history of the United States’ political-military involvement in Vietnam from 1945–1967, revealing different motivations than what the public had previously been led to believe. This lit a fire under the anti-war movement, and propelled Ellsberg to be considered the leading opponent of Nixon’s Vietnam policy.

As a result, Nixon set out to both punish and discredit Ellsberg, by whatever means necessary. Under the supervision of Ehrlichman, a group was formed called “The White House Plumbers.” The Plumbers were a covert White House Special Investigations Unit comprised of a handful of key administration officials — including Gordan Liddy and Howard Hunt.

Their first mission was to break into the Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office in Los Angeles with the hopes of discovering damaging information about Ellsberg’s mental state. The break-in was not detected, but the burglars were unsuccessful in discovering Ellsberg’s file. According to the famed Frost/Nixon interviews of 1977, the entire affair had full executive branch support.

Regardless of its failure, the entire affair left the administration with a taste for “political intelligence.” Liddy was promoted to the CRP and tasked with leading this hunt for intelligence on the Democratic opposition. In early 1972, he presented a series of illegal plots designed to harm the Democrats to John Mitchell, John Dean, and one of H.R. Haldeman’s aides, Jeb Magruder. Most of these plans — collectively referred to as “Operation Gemstone” — were rejected by Mitchell on the grounds of being too extreme or dangerous. A few months later, a scaled-back plan was approved, which would include the burglary and bugging of the DNC’s headquarters at the Watergate Complex in Washington, D.C.

A group of Cuban burglars who had been involved in the Los Angeles affair were hired at the behest of Liddy. However, he also brought on Howard Hunt and a man by the name of James McCord — in order to tap the phone lines in the headquarters.

This group broke into the Watergate twice — once on May 28th and for a second time on July 17th, 1972. It was during this second attempt that a security guard noticed locks on the building had been taped open, and called local police. Three plain-clothed policemen arrived on the scene to find the burglars hiding underneath desks.

The story hit the newspapers the next morning, and the cover-up began.

The Cover Up

Had the Watergate break-in been the only crime committed at Nixon’s behest, a cover-up might not have been initiated. While the participation of Howard Hunt and James McCord could tie the burglary to the White House, it would have been difficult to connect this crime to the executive branch. However, with the Ellsberg affair and a few other minor illegalities, the President’s men knew they were in for a bumpy ride.

McCord had been one of the burglars arrested during that night. Because of his connections to the Nixon administration, the rest of the Plumbers were adamant about getting him released from jail. Liddy placed a phone call to Richard Kleindienst, the new attorney general. In this phone call, Liddy confessed his involvement in the Watergate Scandal — as it would be known — and begged Kleindienst to pardon McCord and the other burglars.

Kleindienst refused and proceeded to launch an investigation into the break-in. However, he kept all mention of Liddy’s confession to himself — a mistake that would eventually lead to his forced resignation nearly a year later.

The Watergate burglars were not Nixon’s only problem at this time. The FBI had discovered a money trail that led to campaign cash laundered through Mexican banks. At the time, they didn’t know what they had stumbled upon. Fearing that they were heading into the CIA’s dominion, they alerted both Haldeman and Dean — Nixon’s Chief of Staff and counsel, respectively.

Here’s where some hands start to get really dirty.

Haldeman briefed Nixon on the situation and let the President know how close the FBI were standing to the crux of the conspiracy. He suggested that they play along with the FBI’s current theory — that this was CIA territory — and attempt to scare them off the trail. At the President’s urging, Haldeman convinced the directors of the CIA to lie by threatening them with a reopening of the Bay of Pigs fiasco — a failed military invasion of Cuba by a CIA-sponsored paramilitary group, which caused extreme embarrassment for the entire organization.

This notable deception served as a line of demarcation between seemingly blasé activities of corrupt politicians and what would become the greatest scandal in American politics to this day.

Things began to move very quickly after the CIA came on board. In an attempt to distance himself from the affair, Nixon ordered the Watergate investigations to move on as expected. At the same time, campaign funds were used as hush money to lull the arrested burglars into submission. Macruder — at this point the deputy campaign director — threw Liddy under the bus, saying the money trail pointed back to him. According to testimony, Macruder gave Liddy approximately $100,000 for “campaign security,” and the using of such funds for the break-in came from Liddy’s personal volition.

On September 15th, 1972 Hunt, Liddy, and the four Cuban burglars were indicted in regards to the infiltration of the Watergate Complex. Around the same time, Nixon took to the Oval Office to rant about the men who were out to get him, and threaten all considered his enemies.

And how are we able to know the intensity of the President’s feeling during this largely secretive moment? In early 1971, during a bout of conspiracy or egotism — depending on who you ask — Richard Nixon had the entire Oval Office bugged, and all conversations taking place in it recorded.

We know how Nixon felt during Watergate, we know how much he was involved, we know he wanted it covered up — we know everything about this time — because he told us.

The [email protected]#$% Hits the Fan

On November 7th, 1972, Richard Nixon was re-elected in one of the greatest landslides in American political history. Despite his electoral popularity, and despite the previous arrests of the Watergate burglars, the scandal continued to gain traction. Part of this was due the the relentless coverage by Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. The information divulged by the Post kept the scandal fresh in the public’s mind and put political pressure on those in Washington to continue their investigations.

Eventually, the Senate voted 77–0 to establish a committee with the power to investigate both the break-in and any subsequent cover-up of criminal activity. Across the country, the question was rapidly evolving into whether the White House was involved, and how much the President knew.

At this point, John Dean began to fear that the extensive cover-up would lead to the President’s downfall. A Nixon loyalist to a fault, Dean believed that the core group of the administration needed to take the fall in order to save the presidency. During this time, Howard Hunt and the rest of the burglars were beginning to use their knowledge to blackmail the administration for more hush money. Dean, in an effort to dissuade Nixon from continuing to pay the men off, told the President that they would need to come up with “$1 million over the next two years,” to keep the cover-up intact.

He believed this number was so astronomical that the President would be forced to rethink his strategy. After pausing a moment, Nixon replied,

We could get that…you could get a million dollars. And you could get it in cash. I know where it could be gotten.

As Nixon started to double down, the men involved were losing their patience. On March 23rd, 1973, James McCord decided he had enough sacrifice for one lifetime. He penned a letter to Judge John Sirica, who had presided over the original case. In the letter he alleged three damning accusations:

Suddenly, the tight knit political crime ring that the Nixon administration had become devolved into an every-man-for-himself train wreck. Dean, realizing he would be the most likely scapegoat, frantically sought immunity. The Senate Committee, eager for a witness of such caliber, accepted the deal. Dean was fired from the administration before testifying, and Haldeman and Ehrlichman were forced to resign in a last ditch effort to shield Nixon from the controversy.

In June of 1973, Dean testified in front of the committee and revealed that he had spoken to Nixon about the Watergate cover-up at least 35 times. The committee remained at a standstill until Alexander Butterfield took the stand. After being asked a direct question about a rumor regarding taped conversations, Butterfield revealed the information that would eventually force Nixon to become the first President to resign.

Every record of every conversation ever held in the Oval Office was right there, if you knew where to look.

“I AM NOT A CROOK”

A subpoena for the tapes was immediately issued, but Nixon refused, citing his executive privilege. Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor, rebuffed Nixon’s statement, leading to what would be known as the “Saturday Night Massacre.”

On October 20, 1973, after Cox refused to drop the subpoena, Nixon ordered both the Attorney General and his deputy to fire the special prosecutor. Both refused, resigning in protest over the matter. Eventually, the Solicitor General agreed to the President’s orders and fired Cox.

These actions garnered great public disapproval, leading Nixon to emphatically issue his famous statement, “I am not a crook!,” to 400+ Associated Press reporters.

On March 1st, 1974, a grand jury indicted several former Nixon aides — men who would become known as the Watergate Seven — on charges of conspiring to hinder the investigation into the burglary. These men included Haldeman, Ehrlichman, and Mitchell; some of Nixon’s closest associates.

As political pressure mounted, the White House decided to reveal edited transcripts of the tapes to the House Judiciary Committee. The issue of whether or not the tapes themselves needed to be released headed to the Supreme Court, which, on July 24th, 1974 unanimously ruled in favor of release.

As anyone following this story knows by now, the tapes revealed Nixon’s deep involvement in a myriad of crimes. As a result, the House Judiciary Committee passed the first of three articles of impeachment, citing obstruction of justice as cause. The other two articles would follow suit.

On August 5th, 1974, a previously unknown tape was released by the White House. This tape became known as the “smoking gun,” as it proved that Nixon himself had ordered a cover-up of the Watergate break-in.

Nixon’s political support practically vanished overnight after this tape was made public. Three days later, Richard Nixon became the first President to ever resign from office. He issued a nationally televised address wherein he stated:

“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.”

Watergate Today

In late March of this year, John Dean appeared on MSNBC to discuss President Trump’s wiretapping allegations. When asked about the alleged connections between the President’s campaign staff and Russia, Dean replied in reference to the administration,

“In fact they are in a cover-up mode. There’s just never been any question in my mind about that. I’ve been inside a cover-up. I know how they look and feel. And every signal they’re sending is ‘we’re covering this up.”

Secrecy, paranoia, distancing from aides and staffers that were once in the inner circle — so many of these actions read like modern-day remake of the Watergate Scandal. There have been many comparisons made between the Trump administration and Nixon’s final years in office. Some of the allusions have even been made by the President himself:

Historical context is necessary in times of political chaos. It offers citizens a rule book from which to take notes from, and it creates precedent in a largely unprecedented time. It reminds the electorate that the wheels of government turn slowly, and often the wheels of justice turn even slower. There were 783 days between the Watergate break-in and Nixon’s resignation. Corruption was slow to reveal itself, but as with all of American history, the spotlight was eventually shined upon it.

The Watergate cover-up was partially revealed because of paranoid politicians who let their ego and need for power drive them to near-insanity. However the bulk of its discovery rests in the hands of two indispensable aspects of American civilization — the judicial branch of the U.S. government and the investigative news media. Without these sources’ vetting and legal prowess, corruption would have gone unchecked for much longer than it did.

If there is one thing to be learned from the convulsed history of the 37th President of the United States, it’s that fraud, malfeasance, and crime can never remain hidden for long — especially when committed by the hands of egotistical, troubled men.

Oh, and if you’re planning on committing multiple abuses of power that could lead to a constitutional crisis? Maybe don’t keep the receipts.

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