Watergate & Nixon’s Resignation

An exterior view of the Watergate Building from the Potomac River in Washington DC. © SpiritOfAmerica via Adobe Stock.
An exterior view of the Watergate Building from the Potomac River in Washington DC. © SpiritOfAmerica via Adobe Stock.

The Watergate scandal began on June 17th, 1972, when several burglars were apprehended at the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters in the Watergate Complex of Buildings in Washington DC. Its consequences were far reaching and forever altered American politics. This watershed moment prompted many Americans to question their leaders and to become more discerning and critical about the presidency.

The day prior to the break-in, the seven men responsible for the botched operation had convened in room 214 of the Watergate Hotel (one of the buildings of the Watergate Complex) in Washington DC to finalize their plans. G. Gordon Liddy, a former FBI agent, was associated with the Committee to Re-Elect the President (CREEP), and his involvement provided a direct link between Nixon and the scandal. E. Howard Hunt, a former CIA employee, was also implicated in the operation. James McCord, head of security at CREEP, was tasked with installing bugs, while Bernard Barker was responsible for photographing documents. Virgilio Gonzalez was assigned to pick locks, and the final two participants, Eugenio Martinez and Frank Sturgis, acted as lookouts. This meticulously planned and executed break-in would have dire consequences, ultimately bringing about Nixon’s downfall and exposing the seedy underbelly of politics to the public.

Several of these men were Cuban exiles who had contacted Hunt through their involvement in the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. Even though the robbers would be caught in the act, it would take several months for enough information to surface to establish a narrative of what had occurred leading up to that night. These individuals had been hired by representatives from President Nixon’s administration to utilize unlawful tactics to gather intelligence that might aid him to win reelection in 1972.

On that fateful day, a security guard at the Watergate Complex noticed tape covering the latch on the locks of several stairway doors in the complex. He removed the tape and forgot about it. An hour later, he discovered that someone (McCord) had re-taped the locks again. The police were called and arrived in plainclothes and in an unmarked car, allowing them to go by the lookout without raising alarm. The robbers then switched off their radio when they heard noise from an adjacent stairwell. Within minutes, all five burglars were arrested by police. In their possession were wiretapping equipment, two cameras, several dozen rolls of film, and a few thousand dollars in cash – one hundred dollar bills with successive serial numbers (indicating money had come straight from a bank, which might be traceable). Liddy and Hunt fled the scene as quickly as possible, but the thieves also possessed two hotel room keys, one of which was for the room where Liddy and Hunt had slept.

The Washington Post published a story on the Monday following the incident that stated, “One of the five men arrested early Saturday in the attempt to bug the Democratic National Committee headquarters is the salaried security coordinator for President Nixon’s re-election committee.” After the break-in, White House Press Secretary Ron Zeigler dismissed it as a minor thievery attempt. John Mitchell, head of CREEP, denied any involvement with the episode. These statements were all lies. In reality, an intricate cover-up had already been put in motion. The concealment of the truth that followed would eventually lead to the “obstruction of justice” charge and the resignation of President Nixon.

The media coverage – particularly by The Washington Post – kept the scandal in the headlines and is likely to have had an impact on Congress’ decision to conduct a formal investigation. Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein utilized anonymous sources to reveal that knowledge of the break-in and subsequent cover-up had connections all the way up the chain of command at the Justice Department, FBI, CIA, and even the White House.

Woodward and Bernstein’s most famous source was a person they called Deep Throat, a nod to a controversial pornography production at the time. According to Woodward in his 1974 book All the President’s Men, the two would meet privately at an underground parking lot just over the Key Bridge in Rosslyn, Virginia, where Deep Throat assisted him in making connections. Woodward would place a flowerpot with a red flag on his balcony ahead of time to signal to his source that he wanted a meeting throughout the lengthy investigation. If Deep Throat wished to see Woodward, he made specific markings on page 20 of Woodward’s copy of The New York Times. On the 20th of June 1972, just three days after the break-in, the first meeting occurred. For more than 30 years, various people have purported to be Deep Throat. He was revealed to be Mark Felt, the second in charge at the FBI, in 2005.

A few months after the Watergate break-in, on September 15th, 1972, a federal grand jury indicted the five burglars, as well as G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt. Shortly thereafter, it was reported that Attorney General John Mitchell had overseen a clandestine Republican fund used to finance espionage against the Democrats.

The trial began in January 1973, with the five burglars pleading guilty to their charges. On January 30th, just ten days after Richard Nixon’s second inauguration following a landslide victory, Liddy and James McCord were convicted of conspiracy, burglary, and wiretapping. However, the Watergate scandal continued to simmer even after the trial concluded, gradually expanding in scope and impact throughout Nixon’s presidency.

On the 9th of April 1973, The New York Times claimed that James McCord informed the Senate Watergate Committee that the money for the burglars came straight from the Republican Party to Re-Elect President Nixon (CREEP). When attempting to establish whether or not a “slush fund” was still operational following the arrests (presumably as payoffs to keep the burglars quiet), a CREEP employee became enraged on the phone with Bob Woodward. He appeared to be emotionally distressed over how former CREEP official John Mitchell and others had undermined America’s presidency through their ignorance. Then, according to Woodward’s book, “Woodward then called Hugh Sloan, Treasurer at CREEP, and obtained from him that about $70,000 in CREEP slush fund money was used to pay off the thieves.” The Washington Post reporters now had a link between the surveillance and the cover-up.

On the 17th of April 1973, President Nixon made a short statement before the White House Press Corps in which he informed his advisers and staff that if asked, they would appear before the Senate Watergate Committee. He said that he would provide “major new developments” in the future as he continued his investigation. He added, “Real progress has been made in finding the truth.” The White House subsequently issued an official statement claiming that President Nixon was unaware of the Watergate Scandal.

Less than one week later, Nixon assigned White House Counsel John Dean to write him a report about the Watergate affair and dispatched him to Camp David to do so. Because he thought he was on the verge of being exposed as the scapegoat in Watergate, Dean went camping and did not produce the paper.

During a fateful meeting on April 24th, Attorney General Richard Kleindienst informed President Nixon that John Dean, White House counsel, had leveled a shocking accusation: that the White House had orchestrated the break-in of a psychiatrist’s office to discredit a patient, Daniel Ellsberg, who was involved in a separate controversy, the Pentagon Papers, regarding the origin and escalation of the Vietnam War. Concerned about the possibility of another cover-up, Kleindienst told Nixon, “We can’t have another cover-up, Mr. President.” Nixon responded, “I don’t want any cover-ups of anything.” They briefly discussed the prospect of immunity for Dean, but dismissed it soon after. This momentous conversation highlights the gravity of the situation and the high stakes involved, as the President and his Attorney General grappled with the accusations of wrongdoing and the specter of yet another scandal.

These talks and many others were recorded on an oval office tape machine, which would play an important role in the investigation. In mid-July 1973, Alexander Butterfield, a former Presidential aide, revealed before a Senate Committee that there was an Oval Office recording system installed and run by the Secret Service, and that Nixon most likely had installed to preserve events for posterity. Nixon ordered the taping system to be switched off a few days later.

The Senate Committee and Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox then issued subpoenas for the White House tapes. Nixon refused to turn over the tapes, claiming executive privilege. Eventually, the Supreme Court would decide on the case.

In October 1973, in an effort to resolve the taping issue, Nixon proposed what would later become known as the Stennis Compromise. The special prosecutor’s office would be given a summary of the tapes by Senator John C. Stennis (a Democrat from Mississippi). Cox rejected the offer. The night after that, a Saturday, Nixon worked to have Cox fired. He contacted Attorney General Elliot Richardson and instructed him to fire the special prosecutor. Richardson refused and resigned instead. Nixon then ordered Deputy Attorney General Ruckelshaus to fire Cox. He also refused and resigned in protest. Nixon then contacted the Solicitor General, Robert Bork, and ordered him, as acting head of the Justice Department in the wake of the previous resignations, to fire Cox. Bork reluctantly complied.

The firing of Special Prosecutor Cox, and the flurry of high-profile Justice Department resignations over the weekend caused the press to dub this event, the “Saturday Night Massacre.” Congress was infuriated about the Saturday Night Massacre. Numerous resolutions to impeach the President were introduced in the House. Nixon, feeling the pressure, agreed to release some of the tapes to District Judge Sirica.

On the 21st of November 1973, the White House stated that two of the subpoenaed recordings had been lost, and one dating just three days after the Watergate break-in had a recording gap of eighteen and a half minutes on it. It was rumored that Nixon was attempting to conceal evidence.

On July 24th 1974 the Supreme Court unanimously decided United States v. Nixon. Nixon was ordered to turn over the tapes to investigators. He reluctantly complied. Meanwhile, the House Judiciary Committee pressed ahead. Between July 27th and 30th, the Committee adopted three articles of impeachment against the president: obstructing the Watergate investigation, misuse of power and violating his oath of office, and failure to comply with House subpoenas. On August 5th, to soften the impact of the inevitable disclosure, Nixon voluntary made public three of the subpoenaed tapes. One of these would become known as the “Smoking Gun” tape, a conversation recorded six days after the Watergate break-in. In that tape, Nixon ordered the CIA to hold back the inquiry by the FBI.

The recorded conversation between Nixon and his advisors details a disturbing cover-up plan. In the tape, Nixon can be heard instructing Walters from the CIA to prevent the FBI from investigating the Watergate break-in. Specifically, Nixon approved a plan that involved Walters calling Pat Gray from the FBI and ordering him to “stay the hell out of this.” Nixon was further informed about the connection between the break-in and his campaign, to which he responded with a callous disregard for the law and the integrity of the FBI’s investigation. His words, “All right, fine, I understand it all. We won’t second-guess Mitchell and the rest,” revealed his complicity in the conspiracy to cover up the crime. Even more disturbingly, Nixon went on to encourage the use of the CIA to obstruct the FBI, stating “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.” This shocking revelation demonstrates the President’s blatant attempt to obstruct justice and undermine the rule of law.

On August 8th, several key Republican senators advised the President that, if impeached, sufficient votes existed in the Senate to convict him at trial and remove him from office. That night, Richard Nixon addressed the nation from the Oval Office. He stated that he no longer had a congressional base of support. As a result, he would not see the impeachment process to its conclusion. The country required a full-time president. He would give up his post in the interests of the nation. The President said, “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 next morning, Nixon bade farewell to the White House staff in the East Room. The Nixons, accompanied by the Fords, made their way across the White House grounds to Marine One, where the President turned and waved one last time before boarding. Gerald Ford returned to the East Room and took his oath of office. Afterward, he said, “My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over. Our constitution works. Our great republic is a government of laws and not of men. Here, the people rule. But there is a higher power, by whatever name we honor Him. Who ordains not only righteousness but love, not only justice but mercy? Let us restore the golden rule to our political process and let brotherly love purge our hearts of suspicion and hate.”


Written by Editorial Team

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