BRIA 25 4 The Watergate Scandal

Bill of Rights in Action
SUMMER 2010 (Volume 25, No. 4)

Reaction and Reform

The Watergate Scandal  |  Mussolini and the Rise of Fascism  |  Land, Liberty, and the Mexican Revolution  

 The Watergate Scandal

On November 7, 1972, President Richard Nixon, a Republican, won a landside re-election to a second term. Two years later, he resigned—the first president in history to do so. Nixon resigned because of “Watergate”—a scandal that began with a bungled burglary and ended with criminal charges against his closest aides and demands for his impeachment.

Early in 1972, Nixon’s aides were working hard to make sure he won the election in November. The Committee to Reelect the President (CRP)—headed by John Mitchell, who had just resigned from his post as attorney general—was raising huge amounts of money and working on plans to undermine the Democratic candidate. One of those plans, proposed by CRP’s special counsel, Gordon Liddy, was to break into the Democratic Party headquarters. John Mitchell agreed to give Liddy $250,000 from CRP’s money, and Liddy, with his partner Howard Hunt, began planning the burglary.

Late at night on Friday, June 16, 1972, a group of five men hired by Hunt and Liddy broke into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee (DNC). The DNC offices were located in the Watergate complex—five buildings holding offices, apartments, and a hotel in Washington, D.C. The plan was for the five men to plant eavesdropping devices and copy important DNC files, with Hunt and Liddy keeping watch from the Watergate Hotel. But thanks to a night watchman who alerted the police, the burglars were caught and taken to jail.

President Nixon insisted that neither he nor any of his aides had any involvement in the break-in. But soon evidence began to emerge linking the burglars to Liddy, Hunt, and the White House. One of the five men arrested, James McCord, was the security chief of CRP. And when the police searched the hotel rooms where the burglars had stayed, they found $2,300 in cash, which was eventually linked to CRP. Three months later, on September 15, a federal grand jury indicted the five burglars, along with Liddy and Hunt, and charged them with conspiracy, burglary, and violation of federal wiretapping laws. All of the men, except for Liddy and McCord, pleaded guilty.

The Cover-Up

The morning after the break-in, Liddy told his bosses at CRP that his men had been arrested. The bosses were horrified. Mitchell immediately issued a statement to the press denying that CRP had any connection with the break-in. He said that McCord

and the other men involved were not operating on either our behalf or with our consent. There is no place in our campaign . . . for this type of activity, and we will not permit or condone it.

Mitchell and his assistant Jeb Magruder embarked on a campaign to cover up CRP’s involvement with the break-in. Another key person in the cover-up was John Dean, the White House counsel. Dean talked to Liddy on Monday about what had happened, and he went to John Ehrlichman, one of the two top aides on Nixon’s staff. On Tuesday, Nixon met with Mitchell and his other top aide, John Haldeman and discussed Watergate. Ehrlichman and Dean were assigned to do two things. One was to stop the FBI from doing its job of investigating the burglary; and the second was to keep the burglars from talking.

The first assignment was not successful. Haldeman and Ehrlichman met with the head of the CIA on June 23 and asked him to tell the FBI to limit its investigation in the interest of national security. At first it looked as if the plan would work. But the acting FBI director, Patrick Gray, became uncomfortable. On July 6, he called President Nixon directly and told him that the president’s staff was trying to use the CIA to disrupt his work. From then on, the FBI continued its investigation of the burglary.

Keeping the burglars from talking was more successful. Dean met with John Mitchell and two other CRP staff members on the morning of June 28 to discuss the problem. Later in the day, he met with Haldeman and Ehrlichman. They agreed to raise at least $100,000 to give to the burglars, in return for their agreeing to plead guilty and not disclose anything about the break-in. They recruited Nixon’s personal lawyer, Herb Kalmbach, to help raise money. The first bundle of $50,000 was delivered in early December to Dorothy Hunt, the wife of Howard Hunt. That was not enough, she said, and by the end of August, CRP and Kalmbach had raised and delivered a total of $154,000 to the burglars.

In November, it appeared that the cover-up had worked. Only the burglars—along with Hunt and Liddy—had been indicted. No one in the White House had been implicated. And Nixon won the election by a huge margin.

The Cover-Up Unravels

Two months after the election, Watergate came back into public view. Reporters at the Washington Post were uncovering links between the White House and the Watergate break-in. The burglars who had not pleaded guilty—Liddy and McCord—went on trial on January 10, 1973, before Judge John Sirica. The jury found them both guilty. New doubts were raised when FBI Director Gray testified that Dean had sat in when Watergate witnesses were being interviewed and that he had turned over the FBI’s Watergate files to Dean.

The cover-up continued behind the scenes with Nixon’s knowledge and approval. In a meeting on March 22, 1973, in the Oval Office with Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Mitchell and Dean present, Ehrlichman told Dean to say that nobody in the White House was involved, and Nixon chimed in: “That’s right.” They discussed using executive privilege to limit questioning. And Nixon made it clear that he wanted the cover-up to continue:

I don’t give a [expletive deleted] what happens. I want you all to stonewall it, let them plead the Fifth Amendment, cover up or anything else, if it’ll save it—save the plan.

Part of the plan was to continue to give money to Hunt to keep him quiet. Nixon and his staff agreed to pay Hunt’s continuing demands, and they also agreed to promise Hunt and McCord clemency—i.e., early release. But even with money and the promise of clemency, McCord decided to talk. He wrote a letter to Judge Sirica stating that political pressure had been on the defendants, witnesses had committed perjury, and people higher up than Liddy had been involved. When Judge Sirica read McCord’s letter in court on March 23, 1973, the cover-up fell apart.

Dean also decided to talk to the prosecutors about what Nixon and his staff had done to cover up the Watergate burglary. In a 245-page statement, which Dean read on June 25 to the special Senate committee investigating Watergate, he implicated Mitchell, Haldeman, and Ehrlichman in acts of perjury and obstructing justice. President Nixon was implicated as well. Dean also told prosecutors about another break-in a year earlier in Los Angeles. It was planned by the White House “special investigations unit” (known as the “Plumbers,” because its purpose was to stop leaks.) The Plumbers, who included Hunt and Liddy, had broken into a psychiatrist’s office to get information about a man named Daniel Ellsberg. Ellsberg had leaked the Pentagon Papers, a classified Defense Department history of the Vietnam War. Ehrlichman had authorized the break-in.

Members of Nixon’s staff testified under oath that Dean was lying. Without concrete evidence, the prosecutors could not prove what had really happened. But suddenly on July 23, 1973, an aide to the president revealed to the Senate Watergate Committee that Nixon had secretly taped all conversations in the Oval Office. Now, with the tapes, it would be possible to find out who was telling the truth.

Resign or Be Impeached

A battle for the tapes began immediately. In May, after pressure from Congress, Nixon had appointed Archibald Cox as a special prosecutor to investigate Watergate. As part of his investigation, the special prosecutor requested that the president turn over nine specific tapes, and the Senate Watergate Committee joined his request. Nixon refused their request, and Cox and the Senate Watergate Committee issued subpoenas and took the president to court. Judge Sirica ruled that the president must turn over the tapes and on August 20, 1973, the Court of Appeals upheld the ruling. But Nixon still refused, claiming executive privilege.

On October 20, Nixon ordered the attorney general to fire Cox. The attorney general refused and resigned. His deputy also refused and resigned. Robert Bork, the solicitor general, was the next person in line. Bork followed Nixon’s orders to fire Cox and abolish the special prosecutor’s office. The events of that night, which became known as the “Saturday Night Massacre,” resulted in a huge public outcry and demands to impeach the president. By Monday 150,000 telegrams had come to Congress and the White House. By Wednesday 450,000 telegrams had arrived, most urging impeachment. And in the House, 22 bills were introduced calling for Nixon’s impeachment.

A few days after the Saturday Night Massacre, Nixon appointed a new special prosecutor, Leon Jaworski, and made a surprise announcement that he would comply with the subpoena. But when the tapes were turned over to Judge Sirica, things got worse. Judge Sirica was told that two of the nine tapes subpoenaed were missing, and he discovered, on November 21, an 18½-minute gap in another tape. Nixon’s secretary, Rosemary Woods, tried to explain that she had mistakenly caused the gap, but Sirica recommended a grand jury investigation of “the possibility of unlawful destruction of evidence . . . .”

The 18½-minute gap caused another public outcry. Two months later, in February 1974, the House began to investigate whether grounds existed for impeachment. On March 1, 1974, the grand jury indicted seven of Nixon’s top aides, including Mitchell, Haldeman, and Ehrlichman, and named President Nixon as an “unindicted co-conspirator.” Trial was set for September, and in preparation for the trial, Jaworski served a subpoena for 64 more tapes. Nixon again refused to comply with the subpoena, and the case went back to court.

The case of U.S. v. Nixon was argued before the Supreme Court on July 8, 1974. The president’s counsel argued that the president, in his role of chief executive, had decided that tapes of confidential communications between himself and his aides were privileged and that the court should defer to the president’s decisions. Jaworski argued that the tapes would provide necessary evidence in the pending criminal trials of Nixon’s aides. Two weeks later the court issued a unanimous decision requiring Nixon to release the tapes. The court agreed with Jaworski that allowing the president to withhold the tapes would prevent the judicial branch from doing justice in a criminal case.

Three days after the Supreme Court decision, Nixon turned over the tapes. By then his fate was sealed. The House Judiciary Committee had already voted on three articles of impeachment. And the newly released tapes—including the “smoking gun” tape of June 20, 1972—showed clearly that Nixon had lied to the public and had obstructed justice. On the tape, Nixon and Haldeman discussed the hush money, and Nixon told Haldeman to ask the CIA to call the FBI and “say that we wish for the country, ‘don't go any further into this case,’ period.”

Nixon’s allies in Congress turned against him. It was clear that if the House impeached him, the Senate would convict him. On August 8, 1974, with no alternative left, Nixon announced he would resign. The vice president, Gerald Ford, assumed the presidency the next day.


A month later, on Sunday, September 8, 1974, President Gerald Ford announced that he had granted former President Nixon a pardon for all offenses against the United States that he had committed “or may have committed or taken part in” during his presidency. On February 1, 1975, Mitchell, Haldeman, and Ehrlichman were found guilty of criminal conspiracy. Richard Nixon was not, and could not, be tried for conspiracy or other charges connected with Watergate because he had been pardoned.

The Nixon pardon, as one commentator noted, raised a number of unanswered questions: “To what extent was Nixon criminally guilty? Is a president above the law? How does one accept a pardon for acts he never committed?”

The special prosecutor and the Congress had also faced a number of difficult questions. Because this was the first time in history that a sitting president was being investigated for a criminal act, it was not clear whether a president should be indicted while still in office. Only one president had ever been impeached (a hundred years earlier) and there was little guidance on the meaning of Article II, Section 4, of the Constitution. It says that public officers shall be impeached for “high crimes and misdemeanors.”

But in the end, many people concluded that the system had worked. The president had abused his executive power, and the press, Congress, and the criminal justice system and the judiciary had responded. Another strong force was what a report from the special prosecutor called an “aroused citizenry.” On the night that he was fired, Archibald Cox had stated “Whether ours shall continue to be a government of laws and not of men is now for Congress and ultimately for the American people.” The public’s outrage at the Watergate scandal was one more potent force that brought President Nixon down.

For Discussion

1.  What was the Watergate scandal about?

2.  After the burglary, what do you think President Nixon should have done? Why?

3.  How important do you think the tapes were to the scandal? Why?

4.  What was the “Saturday Night Massacre”? If you had been the attorney general on that night, what would you have done? Why?

5.  Archibald Cox spoke of a “government of laws, not of men.” What does this mean? Do you agree? Explain.

For Further Reading

Genovese, Michael A. The Watergate Crisis. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999.


Should President Ford Have Pardoned Nixon?

President Ford’s pardon of Nixon stirred great controversy. Ford argued that the best way to end the “years of bitter controversy and divisive national debate” around Watergate was to pardon Nixon. He said that many more years would pass before “Nixon could obtain a fair trial” and Nixon “would be cruelly and excessively penalized either in preserving the presumption of his innocence or in obtaining a speedy determination of his guilt . . . .” Ford said that during the delay, “ugly passions would again be aroused. And our people would again be polarized in their opinions. And the credibility of our free institutions of government would again be challenged at home and abroad.”

Critics claimed the pardon violated the principle that all people stand equal before the law. They argued that Nixon, like other people, should have his day in court. The pardon, they pointed out, cast aside months of investigations. The chairman of the Senate Watergate committee was disappointed that Nixon had not made a confession prior to the pardon: “The pardon power vested in the president exceeds that of the Almighty, who apparently cannot pardon a sinner unless the sinner first repents.”

Divide into small groups. Each group should do the following:

1.  Think of reasons why President Ford should have pardoned Nixon.

2.  Think of reasons why he should not have pardoned Nixon.

3.  Discuss and decide this question: Should Ford have pardoned Nixon?

4.  Prepare to report your decision and the reasons for it the rest of the class.



Constitutional Rights Foundation
is a member of: 
crn footer


Terms of Use Privacy Notice  |  Donor Privacy Policy  |  Teach Democracy (formerly Constitutional Rights Foundation), 601 S. Kingsley Drive, Los Angeles, CA 90005 | 213.487.5590 | 

© 2024 Teach Democracy®.  All Rights Reserved.

Joomla3 Appliance - Powered by TurnKey Linux