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Watergate Scandal

Richard Nixon

Watergate Scandal: Richard Nixon was the 37th American President who served in office from January 20, 1969 to August 9, 1974 when he was forced to resign following the Watergate Scandal.

Definition and Summary of the Watergate Scandal
Summary and definition:
The Watergate Scandal erupted due to the Nixon administration’s attempts to cover up its involvement in the break-in at the Democratic National Committee (DNC) on June 17, 1972, in the headquarters of the party’s office at the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C. The burglary and other illegal acts committed by members of the "Washington Plumbers" during the re-election campaign of Richard Nixon.

Details of the Watergate Scandal were exposed in investigations prompted by the media, especially by two reporters from the Washington Post, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, along with their mysterious informant, "Deep Throat". The scandal surrounding the Watergate break-in and the subsequent cover-up by Nixon and his aides culminated in the president's resignation on August 9, 1974. The Watergate Scandal brought down the Presidency of Richard Nixon.

Facts about Watergate Scandal
The following fact sheet contains interesting facts and information on Watergate Scandal.

President Richard Nixon was a forceful, serious, introvert who suffered from a low self-esteem with feelings of inadequacy. He became convinced that 'radicals' were plotting to bring down his administration and became secretive, highly defensive and resentful of anyone who criticized him, or his administration.

Nixon became vengeful and was so consumed with his opponents that he compiled a list of "enemies", who he considered to be a threat to his presidency and his re-election.

The leak of the Pentagon Papers in June 1971 had heralded a new era of skepticism about the Vietnam War and the US government in general.

Nixon engaged in numerous acts of duplicity and became paranoid about possible leaks regarding the activities in his own administration - he surrounded himself with a special group of trusted aides, who later became known as the "Washington Plumbers"  ("We stop leaks").

During the summer of 1970 Tom Huston produced a document called the 'Huston Plan', that greatly expanding domestic intelligence-gathering by the FBI, CIA and other agencies.

Much of the Huston Plan was "clearly illegal" involving covert operations to gain access to private mail, bugging telephones and surreptitious entries or break-ins to gather information about the "enemies", radicals and communists.

President Nixon first approved the Huston plan, but quickly rescinded his approval in light of opposition from FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. (Hoover died in May, 1972, and L. Patrick Gray was appointed acting director in his place)

The 'Huston Plan' was discarded but illustrates the atmosphere in the White House and why the White House-based 'Inter-agency Group on Domestic Intelligence and Internal Security' and the "Washington plumbers" emerged. And the type of covert operations that would be used in the administration's progression to the Watergate Scandal.

The secret team of "Washington Plumbers", all working for the Committee to Re-elect the President (CREEP), were charged with fixing "leaks" and focusing on Domestic Intelligence Gathering.

The "Washington Plumbers" included Special Counsel Charles Colson, John Erlichmann (counsel and Assistant to the President ),  John Dean (White House Counsel), Bob Haldeman (White House Chief of Staff), Tom Huston (White House aide), ex-FBI agent G. Gordon Liddy and ex-CIA officer Howard Hunt.

It was ex-CIA officer Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy, the chief operative in the White House Plumbers,  who engineered the Watergate burglary and other undercover operations for the Nixon Administration.

The events that culminated in the Watergate Scandal began when  Howard Hunt arranged for the burglary and bugging of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate office building. The purpose was to collect information that could prove useful to Nixon winning the 1972 presidential election and place wire taps on the phones.

In the early hours of June 17, 1972 five men broke into the Watergate office building. Bernard Barker photographed documents, Virgilio Gonzalez picked the locks and James W. McCord Jr. handled the bugging.  Eugenio Martínez and Frank Sturgis acted as lookouts.

Frank Wills, a security guard at the Watergate Complex, noticed some suspicious tape over door locks and reported evidence of a break-in to the police. The burglars alerted Liddy and Hunt, who were managing the operation by two-way radio contact in room 214 of the Watergate Hotel, just before the five were arrested.

G. Gordon Liddy and Howard Hunt immediately vacated their hotel room. Hunt hired a lawyer to quickly bail the men out and Liddy went to his office to start a shredding operation to eliminate any evidence of his involvement in the burglary.

The police discovered wire-tapping equipment, two cameras, rolls of film and two hotel room keys, one of which was for the room where G. Gordon Liddy and Howard Hunt had stayed. The keys would eventually implicated Liddy and Hunt and, as employees of the Nixon administration, the White House was also implicated.

The newspapers discovered that one of the burglars, James W. McCord, was not only an ex-CIA official but also a member of the Committee for the Re-election of the President (CRP) establishing a connection between the Watergate break-in at the Democratic National Committee office and the White House.

The investigations of two reporters from the Washington Post, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein and their meetings with their mysterious informant who they nicknamed "Deep Throat", began on June 20, 1972, just 3 days after the Watergate break-in.

Reports soon surfaced that the burglars had been paid to undertake the break-in from a secret Republican fund, controlled by John Mitchell at the White House, that was used to pay for spying on the Democrats.

The Watergate Cover-up began as interest in the people who knew about the burglary, and their connection to the White House, increased. Administration officials destroyed incriminating documents and gave false testimonies to investigators.

President Nixon made his first Statement on Watergate during a News Conference on June 22, 1972 in which he said "...The White House has had no involvement whatever in this particular incident."

On September 15, 1972 the five Watergate burglars were indicted, along with E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy.

The American public took the word of the president and interest in the Watergate burglary declined. Richard Nixon won re-election on November 7, 1972 by one of the largest margins in US history, with nearly 61% of the popular vote. The electoral vote was 520 votes for Richard Nixon and 17 for George McGovern.

On January 8, 1973, the five Watergate burglars pleaded guilty at their trial. Then, on January 30, 1973, just ten days after Richard Nixon's second inauguration, Liddy and McCord were convicted on charges of conspiracy, burglary, and wiretapping.

On February 7, 1973 the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities was established with Senator Sam Ervin (D-NC) as its chairman.

The Senate Watergate Committee hearings began on May 17, 1973 and were televised across the nation. On the fifth day of the hearings, Nixon made a public statement about Watergate saying, "I had no prior knowledge of the Watergate operation. I took no part in, nor was I aware of, any subsequent efforts that may have been made to cover up Watergate."

One of the burglars, James W. McCord, agreed to cooperate with the Senate’s Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, under Senator Sam J. Ervin. The testimony of James McCord opened a floodgate of confessions from White House and campaign officials. 

The confessions exposed stories of conspiracy and illegal acts over the next several months. Acting FBI Director L. Patrick Gray testified that White House counsel John Dean had "probably lied" to FBI investigators about his role in the Watergate scandal.

White House Counsel John Dean, a member of the president's inner circle, responded to his questioning by leveling allegations against other senior officials in the administration and against President Nixon himself.

John Dean testified that former Attorney General John Mitchell had ordered the Watergate break-in and that President Nixon had played an active role in attempting to cover-up the involvement of the White House.

On April 17, 1973, President Nixon made a brief statement before the White House Press Corps in which he concluded, "I condemn any attempts to cover up in this case, no matter who is involved." Later that day, the White House issued an official statement saying that the President had no prior knowledge of the Watergate Affair.

On April 30, 1973 President Nixon appeared on national television, to announce the dismissal of John Dean and the resignations of his closest advisors, Bob Haldeman and John Ehrlichman (Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs).

On July 7, 1973 Nixon refused to grant the Senate Watergate committee access to presidential documents, claiming executive privilege.

As the Senate Select Committee tried to establish the truth behind all the allegations and subsequent denials, the testimony of White House aide Alexander Butterfield provided the key to answer their questions.

On July 16, 1973 Alexander Butterfield testified that President Nixon had ordered a taping system to be installed in the White House to record all conversations in order to help him write his memoirs after he left office. The 'Nixon tapes' would provide details and the dates of exactly what the president knew.

The president refused permission for investigators to have access to the 'Nixon Tapes' claiming executive privilege in that White House conversations should remain confidential to protect national security.

On August 9, 1973 the Senate committee subpoenaed the tapes, Nixon refused to comply and the Senate committee decides to take legal action via the Supreme Court.

On August 29, 1973 President Nixon lost his first court battle when Judge John Joseph Sirica ordered him to hand over nine tapes for private review.

A special prosecutor, Archibald Cox, had been appointed by the president to handle the Watergate cases. Cox, took President Nixon to court in October 1973 to force him to give up the recordings of the tapes. The president offered a compromise, proposing to hand over summaries of the subpoenaed tapes.

On Saturday October 20, 1973 an extraordinary series of events occur:

  • Archibald Cox declined the compromise and Nixon immediately demands his resignation resign.

  • Cox refused to resign and the president ordered Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire Cox.

  • Richardson refuses the president's request and resigns. 

  • President Nixon then ordered Elliot  Richardson 's assistant, William Ruckelshaus, to fire Cox but he also refuses and resigns.

  • President Nixon then ordered his solicitor general, Robert Bork, to fire Cox. Bork, at last, complies with the president's request, and is appointed Acting Attorney General

The media dubs this astonishing series of events as the "Saturday Night Massacre", badly damaging Nixon’s reputation with the public.

In October 1973 yet another scandal hit the Nixon administration when Vice President Spiro Agnew was charged with having accepted bribes totaling more than $100,000 while serving as Maryland's governor. He was replaced by Michigan congressman Gerald R. Ford.

Following the dismissal of Archibald Cox, and the frenzy surrounding the Watergate Scandal, infuriated members of the House of Representatives begin drafting resolutions calling for the Impeachment of the president.

Nixon was under enormous pressure due to the Watergate Scandal and agreed to release some of the tapes to Judge John Sirica.

The president also  announced that he was instructing Acting Attorney General Bork to appoint a new Special Prosecutor for the Watergate matter and on November 1, 1973 Leon Jaworski its new special prosecutor.

At a press conference on November 17, 1973, President Nixon urged the nation to move beyond Watergate and famously defended himself, saying "...I have never obstructed justice. And I think, too, that I could say that in my years of public life, that I welcome this kind of examination, because people have got to know whether or not their President is a crook. Well, I am not a crook. I have earned everything I have got.".

His famous "I am not a crook" statement backfired almost immediately when, on November 21, 1973, the White House reports that two of the subpoenaed tapes are missing and one contains an erased gap of 18 ½ minutes. It seemed obvious to many that evidence was being destroyed.

The debate surrounding the Watergate Scandal continued to rage and the House voted to authorize the Judiciary Committee to investigate grounds for impeaching the president.

On April 16, 1974 special prosecutor Leon Jaworski subpoenaed sixty-four additional tapes. Nixon subsequently ignored the subpoena and provides edited transcripts instead.

In United States v. Richard Nixon, on July 24, 1974, the Supreme Court denies his claim of executive privilege during the Watergate Scandal and decides 8-0 that the president must surrender the subpoenaed tapes, .

Between July 27-30, 1974, the House Judiciary Committee adopted three articles of impeachment against President Nixon for his role in the Watergate Scandal:

  • Obstructing the Watergate investigation

  • Misuse of power and violating his oath of office

  • Failure to comply with House subpoenas

On August 5, 1974 Nixon voluntary made public three of the subpoenaed tapes. One of these tapes would become known as the "Smoking Gun" tape

The "Smoking Gun" tape includes a conversation, recorded just six days after the Watergate break-in, in which Nixon orders Bob Haldeman to use the CIA to hold back the inquiry into Watergate by the FBI.

Following this revelation in the "Smoking Gun" tape, Nixon lost his few remaining supporters

On August 8, 1974 President Nixon announced in a televised address to the nation that he will “resign the Presidency, effective at noon tomorrow.”

The Watergate scandal with the break-in, the cover-up, the lies of President Richard Nixon, his abuse of executive privilege and his knowledge of illegal acts committed by his aides had culminated in the president's resignation on August 9, 1974.

Nixon's resignation prevented his Impeachment by the Senate. President Gerald Ford pardoned Nixon one month later on September 8, 1974.

The disgraced Nixon was granted a “full free and absolute” pardon for "all offenses against the United States" committed between January 20, 1969 and August 9, 1974, so preventing any criminal charges from being filed against the former president.

Following the Watergate Scandal Congress passed a series of laws to limit the executive branch of the government. The new laws included the Federal Campaign Act Amendments and the Ethics in Government Act. The FBI Domestic Security Investigation Guidelines restricting the FBI’s political intelligence-gathering activities.

The name of mysterious informant of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein nicknamed "Deep Throat" was revealed 30 years after the Watergate Scandal. The name of "Deep Throat" was Mark Felt (August 17, 1913 – December 18, 2008), an FBI special agent who retired as the Bureau's Deputy Director in 1973. Mark Felt admitted to being "Deep Throat ," the whistleblower in the Watergate scandal, on May 31, 2005.

The Watergate affair was the worst political scandal in the history of the United  States of America and was the only scandal to bring down the presidency.

US American History
1945-1993: Cold War Era

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