The Watergate Crisis: A Re-examination of the Past in the Age of Donald Trump
The fall of Richard Nixon was an unprecedented event in U.S. history which to this day is widely used as a reference point especially since the 2016 presidential elections. However, most of us probably do not remember this old scandal, therefore, defining what Watergate actually was could help us in determining what the crisis surrounding Donald Trump and his campaign might be. To this end the following article analyses the events of the past, focusing not just on the Watergate break in, but also its background. The aim is not only to show an outline of the Watergate affair, but also to do it in a way which focuses on possible similarities between it and the current crisis. Although history’s job is not predicting the future, the similar patterns underlined in this article may point us towards the general direction of the events that could unfold.
The Watergate scandal is named after a complex of buildings in Washington. In 1971 they housed the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee (DNC). In the middle of the night on July 17th 1971 the police were notified that there was a burglary in progress. They arrived at the scene, and arrested the burglars. These five men were caught red handed while attempting to install bugging equipment. With time the political significance of this scandal escalated, in parallel with the emerging facts which confirmed that the break in was only a part of a wider political espionage campaign. Subsequently the name of the Watergate Complex came to be associated with the whole crisis, namely both the break in and it’s cover up, sparking an investigation that led to the resignation of Nixon.
The Nixon White House and Background of the Affair
Before we get into the specifics, we must step back, to understand what facilitated such actions by the administration. President Nixon was sworn in on 20th of January 1969. As it was custom, his senior cabinet positions were filled with people from the campaign. But even though these people proved to be skilled salesmen, their lack of experience in the exercise of political power threw into question their intellectual capacity of understanding and wielding it. Furthermore, this also meant that their destiny and identity practically depended on their President. In combination these factors birthed a ruthless re-election campaign, galvanised by the necessity of their superior’s victory to keep them in their favourable positions.
It is maybe not surprising then that the administration was shadowed by controversy. The rise of what they perceived as radical leftist organisations which opposed the Vietnam War prompted the administration to believe that these groups were supported by foreign powers in an attempt to destabilise the United States. The White House, therefore, ordered first the CIA then the FBI to investigate the channels through which funds were gathered by these groups, but none of them found foreign involvement. However, rather than relying on the intelligence provided by these agencies, the administration continued to uphold their illusion, all the while blaming the agencies for not doing their job right. This shows a backwardness which is an example of incompetency, where the agencies were used for gathering evidence for preconceived and imagined threats, rather than gathering intelligence for analysis and the identification of real ones.
Preamble to the Watergate Case
In the wake of the “Pentagon Papers” leaks, which were documents on U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, the previously described paranoia gave way to immediate action. Desperate to avoid future scandals, the White House created a Special Investigation Unit, also nicknamed “the plumbers”, which was tasked with espionage in an effort to spot and stop leaks. Their existence also reflected the previously mentioned distrust of the White House towards the intelligence agencies. The existence of this new unit was legally dubious from the beginning, and after several unsuccessful investigations it was disbanded. But the spark was already lit, as these actions signalled the willingness of the administration to employ active measures for political purposes.
As elections were closing in, the administration’s paranoia of ensuring victory was visible through the emergence of “Nixon’s Enemies List”, drafted by Special Counsel to the President, Charles Colson. It was essentially a list of high ranking Democratic politicians and supporters. Even though the plan of using this list as a targeting device for political attacks was largely abandoned, it showed the instinctive aggressiveness of the Nixon White House. An important remark about the list was made by Clark Clifford, a lawyer-politician writing at the time: ”One of the first acts of a police force state in gaining control of a government is to list the names of persons for liquidation. We have not got to that point yet. But here were people listed for retribution”. Although this line of thought exaggerates the intent of the Nixon administration, nevertheless it underlines an important point, as this list constituted the first step away from a democratic way of thought.
Committee to Re-elect the President (CRP)
With the arrival of the presidential campaign, previous efforts of ensuring victory were heightened. The re-election campaign started with Nixon setting up the Committee to Re-elect the President (CRP), which became the main institution responsible for conducting his campaign. For Nixon the use of this body was important for two reasons. Firstly, it underlined the theme of his campaign that he was a non-partisan president. Secondly, it allowed him full control over the running of the campaign. This tight grip was signified by his daily contact with Director of CRP John Mitchell, and the fact that the leading positions within this institution were filled with people from his inner circle.
Another essential aspect of the preparation was the raising of funds. Before the election, the law highlighting the methods employed when gathering campaign contributions was changed. But before it was enforced, campaign contributions were loosely governed. Thus, the Nixon campaign was able to amass huge sums of funds, with questionable legality. This provided great opportunities for illegal activities. The first of these was a campaign of “dirty tricks”, financed through checks, obtained by the CRP . Coordinated by Dwight L. Chaplin, Deputy Assistant to the President, it was spearheaded by lawyer Donald Segretti who officially remained unaffiliated with the White House. The “dirty tricks”, or “ratfucking” as Segretti called them, were attempts of discrediting political opponents.
The First Crime: The Team and the Break in
There were two main individuals behind the espionage campaign carried out through CRP. The first was George Gordon Liddy, who previously occupied the position of Special Assistant on the Domestic Council in the White House, but later became Legal Counsel to CRP. The second is Howard Hunt, a former CIA operative who was a member of the previously mentioned “plumbers”. The espionage operations was the brainchild of Liddy, but was approved by Mitchell, who also designated significant funds towards them. The motivations behind this campaign are not clear, since the cover-up significantly blurred the picture, but most probably CRP’s plan was to bug the DNC in order to get incriminating material on the Democratic presidential candidate, George McGovern.
After official approval, Liddy and Hunt assembled a team of five men, mainly through contacts which Hunt had acquired during a CIA operation in connection with the failed “Bay of Pigs” invasion of Cuba. These men were summoned to Washington with the promise of work for the government, but were only briefed on arrival by Hunt. The target of the team was the Watergate complex, where the DNC was located. Despite initial successes, on the 17th of July 1972 the team was caught by Washington police. This set into motion the justice system of the United States, and marked the beginning of the crisis that eventually brought down the Presidency.
The Second Crime: The Cover-up
The immediate problem was that one of the burglars was an employee of CRP, and that in one of the notebooks belonging to another burglar, Howard Hunt’s name was found. Right after Liddy got notified of the failed operation, he called Mitchell to tell him the bad news. This marked the start of the cover-up. With the elections coming up in November of 1972, the stakes were high. Very quickly a strategy of containment was devised. The aim was to separate Liddy, Hunt, and the five burglars, all of whom had been charged by this time, from the White House. First of all, it was stressed that the actions of these people were not connected to the White House or CRP. Second of all, hush money was distributed between them. After these first steps were taken, documents belonging to the espionage operation were shredded and people in the know were told to sit in silence.
But soon more was required, as an enquiry the FBI was quick to follow potential leads. As the agency asked for interviews with White House and CRP aides, the scale of the cover-up escalated. The most thrilling fact of this was the involvement of L. Patrick Gray, the Director of the FBI. He assisted in the cover-up in three major ways. First, he gave permission for John W. Dean III., a White House aide, to sit in on FBI interviews which allowed the latter to control the flow of information. Second, after being handed incriminating documents from Hunt’s safe, which were very important to the investigation, he destroyed them under the directions of Dean. Third, he supplied Dean with copies of the FBI reports on the Watergate investigation, which allowed Dean to always stay one step ahead. Due to his involvement, Gray had to resign on 27th of April 1973. Needless to say, the carefully implemented cover-up campaign showed some results. As the Watergate crisis did not impede Nixon’s re-election efforts, as he was sworn in on 9th of January 1973.
It is at this moment that the press, especially the Washington Post, played a crucial role. In the absence of an effective FBI investigation, two reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, through their own investigation, which centred around the flow of money from CRP to the burglars, managed to raise public awareness. This awareness translated into a political pressure that Congress could hardly resist, which meant that a Special Prosecution Force was established to investigate the Watergate scandal. Archibald Cox was sworn in as the Special Prosecutor on 25th of May 1973. His job was to investigate “all offenses arising out of the 1972 election … involving the president, the White House staff or presidential appointments”, which clearly goes beyond the Watergate break in itself, thus further escalating the crisis. This newly created force worked under the executive branch. However, in a Senate hearing at the time, Attorney General Elliot Richardson promised not use his authority to fire Cox unless for cause.
The breakthrough of the investigation came with the discovery of the existence of White House tapes during one of the Senate Watergate Committee hearings. As it turned out, President Nixon had meticulously recorded the proceedings within the White House through devices installed in the Oval Office, as well as on phones. Cox immediately filed subpoenas to get hold of copies of these tapes, but the White House was uncooperative. On Saturday 20th of October 1973, after failing to reach a compromise, Nixon ordered Attorney General Richardson to fire Cox, but he resigned in protest. Nixon then ordered the same from Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus, but he also resigned. Finally Nixon had his way, and Solicitor General of the United States, Robert Bork, carried out his order as acting head of the Justice Department. This day passed into American memory as the “Saturday Night Massacre”.
The falling house of cards
The consequences of the Saturday Night Massacre were an alarmed public. This in turn pressured Bork to appoint a new Special Prosecutor, Leon Jaworski. The investigation continued and started to bear fruit through the indictment of Nixon’s closest aides, H. R. Haldeman and John D. Ehrlichman, who had to resign as a result. But the question of tapes was not over. Although Nixon refused to give them all up, citing executive privilege and national security issues, he released a large number of edited transcripts. It later turned out that these transcripts left out significant parts of conversations. At the same time the administration tried to defend itself through legal machinations. The initial subpoena was attacked in court by James D. St. Clair, Nixon’s Attorney, in a request to quash it. This essentially would have caused the retraction of the subpoena, rendering Jaworski unable to get possession of the tapes. The case ended up in the Supreme Court, under the ironic name “United States v. Nixon”. On 23rd of July 1974, The Supreme Court ruled in Jaworski’s favour.
The Nixon administration released all the requested tapes in late July. On one of them Nixon agrees to pressure L. Patrick Gray, to halt the Bureau’s investigation into the Watergate break in. This, later dubbed the “smoking gun”, was direct proof of obstruction of justice and after it was made public on 5th of August 1974, Nixon’s support, both with the population, and Congress, practically vanished. Impeachment proceedings were set in motion. Although previously the attempts to impeach Nixon failed, this time the success became likely, as Senators and House Representatives previously opposing the motion, now declared that they would support it. Seeing the end of his days looming, Nixon resigned on 8th of August 1974. He was later pardoned by President Lyndon B. Johnson, but the rationale behind this decision is a topic in and of itself.
What does all of this mean for us?
It is important to mention that both during the Watergate Affair, and probably during the Russia Inquiry, there were two crimes. First, the initial illegal actions. Second, the cover-up. Although there is no direct evidence of Nixon’s involvement in the initial crime, largely due to the partial success of the cover-up, the nature of his micromanaging leadership makes it unlikely that he was unaware of criminal activities of which his closest aides were certainly informed. This however did not save his presidency. The evidence of his active role in the cover-up was sufficient. Therefore, even if there is no evidence of President Trump’s involvement, or he had no knowledge of the actions his subordinates engaged in, but was an active participant in the cover-up, he is still guilty of the second crime and could be charged with obstruction of justice in the same way as Nixon. Let’s not forget therefore, how important the firing of James Comey was in its possibility of raising the charge mentioned.
Nevertheless, there are major differences between these two cases. First of all, even though both enquiries are centred around presidential campaigns, Trump was not in power when the alleged contacts might have happened, thus limiting the scope of his possibilities and also the evidence employable, since campaigns are less meticulous in creating paperwork than governments. Second of all, there might be one major difference in a possible impeachment of President Trump. According to the US constitution every public official is impeachable for three categories; Treason, Bribery, and High Crimes and Misdemeanours. While Nixon was found guilty of gross misdemeanours, there were early indications that Trump might be charged with treason. The difference between these two legal definitions is twofold. First of all, defining gross misdemeanours was problematic, not only in the case of Watergate, but also during Bill Clinton’s proceedings. Therefore this legal charge is more flexible, but also harder to prove. Second of all, treason is easier to define, but it carries with it heavier weight, proving it might need more evidence. Whatever the outcome of the Mueller probe, the results will unleash unseen political pressures, as Congress tries to make sense of the final report.
Written by Jan Sztanka-Toth
Committee on the Judiciary House of Representatives, Comparison of White House and Judiciary Committee Transcripts of Eight Recorded Presidential Conversations, Serial No. 34. U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington: 1974.
Office of Planning and Evaluation (OPE) Analysis on FBI Watergate Investigation, File Number: 139-4089-2790, 7th of July 1974 (Unclassified on July 17th 1980) link
Watergate Special Prosecutor Force, United States Department of Justice, Summary of October, 1975 Report of Watergate Special Prosecution Force, File Number: 139-4089-3010. (5th of November 1975) link
Nixon, Richard M.1913-1994.; United States. Congress. House. Committee on the Judiciary. (Buffalo, N.Y. : Hein 1974) link
National Archive Catalog Series 6037108, Box 1, Folder Title: (4) Nixon Evidentiary Report, February 7, 1974 [Frampton Draft]; Grand Jury Concerning Transmission of Evidence to the House of representatives (05.06.1972) link
National Archive Catalog Series 6037108, Box 1, Folder Title: (5) Grand Jury Report and Recommendation to the House of Representatives (Road Map); Watergate Task Force, Prosecutive Report, (02.07.1974) link
Bernstein, Carl; Woodward, Bob; All the President’s Men. London : Quartet Books, 1974.
Chester, Lewis; McCrystal, Cal.; Aris, Stephen; Shawcross, William; Watergate: the full inside story. London: Deutch 1973.
Colodny, Len; Gettlin, Robert; Silent Coup: The removal of Richard Nixon. London: Victor Gollancz LTD, 1991.
Greenberg, Daniel Nixon’s Shadow. New York; London: Norton, 2004.
Merill, William H.; Watergate Prosecutor. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 2008.
Nixon, Richard M.1913-1994.; Perlstein, Rick, 1969- Richard Nixon: Speeches, Writings, Documents. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008. online
Stanley I. Kutler, The Wars of Watergate. New York; London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1990.
White, Theodore H.; Breach of Faith: Fall of Richard Nixon. Atheneum Publishers, 1975.
Woodward, Bob; Bernstein, Carl; The Final Days. New York : Simon and Schuster, 1976.
Movie: All the Presidents Men” directed by Alan J. Pakula, (1976)