Home > News > Happy (belated) birthday, Watergate break-in!
205 views 10 min 0 Comment

Happy (belated) birthday, Watergate break-in!

- June 19, 2017
A Herblock cartoon from the April 18, 1973, issue of The Washington Post.

This past weekend marked the 45th anniversary of the break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office building. A “third-rate burglary attempt,” President Richard Nixon’s press secretary said, attempting to dismiss its importance — but it led to the resignation of Nixon 26 months later, after the House had begun the process of impeaching him.

It seems a good time to remember why. That is, what “high crimes or misdemeanors” did the burglary prompt or expose?

A useful guide is provided by the Articles of Impeachment the House Judiciary Committee adopted starting on July 27, 1974.

The committee voted on five articles in all. It rejected two of them: one condemning the secret expansion of the Vietnam War across the Cambodian border as unconstitutional, and another charging the president with tax evasion. Nixon had taken a very large and dubious tax deduction in return for donating his vice presidential papers to the National Archives. The furor this provoked was actually what prompted Nixon’s famous declaration that “I am not a crook.” But the committee thought that although Nixon could be prosecuted for such a crime after leaving office, it was not the kind of harm done “to the society itself,” as Alexander Hamilton wrote would appropriately require an impeachment process.

The three that were approved were, by contrast, about the “violation or abuse of some public trust.” They charged the president with obstruction of justice, abuse of power and more narrowly, not complying with the Judiciary Committee’s subpoenas during the impeachment process.

The abuse of power article noted that obstructing justice was one way in which presidential power was abused. But it also charged Nixon with directing federal agencies to “conduct or continue electronic surveillance or other investigations” — largely against antiwar or civil rights activists and journalists he thought were hostile to his administration — “for purposes unrelated to national security, the enforcement of laws, or any other lawful function of his office.” Readers might want to catch up on the “Huston Plan” of domestic surveillance, infiltration of activist groups, and “black-bag jobs” so expansive that even FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover objected.

Nixon also established a “secret investigative unit” within the White House — better known as “the Plumbers” — that looked for dirt on people ranging from Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) to Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg, sometimes drawing on CIA resources to do so. The Plumbers gave the crew of Watergate burglars their start, commissioning them to break into Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office in search of compromising information.

A memo in evidence during the Watergate trials of President Richard Nixon’s staff, showing John Ehrlichman’s approval of a plan to steal Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatric records. (Richard Nixon Presidential Library)

Finally, Nixon sought to get the Internal Revenue Service to both give him access to the tax information of his political opponents and repeatedly audit their returns. This tactic was aimed at the administration’s “enemies list” but, the president later thought, had useful ramifications for the Watergate break-in itself. Consider this exchange between Nixon and his White House chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, from October 15, 1972:

Nixon: One thing we did do, I think rather cleverly, was to review O’Brien’s income tax returns. I think that’s why he’s so goddamn silent.

Haldeman: That’s right.

Nixon: And we followed up.

Thus, as Watergate reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward summed up in 2012, “The notion that the coverup was worse than the crime … minimizes the scale and reach of Nixon’s criminal actions.”

But the coverup turned into its own crimes. Indeed, the list of counts in the obstruction of justice article is extensive — and given recent headlines, worth some exploration. As Nixon himself put it in a taped conversation on March 22, 1973:

I don’t give a s— 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 this plan. That’s the whole point. We’re going to protect our people if we can.

The language used by the Judiciary Committee was rather more formal. It read,

Subsequent [to the DNC break-in], Richard M. Nixon, using the powers of his high office, engaged personally and through his close subordinates and agents, in a course of conduct or plan designed to delay, impede, and obstruct the investigation of such illegal entry; to cover up, conceal and protect those responsible; and to conceal the existence and scope of other unlawful covert activities.

Either way, what did that entail? The article lists nine categories of obstruction, including:

  • lying to and withholding evidence from investigative officers;
  • “approving, condoning, acquiescing in, and counselling witnesses with respect to the giving of false or misleading statements” to investigators and in court;
  • passing along information from Justice Department and FBI investigations to those being investigated, to help them avoid criminal liability;
  • urging the destruction of evidence;
  • “endeavoring to misuse the CIA” to block the FBI’s investigation (Nixon’s order to do this became the “smoking gun” linking him to the coverup); and
  • paying off — even considering promising pardons or clemency to — the Watergate burglars so that they would plead guilty, perjure themselves, and/or stay silent about their connection to the president’s reelection committee and the White House. “Follow the money,” as the film version of an FBI source told Woodward and Bernstein.

This last endeavor started with using campaign cash (thousands of dollars of which were kept in various safes) but wound up with one of the more famous pregnant pauses in presidential conversational history. On March 21, 1973, White House counsel John Dean sat down with Nixon to discuss the difficulty in containing what he argued had become a “cancer — within, close to the presidency, that’s growing.” Part of the issue was the money demanded by the burglars’ families, who were by this point practically presenting invoices for payment.

The conversation should be listened to, not just read — again, if only for the pause.

Nixon:   How much money do you need?

Dean:    I would say these people are going to cost, uh, a million dollars over the next, uh, two years.


Nixon:  We could get that.

A quick coda: The last count of the obstruction of justice article again condemned the president for lying — but to the public. Nixon had long claimed he had thoroughly investigated the allegations internally and found that no additional White House or campaign staff members were involved.

None of this was true, of course — and thus Nixon, the committee charged, was guilty of “false or misleading public statements for the purpose of deceiving the people of the United States” about the crimes and their perpetrators. The breadth of the Watergate charges suggests how high the bar was for impeachment in 1974. But another lesson is that alternative facts can be a dangerous game.

You might also be interested in:

Note: an earlier version of this post incorrectly referred to the break-in at Daniel Ellsberg’s psychologist’s office. It was a psychiatrist’s office. We regret the error.