The Watergate scandal was a major political scandal that occurred in the United States during the early 1970s, following a break-in by five men at the Democratic National Committee (DNC) headquarters at the Watergate office complex in Washington, D.C. on June 17, 1972, and President Richard Nixon’s administration’s subsequent attempt to cover up its involvement. After the five burglars were caught and the conspiracy was discovered—chiefly through the work of a few journalists, Congressional staffers and an election-finance watchdog official —Watergate was investigated by the United States Congress. Meanwhile, Nixon’s administration resisted its probes, which led to a constitutional crisis.
he scandal led to the discovery of multiple abuses of power by members of the Nixon administration, an impeachment process against the president that led to articles of impeachment, and Nixon’s resignation. The scandal also resulted in the indictment of 69 people, with trials or pleas resulting in 48 being found guilty, many of whom were top Nixon officials.
The affair began with the arrest of five men for breaking into the DNC headquarters at the Watergate complex on Saturday, June 17, 1972. The FBI investigated and discovered a connection between cash found on the burglars and a slush fund used by the Committee for the Re-Election of the President (CRP), the official organization of Nixon’s campaign. In July 1973, evidence mounted against the president’s staff, including testimony provided by former staff members in an investigation conducted by the Senate Watergate Committee. The investigation revealed that Nixon had a tape-recording system in his offices and that he had recorded many conversations.
After a series of court battles, the Supreme Court of the United States unanimously ruled that the president was obliged to release the tapes to government investigators (United States v. Nixon). The tapes revealed that Nixon had attempted to cover up activities that took place after the break-in, and to use federal officials to deflect the investigation. Facing virtually certain impeachment in the House of Representatives and equally certain conviction by the Senate, Nixon resigned the presidency on August 9, 1974, preventing the House from impeaching him. On September 8, 1974, his successor, Gerald Ford, pardoned him.
The name “Watergate” and the suffix “-gate” have since become synonymous with political and non-political scandals in the United States, and some other parts of the world.
Legal action against Nixon Administration members
On March 1, 1974, a grand jury in Washington, D.C., indicted several former aides of Nixon, who became known as the “Watergate Seven”—H. R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, John N. Mitchell, Charles Colson, Gordon C. Strachan, Robert Mardian, and Kenneth Parkinson—for conspiring to hinder the Watergate investigation. The grand jury secretly named Nixon as an unindicted co-conspirator. The special prosecutor dissuaded them from an indictment of Nixon, arguing that a President can only be indicted after he leaves office. John Dean, Jeb Stuart Magruder, and other figures had already pled guilty. On April 5, 1974, Dwight Chapin, the former Nixon appointments secretary, was convicted of lying to the grand jury. Two days later, the same grand jury indicted Ed Reinecke, the Republican Lieutenant Governor of California, on three charges of perjury before the Senate committee.
Release of the transcripts
The Nixon administration struggled to decide what materials to release. All parties involved agreed that all pertinent information should be released. Whether to release unedited profanity and vulgarity divided his advisers. His legal team favored releasing the tapes unedited, while Press Secretary Ron Ziegler preferred using an edited version where “expletive deleted” would replace the raw material. After several weeks of debate, they decided to release an edited version. Nixon announced the release of the transcripts in a speech to the nation on April 29, 1974. Nixon noted that any audio pertinent to national security information could be redacted from the released tapes.
Initially, Nixon gained a positive reaction for his speech. As people read the transcripts over the next couple of weeks, however, former supporters among the public, media and political community called for Nixon’s resignation or impeachment. Vice President Gerald Ford said, “While it may be easy to delete characterization from the printed page, we cannot delete characterization from people’s minds with a wave of the hand.” The Senate Republican Leader Hugh Scott said the transcripts revealed a “deplorable, disgusting, shabby, and immoral” performance on the part of the President and his former aides. The House Republican Leader John Jacob Rhodes agreed with Scott, and Rhodes recommended that if Nixon’s position continued to deteriorate, he “ought to consider resigning as a possible option.”
The editors of The Chicago Tribune, a newspaper that had supported Nixon, wrote, “He is humorless to the point of being inhumane. He is devious. He is vacillating. He is profane. He is willing to be led. He displays dismaying gaps in knowledge. He is suspicious of his staff. His loyalty is minimal.” The Providence Journal wrote, “Reading the transcripts is an emetic experience; one comes away feeling unclean.” This newspaper continued that, while the transcripts may not have revealed an indictable offense, they showed Nixon contemptuous of the United States, its institutions, and its people. According to Time magazine, the Republican Party leaders in the Western U.S. felt that while there remained a significant number of Nixon loyalists in the party, the majority believed that Nixon should step down as quickly as possible. They were disturbed by the bad language and the coarse, vindictive tone of the conversations in the transcripts.
Final investigations and resignation
Nixon’s position was becoming increasingly precarious. On February 6, 1974, the House of Representatives approved H.Res. 803 giving the Judiciary Committee authority to investigate impeachment of the President. On July 27, 1974, the House Judiciary Committee voted 27-to-11 to recommend the first article of impeachment against the president: obstruction of justice. The Committee recommended the second article, abuse of power, on July 29, 1974. The next day, on July 30, 1974, the Committee recommended the third article: contempt of Congress. On August 20, 1974, the House authorized the printing of the Committee report H. Rep. 93–1305, which included the text of the resolution impeaching Nixon and set forth articles of impeachment against him.
“Smoking Gun” tape
On August 5, 1974, the White House released a previously unknown audio tape from June 23, 1972. Recorded only a few days after the break-in, it documented the initial stages of the cover-up: it revealed Nixon and Haldeman had conducted a meeting in the Oval Office where they discussed how to stop the FBI from continuing their investigation of the break-in, as they recognised that there was a high risk that their position in the scandal may be revealed.
Haldeman introduced the topic as follows:
… the Democratic break-in thing, we’re back to the—in the, the problem area because the FBI is not under control, because Gray doesn’t exactly know how to control them, and they have … their investigation is now leading into some productive areas … and it goes in some directions we don’t want it to go.
After explaining how the money from CRP was traced to the burglars, Haldeman explained to Nixon the cover-up plan: “the way to handle this now is for us to have Walters [CIA] call Pat Gray [FBI] and just say, ‘Stay the hell out of this … this is ah, business here we don’t want you to go any further on it.'”
Nixon approved the plan, and after he was given more information about the involvement of his campaign in the break-in, he told Haldeman: “All right, fine, I understand it all. We won’t second-guess Mitchell and the rest.” Returning to the use of the CIA to obstruct the FBI, he instructed Haldeman: “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.”
Nixon denied that this constituted an obstruction of justice, as his instructions ultimately resulted in the CIA truthfully reporting to the FBI that there were no national security issues. Nixon urged the FBI to press forward with the investigation when they expressed concern about interference.
Before the release of this tape, Nixon had denied any involvement in the scandal. He claimed that there were no political motivations in his instructions to the CIA, and claimed he had no knowledge before March 21, 1973, of involvement by senior campaign officials such as John Mitchell. The contents of this tape persuaded Nixon’s own lawyers, Fred Buzhardt and James St. Clair, that “the President had lied to the nation, to his closest aides, and to his own lawyers—for more than two years.” The tape, which Barber Conable referred to as a “smoking gun,” proved that Nixon had been involved in the cover-up from the beginning.
In the week before Nixon’s resignation, Ehrlichman and Haldeman tried unsuccessfully to get Nixon to grant them pardons—which he had promised them before their April 1973 resignations.