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The Watergate Scandal

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Professor Irving Friday, December 8, 2017 The Watergate Scandal Shortly after midnight, on the morning of July 17, 1972, a security guard at the Watergate complex noticed the latches on some doors were covered with tape. Without giving the situation a second thought, the guard removed the tape and continued his rounds. An hour later, the guard returned and found that the latches had been taped over again. It was at this point that he called the police. Thus began one of the most infamous political scandals in American history.

Investigations into the Watergate scandal uncovered a conspiracy that showed the abuse of power of president Richard Nixon’s administration. Ultimately, this led to impeachment proceedings against the president, and his eventual resignation. It all began with the arrest of five burglars, for breaking into the Watergate complex in Washington D.C. At the time, the Watergate complex housed the headquarters for the Democratic National Committee (DNC). The five men were caught inside the DNC offices. It was found that the DNC offices had been “bugged” with listening and recording devices. During the initial stages of their investigation, the FBI found the name of one E. Howard Hunt in the address books of two of the burglars. Hunt was a former CIA officer who, at the time, worked for the White House. This immediately raised more red flags in the investigation. The White House tried to distance itself from the incident, claiming the break-in was a “third-rate burglary attempt”. President Nixon stated that White House Counsel John Dean had conducted an investigation and that “No one in the White House staff, no one in this Administration, presently employed, was involved in this very bizarre incident.” John Dean had not, and would not, conducted any investigations.

The FBI investigation revealed a cashier’s check meant for the Committee for the Re-Election of the President (CRP), was found in the bank account of one of the burglars. This led the uncovering of thousands of more dollars in the burglar’s accounts, that could be linked back to the CRP. This directly implicated the CRP and the Nixon administration. On October 10, 1972, the FBI reported that the Watergate break-in was part of a major political conspiracy orchestrated by the Nixon administration. Despite this, President Nixon was re-elected and sworn in for his second term in November of the same year. In January of the following year, the Watergate burglars stood trial after being indicted by a grand jury, and all five pleaded guilty. Along with the burglars, two others were indicted. They were G. Gordan Liddy, a lawyer for the CRP, and Hunt. It turned out Liddy and Hunt were supervising the break-in from a room in the Watergate Hotel. However, two months after President Nixon took office for his second term, one of the burglars wrote a letter to the judge that had officiated their trial.

In the letter, he stated that he had perjured himself under pressure and that the break-in was not a CIA operation, as previously believed, but rather involved other high-level government officials. This led straight to the White House. The letter sparked renewed interest in the situation. Soon after, two White House aides, the attorney general, and John Dean resigned from their positions. This was a move to save and distance the presidency from allegations of “bugging” the DNC. The new attorney general appointed a special counsel for the Watergate Investigations; one that was independent of the justice department.

The man appointed was Archibald Cox. By this time, the Senate had formed a committee to investigate the matter. It was during a preliminary interview for a hearing before the Senate Watergate committee, the fact that recordings were taking place at the White House was revealed. It was revealed that everything in the Oval Office, the Cabinet Room and several other rooms were automatically being recorded. Upon learning of the existence of these tapes, both Cox and the Senate subpoenaed them. However, President Nixon claimed executive privilege and refused to release them. He further ordered Cox to drop the subpoena. Nevertheless, Cox persisted, and refused to drop it. Cox’s persistence incited the president to order the attorney general to fire Cox. Both the attorney general and the Deputy Attorney General resigned in protest to the order. This was famously named “The Saturday Night Massacre”.

Eventually, Cox was fired by the Solicitor General, but even he considered resigning. Cox’s firing led to significant criticism, which led to yet another infamous event; President Nixon’s “I am not a crook” speech. At the indictment of seven former White House aides, for conspiring to hinder the Watergate investigation, the grand jury named President Nixon as an “unindicted co-conspirator”. This was because it was argued that a sitting president could not be indicted. Nearly two months after the indictments, President Nixon released heavily redacted transcripts of the recordings, citing national security. The transcripts were also edited for profanity, in an attempt to improve his image. However, after reading said transcripts, even former Nixon supporters were calling for a resignation or impeachment. The release of the transcripts did not satisfy the public. The matter went to the supreme court in the case United States v. Nixon. The supreme court unanimously ruled against the president, and ordered him to turn over the original tapes. They ruled that the claims of executive privilege, in this case, were void. The release of the tapes damned president Nixon. In it, there were conversations where he agreed to the paying of blackmail money to Hunt. It was still unclear, at the time, if the president himself was categorically complicit in the cover-up. At this point, the president denied any involvement in the cover-up.

However, the release of the tapes prompted action by Congress. On February 6, 1974, the House of Representatives started investigating the impeachment of the President. In late July of 1974, the House of Representatives recommended three articles of impeachment; obstruction of justice, abuse of power, and contempt of Congress. Before the House of Representatives could announce the resolution of the impeachment investigation, a previously unheard tape was released by the White House.

The tape was recorded a few days after the Watergate break-ins, and the in it, the president and an aide (one of the seven indicted) were discussing how to stop the FBI investigation from progressing. This “smoking gun” proved President Nixon’s complicity in the cover-up from the beginning.

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