Watergate is the name given to the scandals involving President RICHARD M. NIXON, members of his administration, and operatives working for Nixon's 1972 reelection organization. The name comes from the Watergate apartment and hotel complex in Washington, D.C., which in 1972 was the location of the Democratic National Committee (DNC). On June 17, 1972, several burglars were caught breaking in to DNC headquarters. The break-in and the subsequent cover-up by Nixon and his aides culminated two years later in the president's resignation. Nixon's departure on August 9, 1974, prevented his IMPEACHMENT by the Senate. President GERALD R. FORD's pardon of Nixon one month later prevented any criminal charges from being filed against the former president.
It has never been disclosed what the burglars who broke into DNC headquarters were seeking, but they were acting on orders from Nixon's first attorney general, JOHN N. MITCHELL, who was heading Nixon's reelection campaign, and several other high officials in the campaign staff and the White House. Though Nixon may not have known in advance about the break-in, by June 23, 1972, six days later, he had begun to participate in the cover-up. On that date he ordered the CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE AGENCY (CIA) to direct the FEDERAL BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION (FBI) to stop investigating the burglary, on the pretense that an investigation would endanger national security. This particular plan failed, but Nixon and his aides contained the damage during the fall presidential campaign. Nixon won a landslide victory over Democratic Senator George S. McGovern of South Dakota in November 1972.
During the first two months of 1973, Watergate receded from the public eye. However, on March 23, 1973, Judge John J. Sirica of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia imposed harsh sentences on the Watergate burglars. Sirica, who had presided at the trial, was convinced that the burglars were acting at the direction of others not yet revealed. He told the burglars that he would reduce their sentences if they cooperated with the investigation then being conducted by the U.S. Senate. He also released a letter from convicted burglar James W. McCord Jr., who said that pressure had been applied to convince the burglars not to reveal all that they knew, that administration officials had committed perjury, and that higher-ups were involved.
A federal GRAND JURY soon began to receive information from campaign insiders about campaign and White House involvement in the cover-up. In addition, the continuing investigative work of Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward provided more details about the inner workings of Nixon's 1972 campaign and its connections with the White House. Finally, the Senate investigating committee headed by Senator SAM J. ERVIN JR. began to call Nixon aides to testify before it.
Nixon, who initially called the break-in "a third rate burglary," sought to have his chief aides—John D. Ehrlichman and H. R. ("Bob") Haldeman—"stonewall" prosecutors. The three men attempted to make John Mitchell the scapegoat, but public pressure forced Nixon to accept the resignations of Ehrlichman, Haldeman, White House counsel John W. Dean III, and Attorney General RICHARD G. KLEINDIENST on April 30, 1973.
Nixon appointed ELLIOT L. RICHARDSON attorney general to succeed Kleindienst, who had been accused of political improprieties. Richardson appointed Harvard law professor ARCHIBALD COX as special Watergate prosecutor to investigate whether federal laws had been broken in connection with the break-in and the attempted cover-up. Richardson assured Cox, who was a personal friend, that he would have complete independence in his work.
At the Senate hearings, Dean and others disclosed the "dirty tricks" used by Nixon's political operatives and the cover-up activities after the break-in. However, in July 1973 the Watergate investigation changed course when Alexander Butterfield, a Haldeman aide, disclosed that Nixon had secretly taped all conversations in the Oval Office. Cox immediately subpoenaed the tapes of the conversations. When Nixon refused to honor the subpoena, Judge Sirica ordered Nixon to turn over the tapes. After the federal court of appeals upheld the order, Nixon offered to provide Cox with written summaries of the conversations in return for an agreement that Cox would not seek the release of any more presidential documents.
Cox refused the proposal. On Saturday, October 20, Nixon ordered Richardson to fire Cox. Richardson and his deputy attorney general, William D. Ruckelshaus, resigned rather than carry out the order. Cox was fired that night by solicitor general ROBERT H. BORK. The two resignations and the firing of Cox became known as the Saturday Night Massacre. The national outrage at Nixon's actions forced him to appoint a new prosecutor, LEON JAWORSKI. Jaworski immediately renewed the request for the tapes.
Although Nixon released edited transcripts of some of the subpoenaed conversations, he refused to turn over the unedited tapes on the grounds of EXECUTIVE PRIVILEGE. When the district court denied Nixon's motion to quash the subpoena, he appealed, and the case was quickly brought to the Supreme Court.
Nixon contended that the doctrine of executive privilege gave him the right to withhold documents from Congress and the courts. In UNITED STATES V. NIXON, 418 U.S. 683, 94 S. Ct. 3090, 41 L. Ed. 2d 1039 (1974), the Supreme Court recognized the legitimacy of the doctrine of executive privilege but held that it could not prevent the disclosure of materials needed for a criminal prosecution. The Court ordered the judge to review the subpoenaed tapes in private to determine which portions should be released to prosecutors. This confidential review would prevent sensitive but irrelevant information from being disclosed. Nonetheless, the Court directed Nixon to turn over the tapes.
The decision was handed down on July 24, 1974, at the same time the House Judiciary Committee was nearing completion of its impeachment hearings. Despite more than a year of damaging disclosures, many congressional Republicans remained loyal to the president, arguing that he had committed no criminal offenses that would make him liable for impeachment. Nevertheless, the committee voted three ARTICLES OF IMPEACHMENT against Nixon: for obstructing justice in the Watergate investigation, for exceeding PRESIDENTIAL POWER in waging a secret war in Cambodia without congressional approval, and for failing to cooperate with Congress in its attempt to gather evidence against him.
Nixon complied with the Supreme Court decision and turned over the tapes. When prosecutors discovered the June 23, 1972, conversation in which Nixon directed the CIA to halt the FBI investigation, they knew they had the "smoking gun" that tied Nixon to the cover-up. On August 6, 1974, Republican congressional leaders were informed about the contents of this tape. Nixon's political support vanished.
Faced with an impeachment trial, Nixon announced his resignation on August 8, 1974, and left office the next day. Though President Ford pardoned Nixon, most of the other participants in Watergate were convicted for their crimes. Mitchell, Haldeman, and Ehrlichman, among others, spent time in prison.