In response to the leak of the secret Department of Defense history of the Vietnam War known as the “Pentagon Papers,” President Nixon authorizes the creation of a special investigative unit that would come to be known as the White House Plumbers. Nixon tells White House chief domestic adviser John Ehrlichman, “If we can't get anyone in this damn government to do something about leaks, then by God we'll do it ourselves. I want you to set up a little group right here in the White House. Have them get off their tails and find out what’s going on and figure out how to stop it.”1
One of the Plumbers, E. Howard Hunt, a former CIA agent, writes a memo to Charles Colson, special counsel to the president, detailing plans for the “neutralization” of Daniel Ellsberg, the RAND Corporation analyst who leaked the Pentagon Papers. The memo states “I am proposing a skeletal operations plan aimed at building a file on Ellsberg that will contain all available overt, covert, and derogatory information. This basic tool is essential to determining how to destroy his public image and credibility.”2
G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt, both on the White House payroll, and others break in to the office of Lewis Fielding, Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, in Los Angeles. The burglary is approved by Ehrlichman – only, he writes, “if done under your assurance that it is not traceable.3” The incident is suspected to be one of many break-ins conducted by the Plumbers in the ensuing months.45
After a number of attempts, White House operatives succeed in breaking into Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Hotel complex in Washington. The burglars photograph materials lying on desks and fit electronic eavesdropping devices on the phones of the head of the DNC, Larry O’Brien.6
After the photographed documents reveal nothing significant and a number of the eavesdropping devices stop working, another attempt is made to break into the DNC office. A security guard notices the suspicious activity, however, and five men are arrested by D.C. police. They are taken into custody wearing business suits and rubber surgical gloves and carrying sophisticated spy equipment and thousands of dollars’ worth of $100 bills with sequential serial numbers.78
Two young Washington Post reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, report that one of the burglars, James McCord Jr., is the security coordinator for President Nixon’s Committee to Re-Elect the President.9 Within hours of the June 17 break-in, the Post assigns 11 editors and reporters to the story, and the newspaper remains at the journalistic forefront of the Watergate coverage. City editor Barry Sussman eventually becomes the special Watergate editor overseeing day-to-day coverage. Woodward and Bernstein investigate the scandal relentlessly, during which time Woodward meets with and receives tips from “Deep Throat,” a source whose identity he promises to keep secret.
Woodward reports that one of the burglars has E. Howard Hunt’s name in his address book, along with checks signed by Hunt. Hunt is identified as a consultant to Colson. It is the first published connection between those arrested at the Watergate and the White House.10
In a taped Oval Office conversation, President Nixon and his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, discuss the Watergate break-in and plan to instruct CIA director Richard Helms to tell the acting director of the FBI, L. Patrick Gray, that any further investigation will get in the way of CIA operations. When the recording is publicly released three years later, it is dubbed the “smoking gun tape” and leads to the president’s resignation.11
Woodward and Bernstein report that a $25,000 check apparently intended as a donation to Nixon’s re-election campaign was deposited in the bank account of a real estate firm owned by Bernard L. Barker, one of the suspected Watergate burglars.12
The Washington Post reports that the during FBI’s investigation of the Watergate scandal it found evidence of a “massive campaign” of spying and sabotage against Democrats. Hundreds of thousands of dollars had been spent investigating and trying to discredit major Democratic candidates. According to the newspaper, “‘Intelligence work’ is normal during a campaign and is said to be carried out by both political parties. But federal investigators said what they uncovered being done by the Nixon forces is unprecedented in scope and intensity.”13
“The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite” devotes two segments to the Watergate scandal, making the story nationally known. CBS asked for the original documents used by The Washington Post and had to be convinced that at that time there were none – it was all based on original reporting. Instead of documents, CBS used shots of Washington Post front pages. As executive editor Benjamin C. Bradlee later wrote about the two CBS segments in his autobiography, “When the pieces finally ran (fourteen minutes on October 27 and eight minutes for the next night) they had a powerful impact everywhere – on the Post, on the politicians (if not the voters), and on newsrooms outside Washington. Somehow the Great White Father, Walter Cronkite, the most trusted man in America, had blessed the story by spending so much time on it. …We were thrilled. No new ground was broken but the broadcasts validated the Post’s stories in the public’s mind and gave us an immense morale boost.”14
Nixon is re-elected in one of the largest landslides in U.S. history.
Opening arguments begin in the trial of the seven men accused of involvement in the Watergate burglary: Liddy, Hunt, Barker, McCord, Frank Sturgis, Eugenio Martinez and Virgilio Gonzalez. The trial is presided over by U.S. District Judge John Sirica, an Eisenhower appointee. Though the defense tries to portray the burglars as having worked alone and completely independently – led only by Liddy with no White House involvement – Judge Sirica is extremely skeptical. Five of the defendants – Hunt, Barker, Sturgis, Martinez and Gonzales – plead guilty and refuse to answer any of Judge Sirica’s questions about what motivated the break-in.15
The remaining defendants, Liddy and McCord, are found guilty. Judge Sirica is dissatisfied with the many questions about the break-in still left unanswered and expresses his hope that the special Senate Committee investigating Watergate will be able to “get to the bottom of what happened in this case.”16
During confirmation hearings for his appointment as director of the FBI, L. Patrick Gray reveals that he had turned over FBI files on Watergate to White House counsel John Dean and that Dean had sat in on the FBI’s questioning of witnesses, even though Dean and other officials were considered suspects in the investigation.17
At a sentencing hearing, Judge Sirica reveals a letter sent to him by James McCord. The letter states that the defendants were all pressured by the administration to plead guilty and that the burglary had not been an independent operation – other people knew of the plan:
“I will state the following to you at this time which I hope may be of help to you in meting out justice in this case:
1. There was political pressure applied to the defendants to plead guilty and remain silent.
2. Perjury occurred during the trial in matters highly material to the very structure, orientation, and impact of the government’s case, and to the motivation and intent of the defendants.
3. Others involved in the Watergate operation were not identified during the trial, when they could have been by those testifying.
4. The Watergate operation was not a CIA operation. The Cubans may have been misled by others into believing that it was a CIA operation. I know for a fact that it was not.”18
Amid the escalating scandal, three of President Nixon’s top aides, Haldeman, Ehrlichman and Attorney General Richard Kleindienst, resign, and Dean is fired. In his first public Watergate speech, Nixon appears aloof from the scandal, promising the American people he will accept full responsibility for the Watergate affair but denying any prior knowledge.19
The Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, known as the Watergate Committee and headed by Sen. Sam Ervin, a Democrat from North Carolina, begins hearings on Watergate.20 The hearings are broadcast by all three TV networks and watched by a huge portion of the American population.21
Attorney General Elliot Richardson appoints former solicitor general Archibald Cox as the Justice Department’s independent special prosecutor to investigate the Watergate scandal.
The Washington Post reports that John Dean has told investigators that he often discussed the Watergate cover-up with President Nixon or in the president’s presence, citing at least 35 separate occasions. “Dean has told investigators that Mr. Nixon had prior knowledge of payments used to buy the silence of the Watergate conspirators and of offers of executive clemency extended in his name, the sources said.”22
Dean testifies before the Senate Watergate Committee. In all, the committee calls more than 150 witnesses over 319 hours of hearings.
Former White House aide Alexander Butterfield reveals that President Nixon has routinely taped thousands of hours of his own conversations on four of his personal telephones, in the Oval Office, the cabinet room of the White House, and in the Executive Office Building.23
In response to special prosecutor Archibald Cox’s subpoena of the taped conversations recorded in the Oval Office, Nixon orders Attorney General Richardson to fire Cox. Richardson refuses and resigns in protest. The deputy attorney general, William Ruckelshaus, is then ordered to fire Cox. He, too, refuses and resigns. Solicitor General Robert H. Bork by law becomes attorney general and carries out President Nixon’s instructions to fire Cox. The president also abolishes the office of special prosecutor. This series of events becomes known as the “Saturday Night Massacre.”24
Members of Congress and the public begin calling for impeachment proceedings against President Nixon, and resolutions to that effect are introduced in the House of Representatives.25
Nixon is forced by public outcry to allow the appointment of another special prosecutor, and Bork chooses Leon Jaworski.
In a televised question-and-answer session with Associated Press managing editors, President Nixon maintains his innocence, declaring: “I am not a crook.”26
The White House discloses to Judge Sirica that an 18-minute segment of a subpoenaed tape, a recording of a discussion between President Nixon and H.R. Haldeman, has been erased.27
The president’s personal secretary, Rose Mary Woods, testifies that she must have been responsible for at least a portion of the 18-minute gap when she had accidentally pushed the record button while pressing down on the recorder’s foot pedal for a few minutes. When asked to demonstrate how the mistake was made, Woods has to use a very awkward stretching position, raising skepticism about her story.28
he House of Representatives, in a 410 to 4 vote, instructs the Judiciary Committee, chaired by Peter W. Rodino Jr., a Democrat from New Jersey, to investigate whether sufficient grounds exist to impeach the president.29
President Nixon refuses to turn over tapes that had been subpoenaed by the Judiciary Committee but hands over more than 1,200 pages of written, edited transcripts.30 No transcripts are provided for 11 of the subpoenaed tapes.31
The Supreme Court rules that President Nixon cannot use executive privilege to refuse to give the special prosecutor copies of the taped discussions that took place in the White House.32 Nixon is compelled to hand over the tapes, including the June 23, 1972, “smoking gun tape.”
The House Judiciary Committee, referring to the Watergate break-in and other illegal activities, and to Nixon’s actions to hide his involvement in those activities, approves the first article of impeachment, charging the president with obstruction of justice.33
The House Judiciary Committee, referring to Nixon’s unauthorized use of the FBI, Internal Revenue Service, Secret Service, illegal wiretapping and use of a special investigative unit, approves the second article of impeachment, charging the president with abuse of power.34
The House Judiciary Committee, referring to the president’s refusal to comply with the committee’s subpoenas, approves the third article of impeachment, charging the president with contempt of Congress.35
Nixon meets with several Republican congressional leaders, including Sen. Barry Goldwater (Ariz.), a former GOP presidential nominee, at the White House. Goldwater informs the president that fewer than two dozen senators say they will vote against impeachment, and that only four of those senators expressed a firm commitment that they would vote no. Nixon replies that “I’ve got a very difficult decision to make, but I want you to know I’m going to make it for the best interests of the country.”36
Facing almost certain impeachment and removal from office, Richard Nixon becomes the first U.S. president to resign.
Gerald R. Ford, who became vice president when Spiro T. Agnew pleaded no contest to failing to report income (bribes) and resigned in 1973, is sworn in as president.
President Ford issues Proclamation 4311 granting Richard Nixon a full pardon for any crimes he may have committed during his presidency. The highly controversial pardon is considered to have contributed to Ford’s loss to Jimmy Carter in the 1976 election.
Nixon begins testifying before a federal grand jury looking into Watergate-era crimes. In a transcript of the 11-hour testimony released to the public 36 years later, Nixon is shown to be evasive and hostile toward the prosecution. He reveals no information about the 18-minute segment of tape that had been inexplicably erased. “It's a virtuoso performance,” historian Stanley Kutler says after the unsealing of the testimony in 2011. “How about $10 for every time he says, ‘I don’t recall?’”37
The movie “All The President’s Men” is released, based on the book of the same name by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward describing their investigation of the Watergate scandal.
A follow-up book by Woodward and Bernstein, “The Final Days,” is published. It tops the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list for nearly four months.
More than 30 years after Watergate, Vanity Fair identifies former FBI Associate Director W. Mark Felt as Woodward’s Deep Throat source. The Post confirms the report.3839
Woodward’s “The Secret Man” is published, describing his relationship with his source, Mark Felt.40