Watergate: the cover-up begins

When individuals associated with Richard Nixon’s reelection campaign were arrested in the Watergate Office Building in the early hours of June 17 1972, the men around the President spent the next several days deciding how to respond. They were in a bind. Indeed, crimes had already been committed. The five men arrested in the attempt to bug the DNC offices, and the two men who led the team, Liddy and Hunt, would be convicted on charges related to the burglary and wiretapping. One of the charges John Mitchell would be convicted of was approving the wiretapping while still the Attorney General.

There was still a chance to prevent the scandal from becoming what it eventually ballooned into. The President and the people around him could’ve taken the political hit of having people associated with the campaign committing crimes in the name of political dirty tricks. The President could’ve been insulated from the men working for him. There was never any evidence that Nixon knew about the burglary before the fact. Others could’ve fallen on their swords.

But, with the election just five months away, that was the risk the President’s men did not want to take. They also knew that the burglary wasn’t the only operation the so-called Plumbers had been involved. The previous year the Plumbers broke into the office of the psychiatrist of Daniel Ellsberg, the man who leaked the Pentagon Papers.

In An American Life, Jeb Stuart Magruder, the deputy director of the Committee to Re-Elect the President (CRP), writes about the lack of discussion over whether to give birth to the maxim, the cover-up is worse than the crime.

My life changed that day. For the first time I realized, and I think we all realized, that we were involved in criminal activity, that if the truth became known we could all go to jail. During the spring, when Liddy was presenting his break-in plan, I should have been aware that it was illegal, but somehow it seemed acceptable, perhaps because we were discussing it in the office of the Attorney General of the United States. But at some point that Saturday morning I realized that this was not just hard-nosed politics, this was a crime that could destroy us all. The cover-up, this, was immediate and automatic; no one ever considered that there would not be a cover-up. It seemed inconceivable that with our political power we could not erase this mistake we had made.

At that point, LaRue (another deputy directory) was only marginally involved in the break-in conspiracy, in that he was aware of discussions of it, and Mardian (aide to Mitchell and counsel to CRP) was not to my knowledge involved at all. Either of them might have saved themselves great difficulty by walking away from the whole affair. That they did not was due to personal loyalty to Mitchell and political loyalty to the President. In all our discussions, there was a great deal said about “protecting the President.” We were trying to do that, certainly, but it was also true Mitchell and I hoped to save our own skins in the process. We were in so deep there seemed to be no turning back, no alternative but to plunge ahead, that is I wanted to go to the Justice Department and tell the prosecutors all I knew, I could probably walk away from the mess a free man. But that was never a serious consideration. My fellow conspirators were also my friends, and you didn’t save yourself at the expense of your friends.

The next day, Sunday, Magruder called White House Chief of Staff Haldeman, the man who had hired Magruder for the CRP. Magruder told him about the arrest.

We discussed the press statement we had drafted, but never released. McCord’s identity had by then become known, and we agree that a statement must be issued minimizing McCord’s ties with CRP. Later that day we issued a statement by Mitchell which stressed the fact that McCord was not technically and “employee” of CRP, since we contracted with his McCord Associates to handle security for CRP.

I told Haldeman of Mitchell’s plan to have Mardian return to Washington to take charge of the situation.

No, the President doesn’t trust Mardian,” Haldeman said. “You come back and take charge.”

It was a short talk. I gave him the facts and got my instructions. I spoke with the assumption that he knew about the break-in plan, and nothing he said indicated did not.

When I arrived at my office the next morning I stepped immediately into the double life I would live for the next ten months. On the one hand I spent much of the morning moving about our offices and reassuring CRP’s staff that nothing was wrong, that we had no idea what McCord had been up to, that the best thing was for everyone to get back to work.

The first person I talked to was Hugh Sloan, our treasurer. We knew by then that several thousand dollars in $100 bills had been found on the burglars. What we did not know, and I hoped Sloan could explain, was whether the money had come from CRP, and if so, is there was any way it could be traced to us. Sloan said the money found on the burglars was money he had given to Liddy, and that it could probably be traced to us.

In his own book, The Ends of Power, Haldeman gives his account of that conversation with Magruder.

Magruder has admitted that he didn’t tell me all the real facts about the break-in (such as his own involvement) in that telephone call because, he said, he assumed I knew them already. This is vintage Magruder softening of the truth. Magruder didn’t tell me all the facts because he was afraid to. It’s that simple. His people had been caught, a terrible mess could develop as a result, and he couldn’t face telling Nixon’s ferocious Chief of Staff what he had done.

I hung up as quickly as I could and tracked down John Ehrlichman by telephone to find the real story. I trusted John whom I had known since our college days. Now the Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy, John was known for three traits: a sarcastic wit, intelligence, and a love of intrigue. But he had never lied to me – and he didn’t now.

“We’re in a bit of a bind on this one, Bob,” he told me. “One of those Cubans had a check on his person signed by Howard Hunt.”

Hunt’s name alerted me. It was the link to Colson, the man I had first suspected. In fact, Hunt was Colson’s boy. If Colson was involved through Hunt, this could involve the Oval Office, too.

Haldeman then called Colson, and Colson said Liddy was using Hunt, but that he, Colson, was not working with Hunt. Haldeman then called the President and “found him as cool about the break-in has he had been before.”

Calm, cool, even amused. What an effort that facade must have cost him. It wasn’t until years later that I learned that the “calm” Nixon that been frantically telephoning Chuck Colson himself about that “unimportant” break-in. Calm? At one point he was so upset he threw an ashtray across the room, according to Colson.

On June 20, Haldeman went into the Oval Office to talk to Nixon.

We spent the first part of that conversation on government and campaign business of no great importance or urgency. Then, with seemingly no increase in interest, we turned to the DNC break-in. The DNC discussion occupied only 18.5 minutes, after which we turned to other mundane and routine matters. The whole meeting lasted about an hour and a half.

Nevertheless, because that particular 18.5 minutes was subsequently erased, and only that particular 18.5 minutes, a great deal of interest naturally has arisen as to how we spent that short period and what we said to each other.

Haldeman said only that “I have no clear recollection” of what was discussed and that it is “possible there was something in that conversation that Nixon believed was so uniquely damaging that it had to be erased. Since the discovery of that gap, I’ve racked my brain trying to remember what was said on that June 20 morning.

To this day, it is not known how those 18.5 minutes were erased.

Three days later, a key meeting took place, again involving Haldeman and Nixon. First, a bit of background. J Edgar Hoover, the legendary director of the FBI, had died the month before. Nixon had named Patrick Gray as Acting Directory. Mark Felt managed the day to day operations at the FBI. On the morning of June 23, John Dean called Haldeman. From Haldeman’s book,

“Bob, the DNC break-in is becoming a real problem. They’re out of control over at the Bureau. Gray doesn’t know what the hell to do, as usual.”

“What have they found so far?”

“They traced one check to a contributor named Ken Dahlberg. And apparently the money was laundered out of a Mexican bank, and the FBI has found the bank. If that’s true they’ll know who the depositors are today.”

Dean also said “I spoke to Mitchell, and he and I agree that the thing to do is for you to tell Walters (Deputy Directory of CIA) that we don’t know where that Mexican investigation is going to lead. Have him to talk to Gray and maybe the CIA can turn off the FBI down there in Mexico.”

(note: this check they are discussing involved a campaign contribution that somehow ended up in the bank account of a real estate firm owned by one of the burglars)

Haldeman writes, “I did something I shouldn’t have done. Dean had suggested I call Walters at the CIA. I knew Walters well.”

Haldeman then went to talk to Nixon, and in what became known as the “smoking gun”, Haldeman and Nixon discussed using the CIA to hinder the FBI’s investigation into the Watergate burglars, and potentially their involvement with the CRP and the White House.

Later that same day, Haldeman and Ehrlichman met with Walters and Helms of the CIA and asked them to essentially tell Gray at the FBI to steer clear.

In his book, Witness to Power, Ehrlichman recounts that meeting.

I sat in on Haldeman’s meeting with the CIA, cold. I’d been told to be there, but beyond that I had no idea what Haldeman intended to do. Haldeman told Vernon Walters and Richard Helms in effect that “the White House” would like the CIA to tell the FBI to keep away from the question of money flowing through Mexico to some of the Watergate burglars.

And so, before even a week had passed, the Rubicon was crossed. The White House was committed to hindering the investigation into the Watergate burglary and where the money that financed it had come from. The Plumbers had initially been formed to plug the “leaks” such as the Pentagon Papers. Ironically, as the White House tried to build a dam around the Watergate investigation, from the very beginning information was already leaking out to the press courtesy of Bob Woodward’s source, Deep Throat. The world would not learn until 2005 that Deep Throat was Mark Felt at the FBI. Woodward writes in All the President’s Men,

Woodward had a source in the Executive Branch who had access to information at CRP as well as at the White House. His identity was unknown to anyone else. He could be contacted only on very important occasions. Woodward had promised he would never identify him or his position to anyone.

The man’s position in the Executive Branch was extremely sensitive. He had never told Woodward anything that was incorrect. It was he who had advised Woodward on June 19 that Howard Hunt was definitely involved in Watergate.

In our next and final look back at Watergate, we’ll look at the run-up to the election, how hush money became an issue for the Watergate burglars, and how Watergate exploded in the months after the election.

15 thoughts on “Watergate: the cover-up begins

  1. The real mystery at the time — was what the Watergate burglars were after. The answer is that Nixon wanted to know whether the Democrats had information on the money transfers from the Greek military junta to Nixon’s campaign and how they planned to disclose it.

    There’s a 1990 LA Times piece and a 1997 WaPo piece that report on these matters. The Watergate burglars were looking for documents at the DNC office that exposed the illegal $549,000 Greek contribution to Nixon’s campaign. Later on, Thomas Pappas contributed $100K to Nixon, which got used as hush money for the Watergate burglars.

    IDEA / WATERGATE MOTIVE : Break-In Held Effort to Hide Nixon’s Money Link to Greece

  2. If only the WaPo and that freaking hypocrite Bob Woodward, paid the same amount of attention to the slush funds, laundered “campaign” contributions, dark money and personal enrichment legislation of the DemoCommies. Anyone that still believes that the GOP is the party of the rich, is an idiot.

  3. funny how nobody delved into

    To this day, it is not known how those 18.5 minutes were erased.

    I guess as boss points out, journolists were all libturd hacks back then as well.

  4. Mr Kouba provides an excellent summary, quick and to the point. It reminds the reader how nefarious Nixon and his henchmen were. It also pales in comparison to Trump’s years-long effort to negate an election and overthrow our Democracy. Someday there will likely be an article similar to this that summarizes Trump’s lies and efforts to get others to lie and cheat, as well as the craven lack of response from members of his own party whose dishonor will live on forever in US History.

    Woodward and Bernstein provided epic journalism at a time when the nation needed the truth, like now.

  5. The most shocking aspect of the Watergate fiasco is that it occurred in an election that Nixon eventually won by 49-1 states. In this, the first of the many coming Republican screw-ups ever since, that ridiculous margin of victory was made irrelevant.

    In similar fashion, 14 Republican senators celebrated the 50th Anniversary of Watergate by doing whatever they could to sabotage their own party’s once-in-a-century electoral chances in November by agreeing to vote to limit the right to keep and bear arms. Lots of conservatives are wondering what’s the point of voting anymore.

  6. Hey Emery.

    You clueless, no brain dead DemoCommies keep using the meme; losing our democracy”. The United States is, and ALWAYS HAS BEEN a representative republic. As the kangaroo court show trial is showing, the ACTUAL seditionists are running it. Notice that they are only calling people that chant their talking points, are “testifying”. Jim Jordan’s grilling of the FBI stooge, was just one of the facts that derail the narrative.

    Your heroes have wasted more money on politically motivated witch hunts, propping up a tin pot leader of a country that got caught with their labs creating bio weapons to be used against their own constituents and citizens, with no accountability for the money. Further, Pedo Joe leaves a billion dollars worth of guns and advanced weapons to the Taliban, then wants gun control here.

  7. ^^ And yet all the witnesses giving evidence against Trump are Republicans.

    President Ford, in pardoning Nixon after the Watergate imbrogio, showed great and exemplary wisdom. In doing so he materially damaged his own standing and his hopes for reelection. But by taking the issue of Nixon’s guilt / innocence off the table he allowed the country to draw a line under the Watergate accrimony and to move on.

    President Biden — like President Ford, almost certainly a one term president — has the opportunity to benefit the country much the same way as Ford did. A Presidential pardon of Trump — based on findings of wrongdoing by Trump — would effectively consign Trump to deserved “has been” status. And, critically, would do so without the divisive and terrible precedent setting risks of a banana republic style criminal proceeding against a former US President.

    A Biden pardon woud be an act of great statesmanship. And it would help put the whole sorry episode behind us.

  8. Hillary Clinton, August 2020: Joe Biden should not concede under any circumstances, because I think this is going to drag out, and eventually I do believe he will win if we don’t give an inch, and if we are as focused and relentless as the other side is.
    “Under any circumstances.” Emery is mad because Trump took the advice Hillary gave to Biden.

  9. And let us not forget the extreme measures taken by the democrats to keep trump from being sworn in in January 2017.
    Here’s an interesting article about Dem house members challenging the electoral count certification process in 2017 that Trump was challenging in 2021: https://www.politico.com/story/2017/01/no-trump-electoral-college-challenge-233294

    Current Jan.6 committee member Jamie Raskin (D) objected to certifying Trump’s 2016 win, and this is just one of the many reasons most Republicans think the January 6 committee is a clown car.

  10. While there are many consistencies between the Nixon and Trump presidencies, in one critical and troubling area they are very different. Nixon hid his machinations from voters, knowing most would be repulsed by his actions. Trump pushes his cheating and lying openly, knowing his voters are eager to accept his false version. 

    Nixon was a Machiavellian snake intent on surreptitiously gaining and holding power. Trump is a cartoonish carnival barker. The fact that such a loutish, unlearned clown could ascend to the presidency says far, far more about the culture of today’s America than it does about Trump himself.

  11. ^^This is what shallow analysis looks like.
    The idea of comparing Trump and Nixon is absurd. Nixon was a party insider, spent years in congress before becoming Eisenhower’s veep, and Nixon filled his staff with GOP and DC insiders. Trump was the opposite. He supported Democrats until 2012. There are far more similarities between Nixon and Hillary or Biden and Nixon than there are between Trump and Nixon.
    But let the band play on, Emery . . .

  12. On Youtube tonight I watched an interesting video on Umberto Eco.
    Eco is a fascinating writer. Everyone interested in epistemology — what it means to know about a thing — should read Eco.
    You can’t discuss Eco without discussing conspiracy theories. Eco’s “Big Idea,” to me, was how people convince themselves that they understand the division between reality and fantasy and always discover that they can tell reality from fantasy. It’s all fantasy, says Eco, and that is wonderful. That is the heart of life. That is our soul in the world (though Eco is not religious).
    I only mention this because the Youtube presenter, when he wanted examples of a currently popular conspiracy theory, used the Q Anon “Cosmic Pizza” conspiracy theory.
    Really? Howzabout the fantastic idea that Trump colluded with Putin to steal the 2016 election from Hillary? That had actual real world political consequences. There are still people, important people in politics like the current speaker of the house, who believe, absolutely, in the nutty “Russian Collusion” conspiracy, which, it turns out, was a creation of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign staff.

  13. These Jan 6 hearings are painful to watch because it clearly showed a nation split in 2. Our Republican leaders perpetuated a lie they knew was false. Powerful people stood by and did nothing as Trump ripped our nation apart.

    The people who should be watching these hearings, will not watch them. Instead, they will continue to tune in to Fox nightly, and get a totally false counter-narrative, which reinforces their preferred narrative. The hearings are important for historical record purposes. They will not likely change any minds.

  14. @bh429. Good points. These were the legacy of the Kennedy era, including the fictional missile gap that started the nuclear arms race. I’m certain it was one reason Nixon was so determined to deescalate the Cold War, open the door to China and begin serious arms limitation talks with the Soviet Union. What an absurd waste of money it all was, and a shame he wasn’t allowed to finish his work. The Cold War would have to go through a rematch under his successors with a new, more deadly and wasteful arms race and the most dangerous period of the Cold War since Cuba 1962.

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