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The Watergate Scandal, 45 Years Later

On June 17, 1972, five men were arrested for breaking into the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate complex. Here is a look back at the scandal that would lead to President Nixon’s resignation.

In the early morning hours of June 17, 1972, five men were arrested for breaking into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate complex in Washington D.C. At the time, few would have guessed this event would eventually lead to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. Forty-five years after the break-in, here’s a look at a few of the people whose choices resulted in a scandal big enough to derail a presidency.

Arrests at the Watergate 

During the Watergate arrests, the men were found to have wiretapping equipment, which made FBI involvement necessary. Investigators would soon discover the DNC offices had already been bugged (the initial tapping had taken place in May; the plan for June 17 was to replace malfunctioning equipment). 

Four of the arrestees had ties to the anti-Castro Cuban community and the CIA. But one, James McCord, was chief of security for the Nixon campaign’s Committee to Re-elect the President (the official acronym was CRP, but it became known as CREEP). In addition, G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt, who had overseen the break-in (though not taken into custody that night, their involvement was soon uncovered), had their own ties to the White House. 

Liddy and Hunt had been part of the “Plumbers,” a group formed to fight government leaks that was overseen by trusted Nixon aide John Ehrlichman. The operations Liddy and Hunt had participated in included breaking into a psychiatrist’s office in 1971 in search of information about Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg

No one connected to Nixon wanted an investigation into the Watergate break-in to lead to them or to jeopardize the president — but that meant a cover-up. As CRP/CREEP took steps to hide any illegal activity, the White House acted as well. 

Cover-up at the White House 

The president was aware of Watergate soon after the arrests — on June 21, 1972, he asked his chief of staff, H.R. “Bob” Haldeman, “What’s the dope on the Watergate incident?” and also noted, “Look, breaking and entering and so forth, without accomplishing it, is not a hell of a lot of crime.” In a talk with Nixon a couple of days later, Haldeman said, “That the way to handle this now is for us to have [Deputy CIA Director Vernon] Walters call [Acting FBI Director] Pat Gray 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.'” 

White House counsel John Dean also worked on shutting down the Watergate investigation. He arranged for hush money to be paid to those arrested and emptied out Hunt’s White House safe. Gray was given some materials from the safe (and, having been told they shouldn’t be seen, ended up burning them with his Christmas trash). 

In addition, Dean met with Liddy, who declared himself prepared to be killed for his mistake in involving McCord, which Dean said wouldn’t be necessary. The White House did think Liddy could take the blame for acting without authorization in the break-in. In a discussion with Haldeman on June 30, Nixon mentioned a possible pardon for Liddy — but noted it had to wait until after the presidential election. 

At the end of August, Nixon publicly stated that Dean had conducted a thorough investigation and exonerated the White House. Watergate certainly didn’t hurt Nixon in November of 1972: he won 61% of the popular vote, and 97% of the electoral college vote. But bigger problems lay ahead. 

Cracks in the cover-up 

Nixon’s tapes often reveal worries about the cover-up. On July 19, 1972, he told Ehrlichman, “If you cover up, you’re going to get caught.” In March the next year, he said to Haldeman, “You say what is worse, the cover-up or the crime. I say cover-up….” 

In January 1973, Liddy and McCord went on trial (four of the Watergate burglars and Hunt accepted guilty pleas). After guilty verdicts came in, Judge John Sirica delayed sentencing for all seven defendants, with the implication he would be more lenient if they became more forthright about their actions. On March 19, McCord wrote Sirica a letter stating, “There was political pressure applied to the defendants to plead guilty” and “perjury occurred during the trial.” 

Meanwhile, the Senate voted to form a committee to investigate Watergate in February 1973. Then, during his Senate confirmation hearings to become permanent FBI director, Gray admitted he’d kept Dean informed about the Watergate investigation. Dean also began to think Nixon could turn on him — as Nixon had announced that Dean had found no White House wrongdoing in Watergate, the president changing his story would bounce back on Dean. 

Last, but not least, reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post kept writing about Watergate, as they’d done since the initial break-in. With help from an inside source known as Deep Throat (later revealed to be Deputy FBI Director Mark Felt), they continued to raise questions about the scandal. 

The truth comes out 

Spurred by worries about being blamed for the entire cover-up, Dean hired a criminal attorney. In early April 1973, he began to talk to Watergate prosecutors, a fact Nixon soon learned. With the scandal widening, yet still wanting to save his presidency, Nixon had Haldeman and Ehrlichman resign on April 30 (his Attorney General was forced to resign then as well). Nixon dismissed Dean the same day. 

On June 25, 1973, Dean appeared before the Senate for days of testimony that unveiled much of the cover-up. At one point he declared, “I began by telling the president that there was a cancer growing on the presidency. And if the cancer was not removed, the president himself would be killed by it.” Yet much of what he said was denied by the White House. 

Then in July 1973 an aide revealed the existence of Nixon’s recording system; the tapes were soon under subpoena. Nixon fought the process; he also dismissed special prosecutor Archibald Cox in October 1973, though backlash forced him to accept a new special prosecutor. When the Supreme Court ruled in July 1974 that he had to turn over the subpoenaed tapes, the president accepted the decision. The tapes backed up Dean’s account and showed Nixon’s involvement in the cover-up, which led to a loss of Congressional support for the president. On August 9, 1974, Nixon resigned from the presidency. 

Many aides and associates who’d taken part in the cover-up plea bargained or went on trial. McCord served two months, Dean received a four-month term, Ehrlichman and Haldeman each spent 18 months in custody, Howard completed a 33-month sentence and Liddy was behind bars for about four and a half years (Liddy maintained full silence about Watergate until the statute of limitations ran out). Thanks to a pardon from successor Gerald Ford, Nixon never faced criminal charges.