Op-Ed

All the presidents’ men, pt. 1  

“In all of my years of public life, I have never obstructed justice. People have got to know whether their president is a crook. Well, I am not a crook.” President Richard Milhous Nixon

Fifty years ago this week, on June 17, 1972, while making his rounds on his first night at work, a security officer discovered a break-in at the Democratic National Committee (DNC) headquarters in the Watergate Office Building in Washington, D.C.

The security officer discovered that the break-in involved five “burglars” who were immediately arrested and later brought to trial.

At the time of the break-in, the security officer did not know that the mastermind of this burglary included highly placed individuals in President Richard Nixon’s White House, nor was the security officer aware that the break-in was intended to find vital intelligence to assist President Nixon in his presidential re-election campaign in November 1972.

The break-in at the DNC headquarters came to be referred to as the infamous Watergate scandal, named after the complex in which one of the most heinous political crimes up to that time had been committed.

Forty-eight years later, similar highly placed operatives, closely tied to Donald Trump’s White House, attempted to surpass President Nixon’s criminal conspiracy.

In 2020, Trump and his sycophantic subordinates shamelessly tried to execute a coup d’état, the first in American presidential history, by seeking to usurp the presidency by brazen subterfuge and outright lies fueled by a complete contempt for the will of the American people.

Therefore, this week, we will consider this — what do all the presidents’ men who participated in Nixon’s and Trump’s conspiracies have in common, although separated by nearly five decades?

This week, we will examine the Watergate scandal and its aftermath.

The Watergate scandal

The Watergate scandal began in the early hours of June 17, 1972 when five burglars were arrested for breaking into the office of the DNC that was located in the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C.

That was no ordinary robbery. The burglars were directly connected to Nixon’s Committee to Re-elect the President (CREEP) and were caught wiretapping phones and stealing documents belonging to the DNC.

Nixon aggressively tried to cover up the crimes; however, Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein revealed his role in the conspiracy and the roles of many of his key White House advisors.

Those senior advisors included, among others, H. R. Haldeman, White House chief of staff, and John Ehrlichman, counsel and assistant to the president for domestic affairs. Another prominent personality, who ultimately exposed the entire conspiracy, was John W. Dean III, White House counsel.

The origins of the Watergate break-in should be viewed in the context of the highly hostile political climate.

By 1972, Nixon realized he was facing an extremely aggressive re-election campaign because the United States (US) was embroiled in the very unpopular Vietnam War. The country was deeply divided.

Because he was concerned about losing the election, Nixon authorized CREEP to engage in aggressively illegal and unethical conduct, including the theft of top-secret documents and the bugging of telephones by his surrogates. These activities were tantamount to illicit espionage.

Following the burglary at Watergate, Woodward and Bernstein investigated the break-in and, through their unrelenting investigative reporting, blew the lid on the entire Nixon conspiracy to win the election at any cost, including engaging in illegal activities.

It was not immediately apparent that the burglars were connected to the president. However, suspicions were raised when detectives found copies of CREEP’s White House phone number among the burglars’ belongings.

Woodward learned that the five burglars — James W. McCord Jr. and four Cuban Americans from Miami—possessed electronic bugging equipment and were represented by a high-priced attorney.

At the arraignment, McCord identified himself as having recently left the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and the others were also revealed to have CIA ties. Woodward connected the burglars to E. Howard Hunt, an employee of Nixon’s White House counsel Charles Colson, also formerly of the CIA.

Bernstein was also assigned to cover the Watergate story with Woodward. Their ongoing, aggressive investigation exposed the culprits, many of whom would ultimately be indicted, convicted and imprisoned for participating in the conspiracy to get Nixon re-elected.

Woodward contacted a senior government official, an anonymous source he had used before and referred to as “Deep Throat”.

Communicating secretly, using a flag placed in a balcony flowerpot to signal meetings, they met at night in an underground parking garage.

Deep Throat spoke in riddles and metaphors, avoiding substantial facts about the Watergate break-in, but advising Woodward to “follow the money”.


CREEP

Woodward and Bernstein connected the five burglars to corrupt activities involving campaign contributions to Nixon’s CREEP.

This included a check for $25,000, which Miami authorities identified when investigating the Miami-based burglars.

However, Bill Bradlee, editor of the Washington Post, doubted the investigation and its dependence on sources such as Deep Throat, wondering why the Nixon administration would break the law when the president was almost certain to defeat his opponent, the Democratic nominee George McGovern.

Woodward and Bernstein then connected a slush fund of hundreds of thousands of dollars to Haldeman — the second most important man in the country — and to former attorney general John N. Mitchell, then-head of CREEP.

They learned that, when Nixon was lagging behind Edmund Muskie in the polls a year before the Watergate burglary, CREEP had been financing a campaign to sabotage Democratic presidential candidates.

While Bradlee’s demand for thoroughness compelled the reporters to obtain other sources to confirm the Haldeman connection, the White House issued a non-denial denial of the Washington Post’s story. Bradlee continued to encourage investigation.

Woodward again met secretly with Deep Throat who revealed that Haldeman masterminded the Watergate break-in and cover-up.

Deep Throat also stated that the cover-up was intended to camouflage CREEP’s involvement and to hide “covert operations” involving “the entire US intelligence community,” including the CIA and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

Deep Throat warned Woodward and Bernstein that their lives, and those of others, were in danger. When the two relayed this information to Bradlee, he encouraged them to continue their investigation despite the risk.

In August 1972, Nixon gave a speech in which he swore his White House staff was not involved in the break-in. Most voters believed Nixon and, in November 1972, he was re-elected in a landslide victory of historic proportions.

On January 20, 1973, Bernstein and Woodward published the entire story while televisions in the newsroom broadcast Nixon taking the oath of office for his second term as president.

The role of Congress and the Supreme Court

Following Nixon’s landslide re-election and the subsequent trials of the burglars, the House of Representatives authorized the House Judiciary Committee to initiate investigations into matters arising from the Watergate conspiracy.

The US Senate also created the US Senate Watergate Committee, resulting in the Senate Watergate hearings from May 17, 1973 to November 15, 1973.

PBS broadcast the coverage “gavel-to-gavel” nationwide. The other three commercial networks that existed in those pre-CNN and 24-hour news cycle days carried an average of five hours per day for the first week, then worked out a rotating coverage. The Senate Watergate hearings had aroused enormous public interest and millions were glued to their TVs.

During the Senate Watergate hearings, witnesses testified that Nixon had approved plans to cover up his administration’s involvement in the break-in and that there was a secret voice-activated taping system in the Oval Office that recorded the entire conspiracy which President Nixon choreographed.

Throughout the investigation, the administration vigorously resisted the Senate Watergate Committee probes. This led to a constitutional crisis.

Several major revelations and egregious presidential actions to thwart the investigation in 1973 prompted the House to commence impeachment proceedings against Nixon.

On July 24, 1974, in a unanimous decision, the US Supreme Court finally compelled Nixon to release the Oval Office tapes to the Senate Watergate Committee. These Nixon White House tapes revealed that he had conspired to cover up activities after the break-in and later tried to use federal officials to deflect the investigation.

On May 9, 1974, formal hearings on the impeachment inquiry of Richard Nixon began. They culminated July 27-30, 1974 when the House Judiciary Committee approved three articles of impeachment against Nixon for obstruction of justice, abuse of power and contempt of Congress.

Nixon’s impeachment by a vote of the whole House was almost a sure thing.

With his complicity in the cover-up made public, his political support completely eroded, and impeachment and subsequent Senate trial looming, Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974.

It is believed that, had he not done so, he would have been impeached by the House and removed from office by a trial in the Senate.

Watergate’s aftermath

The Watergate scandal changed American politics forever, leading many Americans to question their leaders and think more critically about the presidency.

There were 69 people indicted, and 48 people — many of them top Nixon administration officials — were convicted.

The term Watergate came to encompass an array of clandestine and illegal activities undertaken by members of the Nixon administration, including bugging the offices of political opponents and people of whom Nixon or his officials were suspicious; ordering investigations of activist groups and political figures on Nixon’s “Hit List”; and using the FBI, the CIA, and the Internal Revenue Service as political weapons.

Even today, the suffix “gate” after an identifying term has since become synonymous with public scandal, especially political scandal.


Conclusion

Next week, we will examine how all the presidents’ men around Donald Trump, like Richard Nixon, sought to engage in similar illegal and unethical, albeit more sinister and egregious, activities to fulfill Trump’s goal of holding on to the presidency, no matter for whom the American voters had cast their ballots or what the US Constitution says.

• Philip C. Galanis is the managing partner of HLB Bahamas, Advisors and Chartered Accountants. He served 15 years in Parliament. Please send your comments to pgalanis@gmail.com.

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