The Watergate Scandal represented President Richard Nixon's wanton abuse of the executive privilege. Learn more about the scandal, those involved, the investigation and Nixon's inevitable resignation.
Background to Watergate
While many historians have pointed to the war in Vietnam as being a large component to the downfall of President Richard Nixon, the main culprit in the embattled leader's tainted presidency was the Watergate Scandal in 1972, which was Nixon's attempt at covering up an executive-led break-in at the Watergate office complex. Nixon was known for his irrational behavior as President of the United States; for example, he employed what he called the 'madman theory' to psychologically terrorize the North Vietnamese into ending the Vietnam War.
Nixon was also renowned for his paranoia. He believed that everyone was attempting to bring him down. He distrusted the anti-war movement of the period, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), especially its leader J. Edgar Hoover, and many of his own cabinet members. Nixon was so suspicious of those around him that he eventually created a secret intelligence staff to investigate the daily activities of those he deemed untrustworthy.
This secret staff received its first mission in 1971 when Daniel Ellsberg, a former national security employee, leaked the 'Pentagon Papers,' which was a confidential history of American involvement in the Vietnam War. Nixon ordered the staff, which became known as the 'plumbers,' to stop the leak of information and discredit Ellsberg. Thus began Nixon's often illegal abuse of the executive privileges. Let's take a look at how Watergate unfolded.
1972 Presidential Election and the Watergate Complex
In 1972, President Richard Nixon began his re-election campaign, which was headed by the Committee to Re-Elect the President, or CREEP, against a divided Democratic Party. Two of the three democratic contenders failed to reach the Democratic National Convention due to injury or political mistakes. As a result, South Dakota Senator George McGovern won the democratic nomination handily. Unfortunately, McGovern did not stand a chance against Nixon, as the incumbent president crushed McGovern in both the electoral and popular vote. Yet the election was tainted by information that was released in months that followed.
In June 1972, Nixon authorized members of his secret unit, as well as CREEP, to pay a team of burglars to infiltrate the Democratic Party's headquarters at the Watergate complex. This was prior to the election, and the burglars were meant to acquire information on his opponents. These undercover individuals broke into several Democratic offices within the Watergate and installed wire-taps and recording equipment. Unfortunately for Nixon, the equipment was installed haphazardly and had to be readjusted. As the intruders attempted to return to Watergate and resolve the problem, they were arrested.
The White House immediately attempted to downplay the break-in, but behind the scenes, Nixon and his secret team were quickly using funds to pay for the silence and cooperation of the intruders. Nixon also made sure that the FBI remained out of the incident by forcing the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to persuade the intelligence community that the break-in was classified as a matter of national security.
The Nation Reacts
While Nixon thought he was able to successfully cover up the break-in at the Watergate complex, members of the press, Congress and legal experts began questioning the event. By January 1973, the Watergate intruders stood trial for their participation in the break-in. The presiding judge, John Sirica, was unconvinced with the intruders' testimony that they acted solely in their own interest and that there was no connection to Nixon. Meanwhile, Congress intervened when the Senate organized the Watergate Committee to investigate the event. Needless to say, the walls were closing in around Nixon, and it became much worse.
John Mitchell, the head of CREEP, was convicted of engaging in illegal activities by federal prosecutors. When that information became public, Judge Sirica increased the pressure on the Watergate intruders. In March, Sirica finally achieved his desired outcome when one of the intruders released information linking CREEP to the break-in.
The dominoes were now falling one by one. In May, another convicted intruder testified before the Watergate Committee and revealed additional information linking not only CREEP, but the Nixon Administration to the events at Watergate. Eventually, the Watergate Committee called on John Dean, who was Nixon's lead legal counsel, who testified to Nixon's involvement in the break-in and cover-up.
Simultaneously, the one piece of evidence that Congress, as well as the federal prosecution, needed was Nixon's taped conversations in the Oval Office. Nixon initially refused to turn over the tapes claiming executive privilege and instead campaigned for the Stennis Compromise, which called for Senator John Stennis, who was essentially deaf, to translate the tapes for Congress! Judge Sirica and Congress both refused the compromise and instead sent special prosecutor for the case, Archibald Cox, to present Nixon with a subpoena for the tapes. In another outlandish move, Nixon used his executive powers to terminate Cox as a prosecutor in what became known as the 'Saturday Night Massacre.'
Nixon's intransigence and outright defiance failed to pay off. While Nixon attempted to release sanitized versions of his tapes, many had had enough. On July 24, 1974, the United States Supreme Court ruled in the case of U.S. v. Nixon that Nixon's use of executive privilege was not applicable in a criminal investigation. Within weeks of the decision, the House of Representatives approved the impeachment of Nixon on the grounds of obstruction of justice, violation of the constitution and the unlawful withholding of evidence.
To make matters worse, a tape was released, known as the 'smoking gun,' which unveiled Nixon agreeing to a CIA cover-up of the Watergate break-in during a phone conversation in 1972. With the mounting evidence and loss of both political and public support, Nixon resigned as president on August 9, 1974. Notably, his successor, President Gerald Ford, pardoned Nixon for his involvement in Watergate soon after his resignation.
President Richard Nixon's well-known paranoia caused him to make irrational decisions which cost him the presidency. The litmus test for his instability was his handling of the 'Pentagon Papers' and his involvement in the break-in and subsequent cover-up at the Watergate complex. Nixon created a secret intelligence team to provide him with constant information on his friends and adversaries. This intelligence team, which became known as the 'plumbers,' attempted to stop Daniel Ellsberg's leak of confidential information concerning American involvement in the Vietnam War to the media.
While this was a major abuse of executive power, the Watergate Scandal was far worse. Nixon's powerful victory over George McGovern in the 1972 presidential election was tainted by his actions. In order to gain an inside edge on his political opponents, Nixon authorized an intelligence team and members of the Committee to Re-Elect the President (CREEP) to fund the burglary of the Democratic National headquarters at the Watergate complex. The intruders, however, failed to set the surveillance equipment up properly. As they returned to resolve the problem, they were arrested.
Eventually, members of Congress and federal prosecutors began uncovering a trail of misconduct within the Nixon Administration, including the president's attempt at a cover-up of the Watergate events. While Nixon tried to circumvent the law, he was eventually found guilty of illegally using his executive powers, obstructing justice and withholding evidence. With Congress calling for a federal impeachment, Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974.
Once you have completed this lesson you should be able to:
- Explain the mental issues suffered by President Richard Nixon
- Detail the lengths the president went to in finding out what the Democrats knew before the 1972 election
- Describe what Nixon did to try and cover up the Watergate break-in
- Recall the impeachment of Nixon and his resignation and pardon by Ford