Watergate Scandal: Timeline, Investigation, and Nixon Impeachment

Amanda Knapp, Adam Richards
  • Author
    Amanda Knapp

    Amanda Knapp has taught and tutored English at the college level for over ten years. She taught English to Chinese children for over two years. She has a Master of Arts degree in English from Northern Illinois University and a Bachelor of Arts degree in advertising from Marquette University where she also minored in marketing and psychology. She has numerous articles and essays published.

  • Instructor
    Adam Richards

    Adam has a master's degree in history.

Learn about the Watergate scandal and the investigation into Nixon, leading to his resignation. Discover Nixon's crimes and the timeline of Nixon's impeachment. Updated: 04/26/2022

What was the Watergate Scandal?

The Watergate Scandal was a scandal involving a plot by President Richard Nixon and people working with him to spy on the Democratic headquarters in the time leading up to Nixon’s re-election campaign. Furthermore, it involved the coverup of that crime. Ultimately, it led to many arrests, convictions, prison terms, and the resignation and then pardon of Nixon. The scandal is called Watergate because the Democratic Party Headquarters was located in the Watergate office complex.


Richard Nixon

Smiling black and white photo of Richard Nixon wearing a dark colored suit


CREEP

CREEP stands for the Committee for Reelection of the President. The committee’s official job was to help Nixon win his reelection for office. He was running against Democrat South Dakota Senator George McGovern.

In May of 1972, five people broke into the Watergate complex and installed espionage equipment. The equipment failed to work properly, and they had to return in June of that year to readjust it. A security guard at the time noticed that some of the locks had been taped, and he called the police. The four intruders were arrested. Multiple members of the Watergate robbery team were either members of or affiliated with CREEP. The members of the team are as follows:

  • James McCord: Security director of CREEP.
  • Virgilio Gonzalez: Cuban refugee who was told that Watergate could help with the cause of Cuban liberation.
  • E. Howard Hunt: His name helped investigators associate Watergate with Nixon and CREEP.
  • G. Gordon Liddy: Served as general counsel for CREEP.
  • Charles Colson: Special advisor to the president.


The Watergate Complex

Photo of many buildings taken from the air


The Plumbers

Richard Nixon's first abuse of power did not come with Watergate. Instead, it involved an organizatoin named, the Plumers, and the Pentagon Papers. The Plumbers were a secret intelligence staff organized by President Nixon to investigate people he did not trust.

In 1971, Daniel Ellsberg, who had previously been a national security advisor, started leaking information to the press about American involvement in Vietnam. This was in the form of the Pentagon Papers which detailed American involvement in the war. The Plumbers were tasked with stopping the leak of information and with discrediting Ellsberg. It is believed that this was the beginning of Nixon’s illegal use of power and privilege.

The Saturday Night Massacre

Nixon had been able to convince the public for a while that he had nothing to do with the break in at Watergate. This did not last, however. Along with the Senate Investigative Committee, reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein and trial judge John J. Sirica started to believe that a cover up was happening.

Two things started to happen that pointed towards Nixon’s involvement: first, some of the conspirators started to give information to authorities, and second, Woodward and Bernstein were being leaked information by a secret informant who they called ''Deep Throat.''

During testimony, it came out that Nixon had secretly taped everything that happened in the White House. Investigators attempted to get these tapes because they were told they would prove Nixon’s guilt. Sirica and Cox fought to get these tapes, but Nixon’s lawyers claimed executive privilege in order to keep them secret.

In what became known as the Saturday Night Massacre, Nixon fired special prosecutor, Archibald Cox, who was not privy to the Watergate events. Others resigned in protest. This did not stop the investigation, however. Nixon originally submitted some of the tapes but was ultimately forced to hand over them all.

The Smoking Gun Tape

On July 24, 1974, the Supreme Court in U.S. v. Nixon came to the conclusion that Nixon could not use executive privilege to hide evidence in a criminal investigation. He was forced to submit all of his tapes.

One tape, known as the smoking gun tape, contained a conversation in which Richard Nixon proved himself complicit in the cover up of Watergate.

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.

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Richard Nixon Impeachment

What did Nixon get impeached for? Nixon was impeached on the following grounds:

  • Obstruction of justice.
  • Violation of the U.S. Constitution.
  • Unlawful withholding of evidence.

An impeachment does not remove a sitting president. All Richard Nixon’s impeachment did was bring him up on charges. A trial and vote would have been required to forcibly remove him from the presidency. It did not go that far, however.

Nixon Impeachment Timeline

The year of Nixon's impeachment was 1974. On August 9, 1974, Nixon resigned from the presidency and, a few weeks after, Gerald Ford took the oath of office and pardoned him of all offenses.

Key dates in this process are as follows:

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.

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Video Transcript

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.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What was the main scandal of Watergate?

The original crime of Watergate was the breaking into the Watergate complex to plant illegal spy equipment. The larger crime, however, was the attempt by Nixon to cover it up and obstruct justice.

What were the basic events of the Watergate scandal?

Conspirators broke into the Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate Complex to plant espionage equipment. President Nixon used his executive authority to try to cover this up. Eventually, he was impeached and resigned because of proof of his role.

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