Forty-five years ago this past week, after the discovery of what his press secretary dismissed as a “third-rate burglary,” Richard Nixon told Chief of Staff H.R. “Bob” Haldeman that the CIA should head off the investigation by telling the FBI to stay away from it. The conversation, long sought by the special prosecutor of the scandal, was caught on a tape that, when revealed, became the “smoking gun” that ended Nixon’s Presidency.
Watergate was a political scandal without parallel in American history. It was unlike even the two scandals that subsequently caught three Presidents in their messy coils: Iran-contra, in which figures associated with Ronald Reagan and then-Vice President George H.W. Bush attempted to create a government within a government, and Monicagate, in which Bill Clinton paid for an intern’s sexual service not with money but with public mortification, disrupted family life, and the near loss of his job.
Yet these scandals, which involved special prosecutors like those who investigated Nixon, did not hinge on taping systems that could prove or disprove sworn testimony implicating a President in misdeeds. After seeing Nixon brought low by them, nobody thought that another President would have them or even hint at having them. Only a fool with no political background, let alone a sense of history, would be capable of that, and such a person could never occupy the Oval Office.
Enter Donald Trump. Many people whose careers touched on Watergate—notably, journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein—have warned that it is premature to compare the scandal that undid Nixon with the one now afflicting his GOP successor several times removed. True, it is still early in this investigation, and Nixon and Trump differ markedly in experience, intellect and even temperament.
But when all is said and done, what is extraordinary is how loudly the once-faint echoes of Watergate are reverberating now. The question of White House taping systems alone proves the old adage that history doesn’t repeat itself; it rhymes.
MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell recently pointed out that the same legal issue that brought down Nixon—use of the CIA to stop the investigation of a crime before it could get fairly started—had now emerged as a crucial matter in Trump’s massive political distraction.
The Washington Post reported that Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats informed associates that Trump had urged him and National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers to intervene with Comey to end the investigation into Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national-security adviser. In sworn Senate testimony, Coats and Rogers would only say they had never felt “pressured to intervene or interfere,” while skating away from the more direct, specific question of whether Trump requested that they downplay any possible collusion between his campaign and the Russian government.
Words and context matter, as O’Donnell pointed out in drawing attention to the fateful Nixon-Haldeman conversation on June 23, 1972. You can read the whole transcript of that tape here, but, for our purposes, I thought that this substantial excerpt would throw several points in sharp relief:
Haldeman: “Now, on the investigation, you know, the Democratic break-in thing, we’re back to the-in the, the problem area because the FBI is not under control, because [Director L. Patrick] Gray doesn’t exactly know how to control them, and they have, their investigation is now leading into some productive areas, because they’ve been able to trace the money, not through the money itself, but through the bank, you know, sources – the banker himself. And, and it goes in some directions we don’t want it to go. Ah, also there have been some things, like an informant came in off the street to the FBI in Miami, who was a photographer or has a friend who is a photographer who developed some films through this guy, [Bernard] Barker, and the films had pictures of Democratic National Committee letter head documents and things. So I guess, so it’s things like that that are gonna, that are filtering in. [Former Attorney General and Nixon campaign manager John] Mitchell came up with yesterday, and John Dean analyzed very carefully last night and concludes, concurs now with Mitchell’s recommendation that the only way to solve this, and we’re set up beautifully to do it, ah, in that and that…the only network that paid any attention to it last night was NBC…they did a massive story on the Cuban…”
Nixon: “That’s right.”
Haldeman: “That the way to handle this now is for us to have Walters call 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.” That’s not an unusual development,…”
Nixon: “Um huh.”
Haldeman: “…and, uh, that would take care of it.”
Nixon: “What about Pat Gray, ah, you mean he doesn’t want to?”
Haldeman: “Pat does want to. He doesn’t know how to, and he doesn’t have, he doesn’t have any basis for doing it. Given this, he will then have the basis. He’ll call [deputy FBI director] Mark Felt in, and the two of them …and Mark Felt wants to cooperate because…”
Haldeman: “…he’s ambitious…”
Haldeman: “Ah, he’ll call him in and say, ‘We’ve got the signal from across the river to, to put the hold on this.’ And that will fit rather well because the FBI agents who are working the case, at this point, feel that’s what it is. This is CIA.”
Nixon: “But they’ve traced the money to ’em.”
Haldeman: “Well they have, they’ve traced to a name, but they haven’t gotten to the guy yet.”
Nixon: ‘Would it be somebody here?”
Haldeman: ‘Ken Dahlberg.”
Nixon: Who the hell is Ken Dahlberg?
Haldeman: “He’s ah, he gave $25,000 in Minnesota and ah, the check went directly in to this, to this guy Barker.”
Nixon: “Maybe he’s a …bum.”
Nixon: “He didn’t get this from the committee though, from [former Commerce Secretary and finance chair of the Committee for the Re-Election of the President Maurice] Stans.”
Haldeman: “Yeah. It is. It is. It’s directly traceable and there’s some more through some Texas people in–that went to the Mexican bank which they can also trace to the Mexican bank…they’ll get their names today. And (pause)”
Nixon: “Well, I mean, ah, there’s no way… I’m just thinking if they don’t cooperate, what do they say? They they, they were approached by the Cubans. That’s what Dahlberg has to say, the Texans too. Is that the idea?”
Haldeman: “Well, if they will. But then we’re relying on more and more people all the time. That’s the problem. And ah, they’ll stop if we could, if we take this other step.”
Nixon: “All right. Fine.”
Juries—and, ultimately, the House Judiciary Committee that voted for the impeachment of Nixon—were undoubtedly struck by several matters in the above:
*Why didn’t Nixon, a lawyer of long training—one who had even argued before the Supreme Court—immediately tell Haldeman that the proposed scheme was illegal?
*Despite Nixon’s year-long claim that he did not know the extent of party operatives’ involvement with the break-in at Democratic National headquarters until March 1973, the tape shows conclusively that he had been briefed within a week.
*There was no single dramatic statement such as “I want you to stonewall it, to plead the Fifth Amendment, cover up or anything else” (from the March 22, 1973 taped conversation with aides). But even Nixon’s guttural, inarticulate “Um huh” was enough to constitute his awareness and approval of the scheme to throw the FBI off the scent by corralling the CIA in the scheme.
The June 23 tape—finally coughed up by Nixon when the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that he must do so—induced 11 GOP congressmen who had previously voted against impeachment on the House Judiciary Committee to abandon support of him. With even his last line of defense in the Senate crumbling, Nixon announced his resignation in August 1974, less than two years after recording one of the decisive landslides in Presidential electoral history.
Perhaps Trump was too busy mastering the intricacies of his father’s real estate company as its new president in 1974 to pay any attention to what was happening to the president of the whole country then. But somebody should have forced him at some point between then and now to learn what could befall him if he weren’t more careful in pursuing the Presidency:
*The dangers of way too many people ready to cut corners on his behalf. Count the names of all the people either involved directly with the Watergate break-in or knowledgeable about it. It was foolhardy to think that awareness of this and related operations could be confined only to the seven Watergate original defendants. In the end, 40 government officials were indicted or jailed in connection with the scandal. The surprise was not that James McCord and John Dean broke under the pressure of considerable jail time, but that more didn’t do so sooner. Several names have popped up, again and again, in the imbroglio over Russia: not just Trump, but also son-in-law Jared Kushner, former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, former campaign manager Paul Manafort, longtime political operative Roger Stone, and Jeff Sessions. Who knows who many more will surface?
*A Justice Department in the President’s pocket will contaminate those at the top without sidelining any scandal. Mitchell, Nixon’s law partner turned Attorney General, and Richard Kleindeinst, Mitchell’s successor, could not stem the investigation. In the end, they were brought down because of their attempt to placate Nixon through either false public testimony (Kleindeinst) or through conspiracy, perjury and obstruction of justice (Mitchell). Similarly, Jeff Sessions’ recommendation that Comey should be fired only helped trigger a special prosecutor—and Trump has whined so bitterly about this that Sessions has only felt compelled to offer to resign his Cabinet post after only a few months in office. A rather large price to pay for giving up a Senate seat he could have retained with little difficulty.
*A fundamental misreading of people. Nixon agreed with Haldeman that “ambitious” Mark Felt would be amenable to curtailing the FBI investigation. In fact, Felt would shortly become “Deep Throat,” Woodward and Bernstein’s crucial informant about the crimes of the Nixon administration. In thinking that Comey, who had complicated Hillary Clinton’s quest for the Presidency twice in the last five months of the campaign, might be amenable to doing his stated bidding, Trump made a similar disastrous misreading.
*There’s a reason why investigators “follow the money” in cases like this. “Deep Throat’s” shrewd if cryptic advice to Woodward applies to the Nixon-Haldeman tape. The attempt to obstruct justice—or, as the PR-conscious Haldeman preferred to think of it, “containment” of the scandal—began with money meant to ensure the silence of the Watergate burglars (in this case, Bernard Barker). As Robert Mueller’s investigation gets underway, he will surely examine Flynn’s lobbying on behalf of a Turkish businessman with ties to Russia and Manafort’s business dealings with a pro-Kremlin government in the Ukraine.
*An election influenced through an offstage foreign actor. If Nixon thought he could get away with impacting the electoral process, it is because he had already successfully done so. In the closing days of the 1968 election, the Johnson administration had secured a deal calling for the U.S. to cease bombing North Vietnam capital, Hanoi, in exchange for concessions from the Communist regime. Then, the South Vietnamese government of Nguyen Van Thieu inexplicably scuttled the agreement. For years, rumors circulated that, through Nixon aide Anna Chennault, Thieu was secretly assured he could get a better deal if the Republicans were elected that fall. It wasn’t until nearly 50 years later that Nixon biographer John Farrell discovered, in the Nixon Presidential Library, Haldeman’s handwritten notes from October 1968 indicating the candidate’s instructions to “Keep Anna Chennault working on” South Vietnam. By 1972, having engaged the “White House Plumbers” to clamp down on domestic dissenters such as Daniel Ellsberg, Nixon’s campaign employed a host of “dirty tricks” to undercut the most electable Democrat in the primaries, Edmund Muskie, and produce a nominee he could more readily depict as radical, George McGovern. The “Plumbers” were also the unit involved in the Watergate break-in. Did Trump also employ a foreign country to manipulate events to sway an American election—an “October surprise”? Those who say there is no documentary evidence of this should keep in mind that it took a half-century to confirm the Chennault-Thieu-Nixon cabal. There are far many more troubling signs already that Trump was engaged in what he so eloquently calls “the Russia thing.”
The discovery of the “smoking gun tape” doomed Nixon, but perhaps not for the reason that many pointed to in saying that “the cover-up was worse than the crime.” Oddly enough, the person who may have put his finger on the problem best was Nixon speechwriter (and future Presidential candidate in his own right) Patrick Buchanan.
“The problem is not Watergate or the cover-up," he told his boss’s daughter and most loyal defender, Julie Nixon Eisenhower, according to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s The Final Days. "It's that he hasn't been telling the truth to the American people. The tape makes it evident that he hasn't leveled with the country for probably 18 months. And the President can't lead a country he has deliberately misled for a year and a half."
Nixon—and, increasingly, Trump—“deliberately misled” the country in no small part through witness intimidation that centered around a taping system. Outside public hearings, Scott Armstrong, a lawyer with the Senate Watergate committee, discovered that Nixon’s lawyer was using extensive quotations from the President’s meetings alone with John Dean. Their curiosity provoked, Senate investigators learned from Presidential aide Alexander Butterfield that Nixon had a taping system in his office. The selective use of the quotations only led Congress to seek the tapes that would conclusively show the truth of his claims and Dean’s.
Trump’s bluff about taping his conversations only led Comey to decide he must protect himself by leaking, as soon as possible, his contemporaneous notes about their conversation—a revelation that only brought on the special prosecutor appointment that the President loathed.