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The Watergate Scandal

AQA, Edexcel, OCR, IB

Last updated 22 Mar 2021

Watergate is the original gate. You may have heard of other gates - Antennagate when the iPhone 4 was released or Plebgate from the UK. But Watergate is the mother of all gates. The one that started them all.

Nixon Leaves the White House

The scandal itself surrounds the break in to the offices of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate Office Complex, and the subsequent attempt to cover the entire affair up by the Nixon administration. The resulting inquiry led to a full blown constitutional crisis that involved the Supreme Court, threats of impeachment and the resignation of a President.

On the 17th June 1972 five men broke into the Democratic National Committee offices and were arrested shortly after. Whilst investigating this break in the FBI linked a slush fund used by Nixon’s re-election campaign to some money that the five men had on their person. Prior to this two Democratic employees had had their phones bugged and the break in was supposed to fix the listening devices in order for them to work properly.

In September 1972, a grand jury indicted all five men as well as two others were indicted for conspiracy, violation of federal wiretapping laws and burglary. As with many scandals it was money that led the FBI to the Nixon administration. $25,000 was found in the bank account belonging to one of the burglars. Through further investigation it was found that all Watergate burglars were in someway linked to Nixon’s re-election campaign. Though this evidence, ideas of a conspiracy began to circulate.

Later in September it was reported that John Mitchell, Nixon’s former Attorney General managed a GOP fund used to gather intelligence on the Democrats. Coming soon after in October, the FBI announced that the Watergate incident was a small part in a huge political espionage operation that was carried out by members of the Nixon re-election committee. Despite this that November, Nixon was re-elected in a huge landslide.

A lot of the reporting on the scandal came from anonymous sources. Newspaper reporters gained access to information that suggested knowledge of the break in and attempts to cover it up that reached all the way up to the top of the Justice Department, CIA, FBI and ultimately the White House. One of the anonymous sources was revealed to be the Deputy Director of the FBI, who leaked information about Watergate to several publications before his resignation. The Nixon administration retaliated through claims that the media were simply hostile and that if Nixon was more liberal then this wouldn’t be an issue.

The investigation did not end with the indictment of the five men who broke in, but was expanded to the involvement of the Nixon Administration. By this point it was clear that Nixon needed to get rid of those in his administration who were too close to him and who were involved in the scandal. Nixon’s solution was an attempt to cover up the cover up. During the trials it was revealed that the defendants had been made to stay silent. In an attempt to save the President, several staff spoke to the President and came away with the impression that they were being recorded.

The senior administration staff who were implicated, were indicted and sent to prison and Nixon appointed a new Attorney General who in turn appointed a new Watergate Special Prosecutor. Early in 1973, the Senate establishes the Senate Watergate Committee to investigate the cover up. It is before this committee that several former Nixon administration staff revealed that recording devices were operating in the White House.

Testimony revealing the existence of recording devices

In response to this, the Special Prosecutor subpoenaed the tapes from Nixon, but Nixon invoked executive privilege as President and ordered the subpoena to be dropped. Upon the refusal to have the subpoena dropped, Nixon attempts to have the Prosecutor removed, but he resigned instead.

A new prosecutor was appointed in the form of Leon Jaworski. At this point the Nixon administration released transcripts of the tapes that were heavily edited. In response to this a series of court cases ensued to try and get Nixon to release the tapes. This ended up in the Supreme Court in the case United States v Nixon. Nixon ended up having to release the tapes.

The 'Smoking Gun' Tape

Among the tapes was the ‘smoking gun’ which shows that Nixon wanted the CIA to interfere with the Watergate investigation on the grounds of national security. The release of the tapes was the beginning of the end for Nixon. Congress began to debate the articles of impeachment in the House and Nixon was informed that he wouldn’t pass the Senate hearing with no more than 15 Senators willing to vote to acquit Nixon. Nixon became the first President to resign and this became effective on August 9th 1974.

Nixon Resigns - Short Clip

One month after the resignation, President Ford, who had served as Nixon’s Vice President issued Nixon with a full pardon.

For those of you interesting in watching the full speech it can be viewed here

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