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Watergate Hotel (Getty Images)

Luke Nichter is Professor of History at Texas A&M University, Central Texas.

On this edition of the Nixon Now Podcast, we’re talking the Nixon Tapes with specific focus on President Nixon’s taped conversations about the Watergate controversy of June 1972. Our guest again is Luke Nichter, Professor of History at Texas A&M University, Central Texas. He’s the nation’s foremost expert on the Nixon White House Tapes, and founder of NixonTapes.org.

Audio Referenced

Conversation EOB 342-016. 20 June 1972. 11:26am-12:45pm. Haldeman, H.R.; Nixon, Richard.

Conversation Oval Office 741-002. 23 June 1972. 10:04am-11:39am. Haldeman, H.R.; Nixon, Richard.

Conversation Oval Office 886-008. 21 March 1973. 9:55am-11:55am. Bull, Stephen B; Ehrlichman, John D.; Dean, John W. III; Haldeman, H.R.; Nixon, Richard.

Transcript

Jonathan Movroydis: You are listening to the “Nixon Now” podcast, I’m Jonathan Movroydis. This is brought to you by the Nixon Foundation, we’re broadcasting from the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, California. You can follow us on Twitter at Nixon Foundation, or at nixonfoundation.org. Today, we’re talking the Nixon tapes again, with specific focus on President Nixon’s taped conversations about the Watergate controversy of June 1972. Our guest again is Luke Nichter, professor of history at Texas A&M University, central Texas. He’s the nation’s foremost expert on the Nixon White House tapes and founder of nixontapes.org. Luke, welcome back.

Luke Nichter: Thanks, Jonathan.

Jonathan Movroydis: As a primer, could you tell our audience what exactly does “Watergate” mean? Just give us a who, what, when, where, and why.

Luke Nichter: Well, “Watergate,” I mean, it means different things to different people, but over time, it’s really become this umbrella term. I mean, it’s a word that kind of symbolizes a government scandal. The suffix “-gate” seems to be added to just about any kind of presidential scandal ever since Watergate. But more than that, it’s also a building in Washington. It’s a hotel, it’s a residential complex, and for our purposes in 1972, the office complex portion of Watergate, this very large, sprawling conference on the…kind of near George Washington University on the banks of the Potomac.

For our purposes, it was the office building that was the location of the Democratic National Committee in June of 1972 where this break-in took place. So it describes both the break-in, but also many other sort of events, cascading events, during the investigation into Watergate have also become known as “Watergate,” under this overarching umbrella term.

Jonathan Movroydis: Was Nixon…? Can you give us some historical background on political espionage? Is this something that is unique to the Nixon era, or is this something that happened beforehand?

Luke Nichter: Well, I mean, this was a… I mean, talking to a historian, you could probably say it goes back to George Washington and Benjamin Franklin as kind of running our first espionage service through the postal system. But I think in more modern times…and a lot of these records are still being opened. I mean, when you talk about Watergate and political and domestic espionage, these are very sensitive subjects, and many, many records are still closed today. These are subjects that I am especially hesitant to say, “This is exactly what we know, and this is all we know,” when the fact is that almost every week… And I’ve submitted now, I think, over 2,000 Freedom of Information Act requests that deal primarily with this time period that I think…

In my view, it’s fair to say that the historical background, or Watergate, I think you can trace back easily to 1945: the fear of the Cold War, the fear of enemies in our midst, Red Scare communists, the McCarthy era, the fear of Russian support and involvement in our internal political system, Cuban involvement, Chinese involvement. I think as a result of this climate of fear in the immediate post-war and the beginning of the Cold War, the powers of the presidency, the powers of our intelligence community have been growing ever since. And let me make clear, I am not someone who necessarily believes in a deep state or a sort of government run amok or anything like that.

I think there are very legitimate reasons for these powers, and I do not question, certainly, legitimate secrecy. But I think the climate, the environment that produced Watergate, had been building for a very long time. And it’s certainly well documented, even if less attention is paid to it, that President Nixon’s predecessors also were involved in domestic espionage. And I mean, think about President Nixon. I mean, he arrived as a young man, as a young attorney, in the late 40s, he ran for the House, he was in the Senate, and he was eight years as Eisenhower’s vice-presidency.

I mean, his career in Washington sort of parallels the growth of these powers, of the…what was later called the imperial presidency, and of the intelligence community. And so, these things had been occurring long before he came in the White House and before the Watergate break-in.

Jonathan Movroydis: So the break-in happens on June 17th, 1972. Three days later, President Nixon and his chief of staff have their first recorded conversation about the break-in. An earlier portion of this conversation is the so-called 18 ½-minute gap. But this is June 20th, 1972.

Richard Nixon: Back in connection with wiretapping. I think it’s very, very serious.

H.R. Haldeman: Right.

Richard Nixon: There’s no question there’s a double standard here. Haldeman: No.

Richard Nixon: With regard to [unclear] to do it —

H.R. Haldeman: Yes.

Richard Nixon — [unclear] prior authorizations to have it done. They’re all doing it! That’s a standard thing. Why the Christ do we have to hire people to sweep out room?

H.R.Haldeman: We know they’re —

Richard Nixon: Yeah.

H.R. Haldeman: — bugged.

Richard Nixon: We have bugged in the past.

H.R. Haldeman: Right

Jonathan Movroydis: Now, Nixon is heard talking about prior authorizations and double standards. What exactly does he mean?

Luke Nichter: Well, you know, this is one of these conversations where we can consume the words and we can study them and talk about them. But I mean, unless you know what Nixon knows or how he knows them, we’re never going to have a full understanding. And this is the problem of these tapes, that these tapes are wonderful and they illuminate things that don’t appear elsewhere. They clarify history, but they also distort our attempts to clarify history, because we don’t know what they know. We don’t know if they have some memo in front of them they’re talking about. Sometimes, you can hear the rustling of paper or something like that, but… So these are audio recordings, we don’t have a full view.

My interpretation of this conversation is, it could mean a couple different things. It might be talking about Watergate. Haldeman’s notes taken during the conversation this period suggest that the first conversation that Nixon and Haldeman had about Watergate was on the way back to Washington from Florida, where they were over that weekend. But there’s no record of what they talked about, but this is the first taped recording in the White House. What’s also interesting is that the Supreme Court, the Monday after Watergate, just issued a very significant ruling in what’s been called in shorthand the Keith case, or “U.S. v. U.S. District Court” is the name if the case.

And in this, the traditional policy for wiretapping was that the Attorney-General or the Attorney-General’s designate could authorize the FBI to place the tap. And the Supreme Court case, the Keith case, changed the rule by saying that a judicial order, a signed judge’s order, was also needed. And so, the content fits, whether they’re talking about Watergate or whether they’re talking about the Supreme Court case. But regardless of what they’re talking about…and I’m not frankly sure, 100%, what they’re talking about is how it’s been done in the past, how wiretapping’s been done and how that’s about to change.

The other thing that’s interesting about this conversation, I think, is…as you pointed out earlier in this same conversation, is the 18 ½-minute gap, these 18 ½ minutes of tape that have been erased or are missing. And Nixon was pretty severely criticized for this and for those, which helped to feed this idea of a cover-up or destroying evidence. What’s fascinating about this segment of transcript that you read is, everyone pays attention to the gap, the erasure. And I always think, “Why?” It’s an erasure, you’re not going to hear anything. There’ve been numerous attempts to recover that deleted audio including, up to a few years ago, the National Archives uses a kind of CSI technique to…and used the intelligence agencies and other forensic audio experts to try to recover it.

And they actually found out it’s not an 18 ½-minute gap. It’s up to seven or eight or nine different erasures done at different times on different machines, because they each leave kind of a different tone or a stamp on the recording. And so, everybody focuses on listening to the erasure. Or just before the erasure, just after the erasure, is a, “What were they talking about,” just before it happened, or just out of the deleted period. And no one looks at the rest of the conversation, which is something like a 75-minute or a 90-minute conversation. It’s a fairly long conversation that touches on a lot of subjects.

And so, something like 40 minutes later in the conversation after the erasure, here you have Nixon saying, “Back in connection with wiretapping,” which to me, suggests he’s returning to his subject discussed previously. Well, if you look at the available audio…and of course, we don’t have the erased portion, there is…I can tell you, there is nothing else in the recording about wiretapping. So either, this is…he’s referring to a conversation that they had previously, or they’re referring to the content that was deleted during the erasure. And all kinds of people, and even conspiracy theorists, have conjectured about what might have been erased, what was so important.

You know, if the tapes were so damaging in part to Nixon’s legacy during the Watergate investigation, and those weren’t erased, then what was erased? What was even more damaging, potentially? So I think that’s interesting to get some clues in terms of what they might have been talking about earlier which, to me, the whole tenor of the conversation suggests there’s been a long history of government wiretapping.

Jonathan Movroydis: Lets listen to the second tape, three days later on June 23rd, 1972. This was later deemed as the smoking…the so-called “smoking gun” tape. Let’s listen to the audio.

Richard Nixon: When you get in these people when you…get these people in, say: “Look, the problem is that this will open the whole, the whole Bay of Pigs thing, and the President just feels that” ah, without going into the details… don’t, don’t lie to them to the extent to say there is no involvement, but just say this is sort of a comedy of errors, bizarre, without getting into it, “the President believes that it is going to open the whole Bay of Pigs thing up again. And, ah because these people are plugging for, for keeps and that they should call the FBI in and say that we wish for the country, don’t go any further into this case”, period!

H.R. Haldeman: OK

Richard Nixon: That’s the way to put it, do it straight (Unintelligible)

H.R. Haldeman: Get more done for our cause by the opposition than by us at this point.

Richard Nixon: You think so?

H.R. Haldeman: I think so, yeah.

Jonathan Movroydis: This is President Nixon and his Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman. Why is this called the smoking gun tape?

Luke Nichter: Well, it’s called the smoking gun tape because…and this is a term that we’ve come to use in subsequent political scandals because, of the tapes that were subpoenaed and turned over to investigators later, it was considered the one that showed at a very early stage…we’re talking six days after the break-in, that the president was aware of Watergate and, prosecutors believed, evidence that he was orchestrating the cover-up by way of obstruction of justice and specifically, asking for…

I mean, there’s a couple things going on. I mean, he’s basically…what investigators believed is that Nixon was saying the FBI shouldn’t be looking into this. And if Nixon has to use the CIA or another branch of government to tell the FBI, another branch of government, to stay out of this, they ought to do it. “And if not, I’m going to unleash this whole Bay of Pigs thing,” which is kind of… I mean, there’s quite a lot of background on this. And it’s one of these…Nixon sometimes speaks in almost metaphors, and it’s hard to tell exactly what he’s saying. But I think investigators concluded this was kind of a very early point when he was aware of and taking part in a cover-up.

Jonathan Movroydis: Is this followed through? This idea of getting the CIA to tell the FBI to call off an investigation, is this followed through upon?

Luke Nichter: Well, this is where you get into the interesting thing, because…and obviously, I’m not an attorney, I’m a historian. And so, you’ve got different rules of evidence, and you’ve got different burdens of proof for civil cases and criminal cases, and it starts to get complicated. You know, my own take as a sort of novice, sort of legal historian, if you want to use that term for a moment, is that a much lower standard for a civil case might be that he should have known better, or a preponderance of the evidence. And I think there’s a case to be made there. I mean, fight it out in court. I mean, I’m not the judge. In terms of criminal standard beyond the shadow of a doubt, the pale of a doubt, I mean, it’s really an overwhelming amount of evidence.

I’m not sure, even if you read this…I mean, obviously, a judge and jury will decide on their own. But my take on that, or…well, forget my take, Nixon’s take. Nixon’s take, as an attorney who was a big enough attorney to be a partner in a major firm and to argue a case before the Supreme Court, is that to have a criminal…to find criminal motive, you have to prove that someone had a corrupt motive. And Nixon always maintained till the end of his life that he never had a corrupt motive, no matter what these tapes say. Now, I’m not sure how you prove someone has a corrupt motive, unless somebody can get inside their mind, but that was Nixon’s defense. And at least to today, no one has proof he has a corrupt motive, so I’m not sure how you would do that.

But getting back to the other part of your question, the other challenge I have with this conversation besides, what does this really show, is, what’s Nixon really saying and ordering? I recall…Ray Price told me a number of years ago that, “Those of us around Nixon…” You know, he vented a lot. And I think Kennedy also vents on his tapes, and Johnson vents on his tapes. And so, those around the president, Price told me, have to have the ability of knowing how to filter what the president says.

So when he says something, when do you implement it literally and fully? Or when do you kind of interpret what he wants you to do, and when do you not do anything because he’s blowing off some steam, and actually, he doesn’t want you to do these things, any more than he wants to firebomb Brookings? Which is another tape people have interpreted to suggest he literally wanted to firebomb Brookings, where one of his close former staff members, Steve Hess, was a fellow. And did Nixon literally expect to read the next morning in the “Washington Post” of the casualty figures and the property damage of firebombing Brookings? I think this is absurd to suggest that.

And you hear other tapes, where…I recall one from later this year after the ’72 election. I read that the night of the election, they’re taping late into the night, something like 3:15 in the morning. And Nixon is not normally a night owl. Normally, he’s more early to bed, early to rise, unless he’s not sleeping well, according to tapes. And in one, that night, Haldeman’s running through a number of things with him, and they have this standard telegram to the defeated opponent. So there’s the draft telegram to Senator McGovern saying something along the lines of, “You ran a very honorable race, and we look forward to working with you for the good of the country for the next four years.” Something along those lines.

And in the heat of the moment, Nixon says, “Forget it. Don’t even send it.” And then, the next day, he…I think the next day or the day after, also on the tapes, he asks Haldeman whether or not he sent the telegram. And Nixon says…or, “What did you ever do with the telegram?” And Haldeman says, “I sent it.” And Nixon says, “Just as well. Just as well.” So Haldeman has this ability, this filter, as Ray Price said, and not everybody did. I’m not sure that John Dean ever had it, I’m not sure Chuck Colson had it, but those who spent a lot of time with Nixon needed to have that. You had to know how to interpret what he was saying. So here’s another layer of complexity. Is Nixon literally ordering the CIA to stop the break-in? I don’t know. Maybe he is, maybe he’s not.

And is he literally…? Is he expecting Haldeman to literally and fully comply with this? I don’t know that either. So this is why I have a hard time. As a historian, when I have a tape on any subject, and I say, “Wow, this tape’s really great,” the first thing I do is to kind of challenge it. I try to look for other evidence. If somebody’s still alive, I might ask them about it. I might dig into the national archives in the Nixon Library to find corroborating evidence. Does that evidence point me in the same direction, does it turn me around and send me somewhere else? And so, I think that’s the hard thing about using a single source, like, a single snippet from a single conversation from a tape, is, I’m not sure you can take it at face value. You really have to challenge yourself.

So I think this tape shows us there’s a continuum here of possibilities where Nixon meant it completely and literally. And on the other side, he didn’t at all. And I think, most of the time with history and in my own work, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle. I think the prosecutors took this fairly literally at face value. And I think that’s what allowed them to conclude obstruction of justice, which became, really, the central item of the articles of impeachment which would have proceeded had he not resigned.

Jonathan Movroydis: The break-in happens in June 1972, as do these conversations. But the president…this comes on the heels of the president going to China, the president going to Russia, he’s trying to wind down the Vietnam War, and then, he wins a landslide election in December 1972. So this happens in the background of all the busy time of this election year, and a year of major diplomatic achievements. But what exactly is going on with Watergate? Is there an investigation ensuing between June of 1972 and throughout the rest of the year?

Luke Nichter: Well, in 1972, Watergate is basically a non-story. The only newspaper looking into it from the very beginning was the “Washington Post.” And it was…and even they sent two of their junior-most people, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, to look into it. And it was primarily an inside-the-beltway story for sort of political aficionados and for people who were critics of Nixon. And on the tapes at least, it just pops up periodically. So it pops up here with a couple of these quotes you already played or read, and then it doesn’t really pop up much until September, mid-September. There’s really not an investigation, and there’s…the burglars themselves went to jail, and their trial…I mean, their case was proceeding.

It will begin to go to trial late in ’72 after the election, and the behearing and witnesses that go through part of January, the third week of January in ’73. But it’s really not a story. I mean, there’s no congressional inquiry, there’s no special prosecutor. And subsequently, I don’t…and this is, I think, probably what hurts Nixon, is, I don’t think he really pays a lot of attention to it. It doesn’t seem very serious. He intentionally loads up this year with a massive amount of commitments and activities: of the visit to China, the visit to Moscow, a number of other summits, trying to wind down Vietnam, and a number of other initiatives, where he does this intentionally to have a high degree of activity.

He feels that rather than campaigning, that that is the best way to campaign, is to do presidential things to look presidential. And so, he doesn’t pay a lot of attention to Watergate. And one could make an argument, and I say so in one of my books, that perhaps…and I can never get into his mind, so I don’t know whether this is even feasible. But…and it’s all what-if history, anyway, so it’s water over the dam. But it seems to me that the best thing he could have done during the…sometime in the summer of ’72, while the first grand jury is being empaneled and witness statements are being taken, is, he should have put everybody in one room: Magruder, Dean, Mitchell, Haldeman, Ehrlichman, and kind of said, “Lock the door and don’t come out till you guys are on the same page and I know what’s going on.”

I think because Nixon was so distracted by so many other important things, by things that were more important in ’72, he learns about it…what really happened only over time, only over bits and pieces, and only as the story starts to evolve by different people. And so, I don’t think at an early point in time, he really… And I mean, attorneys talk about chain of custody of evidence and the facts. I think by the time that Nixon had the facts, the chain of custody was so broken and the facts were so tampered with, I don’t think he had any chance to recover, no matter what his options were.

So I think that fundamentally was what was going on in ’72, is, he had so many things going on and effectively a runaway re-election campaign, that he only starts to bring his focus to Watergate in ’73. Really, it’s a ’72 event, but it’s really a ’73 story, as far as when it finally catches the nation’s attention.

Jonathan Movroydis: Let’s listen the next tape in 1973, March 21st. This is an important tape because it covers the background of the break-in and the alleged cover-up. This is President Nixon with his White House counsel, John Dean.

John Dean: …let me give you my overall first.

Richard Nixon: In other words, you, your judgment as to where it stands, and where we go now—

John Dean: I think, I think that, uh, there’s no doubt about the seriousness of the problem we’re, we’ve got. We have a cancer–within, close to the Presidency, that’s growing. It’s growing daily. It’s compounding, it grows geometrically now because it compounds itself. Uh, that’ll be clear as I explain you know, some of the details, uh, of why it is, and it basically is because (1) we’re being blackmailed; (2) uh, people are going to start perjuring themself very quickly that have not had to perjure themselves to protect other people and the like. And that is just–and there is no assurance–

Jonathan Movroydis: That was White House counsel John Dean talking to President Nixon. You had mentioned previously that Nixon sort of got the facts about Watergate in bits and pieces. Was this…? Nixon’s conversation with Dean, was this Nixon’s attempt to get all the facts about the case?

Luke Nichter: Well, this is the most comprehensive conversation on the tapes about Watergate to date. And this is more than nine months after the break-in. This is March 21st, 1973, and of course, the break-in was June 17, 1972. So nine months later, at least on the tapes…and of course, there are parts of Nixon’s days and weeks and months and years that were not taped. So it’s possible that conversations took place somewhere else, although if they did, Nixon probably would have referred to them. He does refer to conversations on the tapes that he had elsewhere. But this is the first real comprehensive conversation about Watergate more than nine months later, which is, to me, just absolutely shocking.

Jonathan Movroydis: How did this conversation come about?

Luke Nichter: Well, as far as I know, mid-March ’73 is really when things start to shift. So one of the burglars, James McCord, who had been a CIA director of security, he retired, ran his own security company and did some security work for Nixon’s Committee of Re-election of President. He is patiently kind of sitting in jail, and up to that point, the Watergate investigation is almost nine months later. It really hasn’t gone beyond the circle of burglars. I think the prosecutors had hoped they would have been able to link to other people, link to higher-ups, link to the White House. And it just…it didn’t go anywhere. And McCord wrote the judge, Judge Sirica, John Sirica, a letter. And in the letter, Sirica refers to the fact that…you know, if you look here or you look there, that you will find that higher-ups are involved.

And so, it really injected a new energy into the investigation, it caused Sirica…Sirica’s case, U.S. v. Liddy, was pretty much winding down, the convictions had been handed out. But what McCord’s letter did was ultimately help to fuel what became the “Ervin Committee” to really broaden the Watergate investigation into political officials, and not just campaign officials and specifically those who were involved in the arrest. So once that happens, I think Nixon and those around him know that he needed to get the facts, and Nixon starts to ask for a kind of full report on Watergate. And the primary person in charge of handling Watergate was John Dean. And this isn’t a statement meant to be critical of Dean.

And Dean himself, in his memoir, refers to his own role as the Watergate…as the desk officer of Watergate. This was his day-to-day duty. This fell in his portfolio of duties, because it was…his title was Counsel to the President. And this was a legal challenge to the president, so this kind of fell in his backyard. So his job was to handle, among his other duties, day-to-day liaison and problems and troubleshooting related to Watergate. So Dean was supposed to go to Camp David and write a full written report of, what can the president need to say about…what does the president need to know about Watergate, if he’s asked, what can he say about Watergate, what did he…to coin a phrase from this period, what did he know and when did he know it?

Dean ultimately decides that he’s not able to produce this report, or doesn’t want to produce this report. And so, in this conversation is, really, his full laying out to the president that…not based on new facts. I mean, he’s talking about things that happened a year before but that he’s revealing to Nixon for the first time, that, “This thing’s a lot worse than you realize.”

Jonathan Movroydis: What does he mean when he says, “There’s a cancer on the presidency,” and that it’s growing geometrically?

Luke Nichter: Well, that’s the phrase that’s memorable. You know, this is the “cancer on the presidency” conversation of March 21st. I think what he means is that, by saying it’s a cancer, that it’s not going to go away on its own, that something has to be done, even drastic, to remove it. And by saying it’s growing geometrically, it’s growing in multiple directions all the same time. And I think Dean is pressing Nixon to do something fairly quickly, to do something involving himself…I mean, to become directly involved in this which, to me, is somewhat odd. I mean, I have thankfully in my life not had the occasion to have a lot of attorneys.

Now, maybe the case here is that because Nixon is an attorney, Dean feels comfortable discussing all this with him. But in my…I mean, I would expect my own attorney to sort of deal with this and not get me involved, because by getting Nixon involved, it potentially jeopardizes your client. I mean, Nixon, at this point, is the client. So again, I’m not an attorney, and as more records become available about the subject, we’re still learning more. But this is Dean now getting Nixon very directly involved in this about a lot of things that it’s clear to me… You know, you can listen to a 30-second soundbite. There are many, many hours of conversations on this subject. It’s clear to me even on March 21st, there’s a lot that Nixon doesn’t know and is learning for the first time. And just to me, that is absolutely shocking.

Jonathan Movroydis: Let’s listen to another excerpt from the same conversation.

Richard Nixon: January of ’72?

John Dean: January of ’72. (Background noises) Like, “You come over to Mitchell’s office and sit in on a meeting where Liddy is going to lay his plan out.” I said, “Well, I don’t really know as I’m the man, but if you want me there I’ll be happy to.” (Clears throat) So, I came over and Liddy laid out a million dollar plan that was the most incredible thing I have ever laid my eyes on. All in codes, and involved black bag operations, kidnapping, providing prostitutes, uh, to weaken the opposition, bugging, uh, mugging teams. It was just an incredible thing (Clears throat)

Richard Nixon: But, uh…

John Dean: And–

Richard Nixon: …that was, that was not, uh…

John Dean: No.

Richard Nixon: …discussed with…

John Dean: No.

Richard Nixon: …other persons. Dean: No, not at all. And– Nixon: (Unintelligible)

John Dean: Uh, Mitchell, Mitchell just virtually sat there puffing and laughing. I could tell ’cause after he–after Liddy left the office I said, “That’s the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen.” He said, ” I agree.” And so then he was told to go back to the draw-ing boards and come up with something realistic. So there was a second meeting. Uh, they asked me to come over to that. I came into the tail end of the meeting. I wasn’t there for the first part. I don’t know how long the meeting lasted. Uh, at this point, they were discussing again bugging, kidnapping and the like. And at this point I said, right in front of everybody, very clearly, I said, “These are not the sort of things (1) that are ever to be discussed in the office of the Attorney General of the United States”– where he still was–“and I am personally incensed.” I was trying to get Mitchell off the hook, uh, ’cause–

Richard Nixon: I know.

John Dean: He’s a, he’s a nice person, doesn’t like to say no under–when people he’s going to have to work with.

Richard Nixon: That’s right.

Jonathan Movroydis: That was White House counsel John Dean talking to President Nixon. You had mentioned previously that Nixon sort of got the facts about Watergate in bits and pieces. Was this…? Nixon’s conversation with Dean, was this Nixon’s attempt to get all the facts about the case?

Luke Nichter: Well, this is the most comprehensive conversation on the tapes about Watergate to date. And this is more than nine months after the break-in. This is March 21st, 1973, and of course, the break-in was June 17, 1972. So nine months later, at least on the tapes…and of course, there are parts of Nixon’s days and weeks and months and years that were not taped. So it’s possible that conversations took place somewhere else, although if they did, Nixon probably would have referred to them. He does refer to conversations on the tapes that he had elsewhere. But this is the first real comprehensive conversation about Watergate more than nine months later, which is, to me, just absolutely shocking.

Jonathan Movroydis: How did this conversation come about?

Luke Nichter: Well, as far as I know, mid-March ’73 is really when things start to shift. So one of the burglars, James McCord, who had been a CIA director of security, he retired, ran his own security company and did some security work for Nixon’s Committee of Re-election of President. He is patiently kind of sitting in jail, and up to that point, the Watergate investigation is almost nine months later. It really hasn’t gone beyond the circle of burglars. I think the prosecutors had hoped they would have been able to link to other people, link to higher-ups, link to the White House. And it just…it didn’t go anywhere. And McCord wrote the judge, Judge Sirica, John Sirica, a letter. And in the letter, Sirica refers to the fact that…you know, if you look here or you look there, that you will find that higher-ups are involved.

And so, it really injected a new energy into the investigation, it caused Sirica…Sirica’s case, U.S. v. Liddy, was pretty much winding down, the convictions had been handed out. But what McCord’s letter did was ultimately help to fuel what became the “Ervin Committee” to really broaden the Watergate investigation into political officials, and not just campaign officials and specifically those who were involved in the arrest. So once that happens, I think Nixon and those around him know that he needed to get the facts, and Nixon starts to ask for a kind of full report on Watergate. And the primary person in charge of handling Watergate was John Dean. And this isn’t a statement meant to be critical of Dean.

And Dean himself, in his memoir, refers to his own role as the Watergate…as the desk officer of Watergate. This was his day-to-day duty. This fell in his portfolio of duties, because it was…his title was Counsel to the President. And this was a legal challenge to the president, so this kind of fell in his backyard. So his job was to handle, among his other duties, day-to-day liaison and problems and troubleshooting related to Watergate. So Dean was supposed to go to Camp David and write a full written report of, what can the president need to say about…what does the president need to know about Watergate, if he’s asked, what can he say about Watergate, what did he…to coin a phrase from this period, what did he know and when did he know it?

Dean ultimately decides that he’s not able to produce this report, or doesn’t want to produce this report. And so, in this conversation is, really, his full laying out to the president that…not based on new facts. I mean, he’s talking about things that happened a year before but that he’s revealing to Nixon for the first time, that, “This thing’s a lot worse than you realize.”

Jonathan Movroydis: What does he mean when he says, “There’s a cancer on the presidency,” and that it’s growing geometrically?

Luke Nichter: Well, that’s the phrase that’s memorable. You know, this is the “cancer on the presidency” conversation of March 21st. I think what he means is that, by saying it’s a cancer, that it’s not going to go away on its own, that something has to be done, even drastic, to remove it. And by saying it’s growing geometrically, it’s growing in multiple directions all the same time. And I think Dean is pressing Nixon to do something fairly quickly, to do something involving himself…I mean, to become directly involved in this which, to me, is somewhat odd. I mean, I have thankfully in my life not had the occasion to have a lot of attorneys.

Now, maybe the case here is that because Nixon is an attorney, Dean feels comfortable discussing all this with him. But in my…I mean, I would expect my own attorney to sort of deal with this and not get me involved, because by getting Nixon involved, it potentially jeopardizes your client. I mean, Nixon, at this point, is the client. So again, I’m not an attorney, and as more records become available about the subject, we’re still learning more. But this is Dean now getting Nixon very directly involved in this about a lot of things that it’s clear to me… You know, you can listen to a 30-second soundbite. There are many, many hours of conversations on this subject. It’s clear to me even on March 21st, there’s a lot that Nixon doesn’t know and is learning for the first time. And just to me, that is absolutely shocking.

Jonathan Movroydis: Let’s listen to another excerpt from the same conversation.

John Dean: Uh, Liddy said, said that, you know — they all got counsel instantly and said that, you know’ “she’ll, we’ll ride this thing out.” All right, then they started waking demands; We’ve got to have attorneys’ fees. Uh, we don’t have any money ourselves, and if-you are asking us to take this through the election.” All right, so arrangements were made through Mitchell, uh, initiating it, in discussions that–I was present-that these guys had to be taken care of. Their attorneys’ fees had to be done. Kalmbach alas brought in. Uh, Kalmbach raised some cash. Uh, they were, uh, you know–

Richard Nixon: They put that under the cover of a Cuban Committee or (unintelligible).

John Dean: Yeah, they, they had a Cuban Committee and they had–some of it was given to Hunt’s lawyer, who in turn passed it out. This, you know, when Hunt’s wife was flying to Chicago with ten thousand, she was actually, I understand after the fact now, was going to pass that money to, uh, one of the Cubans, to meet him in Chicago and pass it to somebody there.

Richard Nixon: Why didn’t she (unintelligible) maybe–well, whether it’s maybe too late to-do anything about it, but I would certainly keep that, (laughs) that cover for whatever it’s worth.

John Dean: I’ll…

Richard Nixon: Keep the Committee.

John Dean: Af-, after, well, that, that; that’s the most troublesome post-thing, uh, because (1) Bob is involved in that; John is involved in that; I’m involved in that; Mitchell is involved in that. And that’s an obstruction of justice.

Richard Nixon: In other words the fact that uh, that you’re you’re, you’re taking care Of the witnesses.

John Dean: That’s right, uh–

Richard Nixon: How was Bob involved?

John Dean: Well, th-, they ran out of money over there. Bob had three hundred and fifty thousand dollars in a safe over here that was really set aside for polling purposes. ills and there was no other source of money, so they came over here and said, “You all’ve got to give us some money.’

Richard Nixon: Right.

John Dean: I had to go to Bob and say, “Bob, you know, you’ve got to have some–they need some money over there.” He said “What for?” And so I had to tell him what it was for ’cause he wasn’t about to just send money over there willy- nilly. And, uh, Jolly was involved in those discussions, and we decided, you know, that, you know, that there was no price too high to pay to let this thing blow up in front of the election.

Richard Nixon: I think you – should handle that one pretty fast. Dean: Oh, I think–

Richard Nixon: That issue, I mean.

John Dean: I think we can.

Richard Nixon: So that the three-fifty went back ov-, over here

John Dean: That’s alright. I think we can too.

Richard Nixon: Who else is?

John Dean: But, now, here, here’s what’s happening right now.

Richard Nixon: Yeah.

John Dean: What sort of brings matters to the–this is (1) this-is going to be continual blackmail operation by Hunt and Liddy and the Cubans. No doubt about it

Jonathan Movroydis: Luke, what are Dean and Nixon talking about, in terms of paying attorneys’ fees to Hunt and the other burglars, these so-called Cubans?

Luke Nichter: Well, this is an interesting question. So the burglars. So you’ve got those who were arrested that night of…early morning of June 17th at the DNC offices. So you’ve got the Cubans, the break-in team, and then later, we’ve got McCord, then you’ve also got Hunt and Liddy. Hunt and Liddy were not at the…they were not arrested on-site. But those who were arrested on-site at the DNC, at the Watergate, were ultimately traced to Hunt and Liddy, who were considered to be sort of organizers or managers of those who conducted the break-in.

So imagine… so this is ’73 now, this conversation, March 21. They’ve been out of work for a long time. And see, they were arrested, they were in jail, they awaited trial, they presumably sent for the grand jury, the trial played out in early ’73 and they were convicted. That’s expensive. It’s expensive because of lost wages, it’s expensive because of legal fees that are accumulating. And so…and secondly…I’ll make another point that traditionally, in terms of covert operations, legitimate intelligence covert conversations… And again, we can have a debate or discussion over whether this break-in was a legitimate covert intelligence operation or not.

The tradition is, if you’re undercover and caught in the intelligence community… And all these Cubans…I mean, everyone involved directly in the break-in, everyone had intelligence experience, so this would have been well known. If you were caught in a mission, it is to be expected that you’ll be disavowed by your agency. You know, “Nope, you’re not our employee. We don’t know anything about him.” But typically, your humanitarian expenses will be paid for. So your spouse might receive ongoing support payments, your legal bills might be paid, the equivalent of your paycheck or more might still flow to your family.

But publicly, “No, we had nothing to do with you. So you are on your own,” in order to protect the agency, to protect the United States, in the case of a…this was a foreign operation, a very sensitive one. And so, what they’re talking about is the fact that these guys who were part of the break-in have expenses, legitimate expenses. And so, in the course of these conversations, Nixon is… I think it’s fair to say this…again, I can’t get into his mind, that due to these traditions for those who work in these fields, that it is fair to assume that the Nixon Committee to Re-Elect the President in ’73, so there’s no…the committee is over. And thus, the White House and thus Nixon himself, had some kind of ongoing responsibility or liability in terms of the humanitarian expenses of these people who came from fields where that’s how you’re supposed to be treated. So that’s a way that I personally read this content.

Jonathan Movroydis: Just for background, who is Howard Hunt?

Luke Nichter: Well, so, Howard Hunt had also been a CIA official, going back to, I think, the late 40s or early 50s, and had recently retired prior to Watergate, and had been involved in Bay of Pigs and other sensitive intelligence operations in the previous decade. And so, he was, along with Liddy, kind of a manager of this break-in, but ultimately got ensnared in it themselves.

Jonathan Movroydis: Why does John Dean feel that they White House is going to be…the senior officials within the White House are being blackmailed?

Luke Nichter: Well, that’s a whole other matter. I mean, humanitarian expenses and blackmail, I think, are different things, not necessarily completely different things, but I think the concern is this. Imagine being in the White House, you don’t know the limits of your liability. I mean, how long are these guys going to be in jail? They might need a certain amount of money right now. Well, does that cover it, or does your liability continue indefinitely? How is this to be paid, how often is it to be paid?

And so, the issue is, if somebody says, “I need this amount of money for my legitimate humanitarian expenses,” and you say, “Fine, we’ll pay that.” And then, they come back to you a week later and say, “Now, I need a lot more,” well, I mean, you’re not really in a position to scrutinize what they need and don’t need. And so, the concern is that those you’re paying, once you start paying them, even for legitimate humanitarian expenses, should they wish to take advantage of you, could ask for an almost unlimited amount. And unless you give in to their demands, what other option do you have?

Jonathan Movroydis: What sort of information that they might have that they could blackmail senior officials with?

Luke Nichter: Well, to this date, I think most of the Cubans are still alive. And I think, for the most part, they don’t talk. They really haven’t done interviews, they haven’t written very much. I mean, these are people who are from the intelligence world. And so, I think it’s fair to say they treated this break-in as though it were a totally legitimate break-in authorized for national security or for whatever other reason, as other parts of their career as either employees or contractors for the CIA. So I think the fear is, for anybody, that someone like that goes on the witness stand and tells all that they know. And here, it’s difficult being Nixon in these conversations, because obviously by March 21st of ’73, Watergate is enough of a concern that pretending not…

I mean, telling your counsel, “I just don’t really want to know,” is not really an option anymore, because the current legal strategy’s not really working. At the same time, the more you know, the more you’re going to get drawn in and ultimately, potentially imperiled by the details. And so, he’s kind of in a tough situation, and that’s a little like calling one of these Cubans [inaudible 00:54:03] break-in. I mean, they’re tracking nine months later, and they… Other than to maybe perhaps the grand jury, and those records are still not available today, they haven’t spoken, they haven’t done a press interview. I mean, McCord wrote his letter, and I think the thought of the prosecutors was, that would then kind of break the dam and others might talk. But they really didn’t.

And so, whether you consider Watergate to be sort of…they thought it to be sort of a legitimate intelligence operation or just sort of a political caper, the fact is that those involved in it directly had done many other things for the United States and the intelligence community. So the last thing you want is to put someone like that up on the stand and say, “Well, you’re free to talk about whatever you want,” and might get into a host of things that had nothing to do with Watergate that could also be very damaging. So I think the goal was for them not to talk at all. But the problem here is, what is the actual liability? And as this thing gets more and more expensive, it’s impossible. I mean, this is just simply a road that you cannot go down, because it’s dangerous.

Jonathan Movroydis: Why is Dean talking about obstruction of justice?

Luke Nichter: Well, this is interesting. And I know around this time, Dean is, himself, starting to lawyer up and think about his own defense. And it’s coincidental that the primary attorney he hires, Charles Shaffer, is a major Democratic operative in Washington. So I wonder, even as I hear these conversations myself, how much of what Dean is already saying is cast in that light where he’s been advised what to say he’s done and not to do, and frame his involvement in a certain way. So there’s still a lot that we don’t know, because I sometimes say, after Watergate happens…so the late 70s to, say, the 80s, almost everybody involved wrote a memoir. Some wrote more than one. And I’m talking both the critics of Nixon and the defenders of Nixon.

And for those involved in Watergate, I’m not sure that any of these memoirs are totally reliable, because people were desperate, naturally so. They were greatly in debt from legal fees and years of work, and it was difficult to find another job right away, if you were a high-profile figure associated with Watergate. I sometimes say that if there’s any truth in Watergate…and at least so far, I haven’t really found it, it’s going to be in the grand jury records. If there’s one place where anything came out about the truth, it’s there, because in the grand jury process…the grand jury process is not like a civil or criminal case, where if you’re called to testify, you can plead the fifth. And by pleading the fifth, you are retaining your Fifth Amendment rights not to self-incriminate yourself through your own testimony.

Well, in a grand jury process, there is no Fifth Amendment. It’s not valid, you can’t take the fifth. If you refuse to co-operate with a grand jury, then you’re held in contempt of court and you go to jail, and who knows what other penalties. So in exchange for your testimony to the grand jury, which you have no choice but to give, the agreement is that it will always remain private, sealed, not be opened, your identity will be protected. And so, I think in light of those circumstances, if there’s truth in Watergate, it’ll be in the grand jury records, which exist and for the most part, have never been opened today.

And I have been an advocate for opening these, which would be exceptional, I admit. But most of these people now are deceased, and it’s been almost 50 years later. As important as Watergate is, whether reasonable people can debate and have different interpretation of tapes and of facts, one fact is clear, that it led to the resignation for the first time of a sitting president. So this is a significant body of events that we’re talking about here. Is that not a significant enough justification to suggest historic interest and public interest in releasing these records? So these conversations with Dean, I have a problem with, because I feel like there’s great information asymmetry between the listener and between the participants in the conversation.

Dean has a motive, he also has a right to defend himself. But his position vis-à-vis Nixon is evolving this week. He’s no longer counsel to the president. He’s also counsel to himself and advising himself and positioning himself to ultimately provide a defense of his previous actions. So all of this is in my mind, while we’re listening to these conversations, which I think is the way that you have to approach them, because I think there are many layers and complexities to these conversations.

Jonathan Movroydis: Within the next 60 days, you have the whole cascade of events of, John Dean is fired, Haldeman and Ehrlichman resign, the special prosecutor is appointed, and the Senate Watergate committee, the Ervin Committee, begins its inquiries, its investigation. Why is Dean fired, and could you tell us a little bit about…? Could you summarize this turn of events that I just talked about?

Luke Nichter: Sure. Well, the tapes suggest that sometime around the middle of April, the third week of April, I think, Nixon has to do something. He has to make a public decision, he has to take greater control of Watergate, and that he thinks the American people want to see that he’s done something drastic to get control of the situation. And ultimately…and this is a month or so before the Ervin Committee starts to call witnesses. And there was speculation about who they might call, and speculation… And if you talk to the top president’s people, John Dean, Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman, his top previous counsel and top domestic advisor John Ehrlichman. And the difficulty there, right away, is that they’re all current staff members to the president.

So then, that also introduces a constitutional challenge, because you have the legislative branch subpoenaing members of the executive branch, and these branches of government are supposed to be co-equal. And so, that sets down a possible challenge of executive privilege. And so, I think what Nixon decides ultimately is, “We’re going to have to accept some losses on our side. But we need to sort of wall this off and prevent it from going anywhere further.” And it’s inevitable, and I think Nixon comes to believe that it is, that these three will be called as witnesses.

He would rather have them be called as former staff of the White House than current staff of the White House, because once the precedent is established, the president is willing to accept that a current White House staff member can be called, then other White House staff members can be called. And so, I think that became the issue. And so, what they decide, ultimately, is that…whether you want to call these forced resignations, whatever the terminology might be, it was a coordinated effort. Ehrlichman was less willing to go. I mean, he kind of wanted to fight this out, because his position was a little different.

But ultimately, Nixon, Dean, Haldeman and Ehrlichman decided that three of the three staffers would go. And Nixon would give a speech at the end of April and effective May first, they would be gone. So I think that was the plan, so they would then be called as witnesses as former White House staff. And I think Nixon’s hope, then and there, was to give a speech to say, as he did, sort of, “Cut off my right arm, my left arm,” you know, Haldeman or Ehrlichman. And he hoped to draw a new line in the sand beyond which the investigation would not go.

Jonathan Movroydis: Recently, within the past week, John Dean testified before Congress about the parallels between the Watergate investigation and the investigation of Robert Mueller on the Trump administration. Many in the media were recalling John Dean being the star witness of the Watergate inquiries 40 years ago. Why was he a star witness, and what did he say?

Luke Nichter: So Dean was called as a star witness because here, we have these conversations where oftentimes, it’s Dean and Nixon who are the only participants. And at that time… So Dean was called in June as a witness, one of the very first big witnesses of the Ervin Committee. He gives this huge opening statement, and I believe he’s there for something like four and a half of five days of testimony and question and answers. And ultimately, Dean’s testimony kind of breaks the whole case open.

I mean, when you read the testimony, I don’t think it’s incredibly personally damning to Nixon. But what it does is, it leaves investigators who are politicians of the opposition… I mean, the Ervin Committee, I think, doesn’t hide the fact it’s a political investigation. It allows the investigators to look a lot of new places for information. It allows the investigators to consider a whole new range of witnesses. I mean, Dean kind of broke open the whole investigation, it was televised on all three networks. And the power of that, the power of the image was important because, as I said earlier, in ’72, Watergate was really an inside-the-beltway story.

Nixon was re-elected in a landslide, as you said, in November ’72. These televised hearings which were done on all three networks allowed Watergate to go into the heartland. It put Watergate in people’s living rooms, in prime time. It put it on the radio, it put it on TV, it really kind of forced people to come to their own conclusion about Watergate. And so, a lot of people, even supporters of President Nixon just months before his re-election, now are faced with this barrage of content with Watergate. So I think what Dean really did is, he kind of blew it open, I think, showed people that this was a much bigger thing. I mean, the length of his statement, the days of his testimony, I think, changed the whole parameters of the investigation.

Jonathan Movroydis: If not for the public knowledge of the tapes that we played on this podcast, do you think that Nixon still resigns?

Luke Nichter: I mean, that is a great question. I mean, I love what-if history, even if we can’t change it. I’m not sure… As I really not just try to stay myself on kind of the cutting edge of what’s released about Watergate in terms of new records, but try to actually drive the outer limit of what’s released through submitting all these FOIA requests and things, diverse agencies…because a lot of records still remain closed, I maybe have a minority position in terms of, I am not sure that Nixon needed to resign in the first place, tapes or no tapes. Because my own view is that it’s entirely possible that had this gone to trial in the Senate, an enormous amount of classified information would have been needed to prosecute Nixon or to defend Nixon.

And I’m just not sure that was a price that our government would have wanted to pay at the time, certainly if we knew then what we know now about some of the activities the prosecutors were involved in: meeting with judges, and, I think, a terrible situation. Point two that no one ever talks about, within two weeks… So Senate Resolution 60 is the resolution that authorized what became the Ervin Committee, was passed within days of former President Lyndon Johnson’s death. No one seems to focus on the fact that when Nixon faced Watergate, he faced it alone. He was the only living current or former president. Johnson had died in late January of ‘73, Truman had died a month before, late December of ’72.

And so, I think it’s significant that had Truman and Johnson lived longer, and President Nixon faced this challenge which is not just a challenge to himself, but a challenge to these growing powers that we’ve been talking about that had been growing in the presidency since the dawn of the Cold War, I think it could have been a very different situation with regard to Watergate. Because Nixon was…when he was going through this, was the only human being alive who had the understanding that he did about the constitutional challenges, the separation of powers, executive privilege and so forth, and that there was literally no one of similar credibility to take his side on some of these issues.

So to get back to your question, if not for the tapes, would Nixon have resigned? Well, a lot of people advised him to burn the tapes. These were the starring evidence that was used against him. And so, it’s entirely possible that had he taken this advice and burned them or dumped them in the Pacific Ocean, he might have been the president for all eight years. I mean, the optics of that would look terrible, if you were covering up for something. Instead, I think, as a lover of history, he’s left these to us, to future generations, as damaging as they are when it comes to Watergate, because I believe that Nixon thinks ultimately, a fuller legacy…

He thinks he should be judged by the whole record and that future generations will look beyond just this issue of Watergate which has been studied so intensely, and see the whole being and the whole presidency and everything else that he achieved. So these are [inaudible 00:09:59] what-if questions. You know, what if he’d gone to trial? What if not for the tapes? And I think we will continue to learn more about these, as we still have 500 hours of tapes to be released and many, many more records. So as much as we already know and think we know about Watergate, I contend that we still have a long ways to go.

Jonathan Movroydis: Our guest today is Luke Nichter, professor of history at Texas A&M University, central Texas. Our topic is the Nixon White House taping system, as it pertains to the Watergate controversy of June 1972. Luke, thank you so much for joining us.

Luke Nichter: Thanks, Jonathan.

Jonathan Movroydis: Please check back for future podcasts at nixonfoundation.org, or on your favorite podcast app. This is Jonathan Movroydis in Yorba Linda.