This week marks the 50th anniversary of the June 17, 1972 Watergate break-in.

This occasion presents an opportunity to explain Watergate — what we know, what we don’t know, and what we are still learning.

To do this, the Richard Nixon Foundation has today released a new resource, “Watergate Explained,” now available on our website. This new historical resource guide takes you through the major elements of Watergate and references newly released documents from the National Archives that shed new light on this history today.

Richard Nixon: An Introduction

Richard Nixon first came to national prominence in 1947 as a freshman congressman from California’s 12th congressional district. Appointed to the House Un-American Activities Committee, he led an investigation into former senior State Department official Alger Hiss, exposing Hiss as a Soviet spy – and turning Nixon into a national figure. 

Nixon then experienced a rapid rise in national politics, winning election to the United States Senate in 1950 and twice as vice president of the United States, in 1952 and 1956, as the running mate of Dwight D. Eisenhower.

In 1960, Vice President Nixon narrowly lost the presidential election to Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy. In 1968 Nixon achieved one of history’s greatest political comebacks, winning the presidency in a three-way contest. In 1972 he carried 49 states in his re-election bid, receiving 61 percent of the vote.

Nixon’s second term unraveled amid the political fallout from what became known as the Watergate scandal. Months of investigations by Congress and federal prosecutors gradually eroded Nixon’s political support. Nixon resigned the presidency on August 9, 1974.

The Washington, D.C. Environment, 1969-72

Richard Nixon was the first president since Zachary Taylor entered office in 1849 with both houses of Congress under the control of the opposition party.

Nixon inherited a controversial and increasingly unpopular war in Vietnam. In just three years, from 1965 to 1968, the number of Americans in Vietnam had escalated from 16,000 to over 500,000.

The environment in Washington, D.C. was one dominated by opposition to the war from members of Congress and among college students. Between 1967 and 1972, more than a dozen large-scale demonstrations against the war took place in Washington including well over a million people.  

Nixon also faced opposition in the Executive Branch of government. The Democrats had held the presidency for 28 of the previous 36 years. During those years the number of civilian employees in the Executive Branch more than doubled, to 960,000 by 1969. Democrats dominated these career positions in the federal departments and agencies.

The president also dealt with a media largely uniform in its reporting and opinions. In an era before cable, television news was dominated by three major networks, ABC, CBS, and NBC. In the era before the Internet, just two newspapers, the New York Times and the Washington Post and two newsmagazines, Time, and Newsweek, set the national tone for coverage of the White House.

Throughout his presidency, Nixon governed in a political environment that was, at best, unfavorable, and at worst, hostile. 

Leak of the Pentagon Papers

On June 13, 1971, the New York Times ran a front-page story revealing the existence of a Top-Secret, classified Pentagon study of American policy in Vietnam from the end of World War II through 1968. 

Known as the Pentagon Papers, these documents had been illegally removed from the headquarters of the Department of Defense at the end of the Johnson Administration and were being held, without authority, by private non-governmental think tanks. Nixon was informed by the FBI that, at the same time the Pentagon Papers were offered to the New York Times and other newspapers, copies had been left at the Soviet Embassy in Washington.

A former Pentagon official who had turned against the war in Vietnam, Daniel Ellsberg, was soon identified as the person responsible for the illegal leak. Until Ellsberg’s identity was discovered, the thief’s identity was a mystery. It was also clear that more than one person had to be involved with the theft and copying of so many thousands of pages of classified materials. Even after Ellsberg’s identity was known, his motive or motives, and those of any other possible conspirators, were unknown.

The Times and other newspapers began publishing portions of this classified study. The Times subsequently published classified information about the United States’ negotiating position on talks with the Soviet Union to limit the development of nuclear arms.

Concerned about the illegal disclosure of Top Secret documents to the news media, the Nixon administration established a special unit inside the White House to investigate leaks that could compromise America’s national security. This office became known inside the White House as The Plumbers, given their mission of “plugging leaks.”

Over the years, the Nixon Administration’s opposition to publication of the Pentagon Papers has been presented as an attempt to curb First Amendment freedoms. Rather, it was an attempt to prevent the release and publicizing of secret government documents involving national security during wartime.

The White House “Plumbers”

On July 24, 1971, six weeks after the initial publication of the Pentagon Papers, a Special Investigations Unit (The Plumbers) was established within the White House. White House aides Egil “Bud” Krogh and David Young were assigned to jointly lead the Unit and report to senior White House aide John Ehrlichman. Their mission was two-fold: 1) to investigate and stop leaks of classified information, and 2) to de-classify materials that no longer contained sensitive information. 

Future Watergate figures, G. Gordon Liddy, a former FBI agent, and Howard Hunt, a former CIA agent, were soon chosen by Krogh to become the Plumbers’ lead operatives. One of their first assignments was to acquire information that could be used to ascertain any Ellsberg plan to reveal more documents. 

They hatched a scheme to gain access to the files of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, Dr. Lewis Fielding, to seek any information that could be used to either prevent further leaks or discredit Ellsberg. Ehrlichman approved a “covert plan” to examine Fielding’s files on Ellsberg. 

Liddy and Hunt hired CIA-connected Cuban nationals to conduct a break-in at Dr. Fielding’s office in Los Angeles, which failed to obtain any useful information about Ellsberg. When Dr. Fielding returned to his office, he immediately discovered that it had been broken into.

The Moorer-Radford Affair

In December 1971, it was revealed to Nixon that Navy Yeoman Charles Radford, a stenographer on National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger’s staff attached to the White House liaison office to the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon, had — for more than a year — passed about five thousand top-secret National Security Council documents through the liaison office to Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Thomas H. Moorer and Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Elmo Zumwalt. Radford had collected these documents from burn bags and even rifled through the briefcases of Kissinger and his assistant Al Haig. 

This internal espionage against the commander in chief by the nation’s top uniformed officers, during wartime, was unprecedented. 

Radford revealed this spy ring to the Plumbers Unit in the White House. 

The Roots of Watergate

Dean hires Liddy to Develop an Intelligence Plan for President Nixon’s Re-election Campaign

In the run-up to the 1972 presidential election, White House chief of staff H.R. “Bob” Haldeman directed White House counsel John Dean to develop a campaign intelligence plan for President Nixon’s re-election committee. Dean recruited Gordon Liddy to prepare the plan, promising an initial budget for this activity at $500,000. On December 8, 1971, Liddy left the White House staff to become general counsel at the re-election committee. 

Working first for the Committee to Re-elect the President, and then for the Finance Committee to Re-elect the President (Finance Committee), Liddy developed a series of plans for collecting campaign intelligence.

Liddy’s Plans: Seeking Approval

On January 27, 1972, Liddy presented his campaign intelligence plan to Attorney General John Mitchell, in Mitchell’s office at the Department of Justice, with John Dean, and CRP acting chair Jeb Stuart Magruder also in attendance. Mitchell was slated to become chairman of the Committee to Re-elect the President on March 1, 1972. Liddy’s plan, known as “Gemstone,” was rejected by Mitchell as not being “quite what we have in mind” and Liddy was asked to revise his proposal.

A week later, on February 4, 1972, Liddy again met with Mitchell, Dean and Magruder in Mitchell’s office. Liddy had cut the cost of his plan in half – from $1 million to $500,000. His plan included specific targets for bugging. Dean pointed out that such a meeting should not be occurring in the Attorney General’s office. This meeting also ended without approval of Liddy’s plan.  

The following month, White House aide Charles Colson urged Magruder to proceed with the collection of campaign intelligence. On March 30, 1972, Magruder and Mitchell advisor Fred LaRue, met with Mitchell in Miami to discuss pending campaign items, including Liddy’s revised intelligence plan, now priced at $250,000. Following this meeting Magruder authorized Liddy to put his latest plan into action. Mitchell and LaRue would later testify under oath that Liddy’s plan was not approved by Mitchell. Magruder, however, would claim that Mitchell had approved it.

The Watergate Break-ins

On May 28, 1972, under Liddy’s direction, a small team of Cuban nationals with connections to the CIA, broke-in to the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) in the Watergate office building. There, they planted wiretap devices (bugs) on the phones of several DNC officials, including the committee’s chairman. That bug did not operate as expected, so Liddy planned another break-in to replace the faulty equipment.

Three weeks later, on June 17, 1972, James McCord, a former CIA agent who was serving as CRP’s head of security, and the same four Cuban nationals with CIA connections again broke into the DNC offices, this time to replace the non-working wiretap. A night watchman at the Watergate complex found evidence of a possible break-in and called the D.C. police. The burglars were caught red-handed and arrested. 

Materials in the burglars’ possession connected them to Howard Hunt through an address book containing Hunt’s White House telephone number. On September 15, 1972, Liddy and Hunt were indicted, along with the burglars, for their role in planning the Watergate break-in. 

The Cover-up Begins

Shortly after the arrest of the burglars, John Dean met with Liddy, who admitted it was his team that was caught. Liddy said he planned the break-in because Jeb Magruder at the re-election committee was pressing him for campaign intelligence. Dean would later claim to have reported this to Ehrlichman and Haldeman. Both men denied, under oath, Dean’s statement.

On June 19, 1972, two days after the break-in arrests, Dean met with Mitchell, Magruder, LaRue and Robert Mardian in Mitchell’s apartment to begin orchestrating a cover-up in earnest, designed to protect other CRP officials who had advance knowledge of the planned break-in. The FBI would eventually identify Dean as “the master manipulator of the cover-up.”

Watergate Burglars Trial and Conviction

On January 8, 1973, the Watergate Break-in trial began before John J. Sirica, chief judge of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia.

Of the seven defendants, Hunt and the four Cuban nationals pleaded guilty at the trial’s outset.  McCord and Liddy chose to stand trial. Neither testified, and on January 30, 1973, Liddy and McCord were convicted on all counts. 

Threatened by Judge Sirica with an unusually long prison sentence, McCord wrote to Sirica on March 19, 1973, claiming the defendants were pressured to plead guilty and remain silent, that perjury had occurred, that the CIA was not involved in the break-in despite the number of former CIA operatives involved, and that others who were involved were not identified during the trial.

McCord’s letter triggered the cover-up’s collapse and set in motion a series of events that took the break-in from an isolated crime to a major scandal.

The FBI and the CIA

Of the seven individuals indicted and later convicted of the planning and execution of the June 17, 1972, Watergate break-in, six had been employed by the CIA and the other was a former FBI agent. 

Over the years there has been speculation that the CIA played a role in the break-in, or at least had advanced knowledge of the plan. CIA director Richard Helms vehemently denied any CIA involvement before the Senate Watergate committee. Despite the involvement of six former CIA operatives, Helms’ assertion was unchallenged at the time.

The Presidential Tapes

Shortly after Richard Nixon took office on January 20, 1969, he ordered the removal of an extensive secret taping system his predecessor, Lyndon B. Johnson, had installed in the White House. Johnson, selectively recorded conversations on telephones in the Oval Office, his bedroom, and on several other phones he used regularly. He also installed a taping system in the Cabinet Room.

In an attempt to ensure accurate records of presidential meetings—and to trace sources of public leaks emanating from the White House – beginning in February 1971, and at Nixon’s direction, recording equipment was installed in the Oval Office, the President’s office in the Old Executive Office Building, the Cabinet Room, and at the presidential cabin at Camp David. Unlike Johnson’s system, which was manually activated to record conversations Johnson wanted to tape, Nixon’s system was voice-activated and recorded everything.

Nixon’s decision to place recording devices in his offices and elsewhere was not unique. Every president since Franklin D. Roosevelt had secretly recorded conversations with aides and others with whom they met or spoke on the telephone. Until a former White House aide revealed to the Senate Watergate Committee in July 1973 the taping system, the existence of the tapes had remained unknown except to a select few at the White House. 

When their existence became known, differing advice was offered Nixon as to what to do with them, as they were considered his personal private property. He chose not to destroy them. 

The White House Watergate Tapes

Only about 5 percent of the nearly 3,600 hours of Nixon White House tape recordings contain references to Watergate. Two tapes proved to be particularly damaging.

“The 18½ Minute Gap.”

June 20, 1972, was the first recorded conversation between Nixon and Haldeman following the Watergate arrests. A portion of the tape was completely obscured by a distinct buzzing sound, which rendered the conversation inaudible. That section of the tape became known as “The 18½ Minute Gap.” Numerous efforts in the intervening 50 years to “clean-up” the tape, using state of the art methods, have failed to recover that part of the conversation. A comparison to Haldeman’s handwritten notes of the meeting similarly revealed nothing. 

When the existence of the gap was revealed on November 21, 1973, it launched an explosion of speculation about the content of the missing 18½ minutes. Yet John Dean, in his 2014 book, The Nixon Defense, wrote that the gap is “historically insignificant,” since it was too early for Nixon and Haldeman to have learned anything about the break-in and neither man took note of their conversation in their respective diaries.

The “Smoking Gun” Tape

The next recorded Watergate-related conversation between Nixon and Haldeman occurred on June 23, 1972, when the president and his chief of staff spoke about the Watergate break-in and arrests. During this conversation, the President agreed to Dean’s recommendation to get the CIA to tell the FBI not to proceed with two interviews of people thought to be connected to the financing of the break-in. 

On July 6, 1972, acting FBI Director L. Patrick Gray spoke to Nixon by phone to express concern that some on his staff were attempting to impede the Bureau’s investigation. According to Gray, “the President said to me, ‘Pat, you just continue to conduct your aggressive and thorough investigation.’ And that was the end of the phone call.” Gray’s recollection is confirmed on a recording of that phone call.

The release on August 5, 1974, of the June 23, 1972, tape (which was termed the “Smoking Gun”), appeared to undermine Nixon’s contention that he was not involved in the Watergate cover-up. The reaction to the tape caused Nixon’s remaining political support in Congress to collapse. Three days later, on August 8, 1974, he announced his resignation as president, effective at noon the next day.

A Cancer Close to the Presidency

Shortly after 10:00 am on March 21, 1973, John Dean, Counsel to the President, entered the Oval Office. After a few minutes of talk, Dean got to his point: “Uh, the reason I thought we ought to talk this morning is because in, in our conversations, uh, uh, I have, I have the impression that you don’t know everything I know” about Watergate. “We have a cancer—within, close to the Presidency, that’s growing.”

Over the next 105 minutes Dean, who would later describe himself as the chief desk officer of the Watergate cover-up, first shared specifics of the cover-up with Nixon. Dean said that he had been given responsibility from Haldeman with developing “a perfectly legitimate campaign intelligence plan,” had recruited Gordon Liddy for the job, and Liddy did the Watergate break-in. Dean told Nixon that there were people perjuring themselves to avoid prosecution. 

Dean then revealed to Nixon that one of the Watergate burglars, former CIA operative Howard Hunt, was demanding cash payments to cover his legal fees and personal expenses in exchange for keeping quiet about actions he claimed to have taken at the direction of two White House aides.

Nixon and Dean then discussed the pros and cons of meeting Hunt’s demands, and explored a number of possible scenarios. 

Later in the conversation, Nixon identified the futility of trying to buy the silence of Hunt or any of the other burglars: “[I]n the end, we are going to be bled to death, and it’s all going to come out anyway, and then you get the worst of both worlds. We are going to lose and people are going to…and we’re going to look like we covered up. So that we can’t do.” 

About halfway through the meeting, Dean again told the President, “Well, I can just tell from our conversations that, you know, these are things that you have no knowledge of.” 

When the meeting ended, the President had not approved meeting Hunt’s demands. 

Yet a payment to Hunt’s lawyer was made that evening, although it remains unclear as to whether anyone specifically ordered it. CRP Chairman and former Attorney General John Mitchell later said that if it were up to him, he’d probably pay Hunt’s outstanding legal fees.

The assertion that Nixon ordered this “hush money” payment to Hunt formed the basis of the Special Prosecutors’ charges that Nixon obstructed justice. But no witnesses have ever surfaced to testify that Nixon approved any payoff to Hunt or to any of the Watergate burglars.

The following day, March 22, Dean was directed to write a report detailing everything he knew about the break-ins and the cover-up, which Nixon would use to call for a renewed investigation. Dean went to Camp David to work on the document, but in the end, he produced nothing, nor could he have without incriminating himself. 

Instead, less than two weeks after his March 21 meeting with Nixon, and while still serving as White House counsel, Dean began a series of  meetings with the federal prosecutors. He hoped to obtain immunity for himself by implicating certain senior White House colleagues. Prosecutors denied Dean’s request due to his leadership role in the cover-up (though his request for immunity was later granted by the Ervin Committee).

As the weeks wore on, the White House became under siege as Dean’s evolving allegations raised questions about the involvement of senior aides Bob Haldeman and John Ehrlichman in the Watergate cover-up. 

On April 17, 1973, Nixon announced in a news conference that members of the White House staff would cooperate with the Ervin Committee’s work, appearing voluntarily, under oath and without the claim of executive privilege. 

On April 30, 1973, Nixon announced in a speech to the nation that he accepted Haldeman and Ehrlichman’s resignations, praising them for their service to the nation. He also announced, in one short sentence, that John Dean had also resigned. 

The Senate Watergate Committee

On February 7, 1973, the United States Senate voted 77-0 to establish its Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, popularly known as the Senate Watergate Committee or the Ervin Committee, after the committee’s chairman, Senator Sam Ervin, a Democrat from North Carolina. Membership of the committee included four Democrats and three Republicans. The scope of the investigation was limited solely to the 1972 presidential election. 

The committee’s 37 days of hearings on Watergate, which opened on May 17, 1973, were televised live by the three major television networks. Public television (PBS) re-aired the hearings the same evening. An estimated 85 percent of American households watched at least some of the more than 300 hours of televised hearings.

Of the 35 witnesses who appeared before the committee, none accused President Nixon of knowing about the Watergate break-ins in advance, and only one, John Dean, implied that the President participated in the Watergate cover-up. The hearings did reveal the existence of the White House taping system and undermined the public’s confidence in the President.

The Watergate Special Prosecutor’s Office

The Special Prosecutor

The prosecution of the Watergate burglars was initially led by career prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia. After the release of McCord’s letter to Sirica alleging a larger conspiracy, pressure mounted to appoint an independent special prosecutor.

At his Senate confirmation hearings in the spring of 1973, Attorney General nominee Elliot Richardson pledged to appoint an independent special prosecutor to investigate Watergate. On May 25, 1973, the same day that Richardson took the oath as Attorney General, Harvard law school professor, Archibald Cox, was sworn-in as special prosecutor.

Richardson’s appointment of Cox was a curious one. Cox was an integral part of John F. Kennedy’s 1960 campaign; served under Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy as solicitor general, the third highest office at the Justice Department; and advised Senator Edward Kennedy as he led opposition to Nixon’s Supreme Court nominees.  

Although Cox served as an appointed official of the Executive Branch, normally subject to the authority of the president, at the Senate Judiciary Committee’s insistence, Cox was given a free hand to build his staff and direct his work without any oversight from the Department of Justice.

The Watergate Special Prosecution Force

Special prosecutor Archibald Cox hired more than 15 of his former colleagues from the Kennedy and Johnson Departments of Justice, and the staff would total more than 70 full-time lawyers. The Prosecution Force leadership publicly announced their intent to investigate aspects of the Nixon administration unrelated to Watergate. To do this, the Prosecution Force created five task forces: 

  1. The Watergate Task Force, to investigate the break-in (the bulk of which already been completed by the U.S. Attorney’s office).
  2. The Plumbers Task Force, to investigate the break-in at Dr. Fielding’s office.
  3. The Campaign Contributions Task Force, to investigate contributions made to Republican candidates for Congress in 1970, contributions made to the Nixon presidential campaign in 1972, and contributions made to other Republican presidential candidates, including John Connally, Gerald Ford, Nelson Rockefeller, Bob Dole, and Ronald Reagan.
  4. The Political Espionage Task Force, to investigate “dirty tricks” coordinated by the Nixon campaign.
  5. The ITT Task Force, to investigate whether a “pay for play” operation existed around the 1972 Republican National Convention.

After Cox was fired, his successor, Leon Jaworski, just three months in the job, complained to his deputy, Henry Ruth, about the political bias among the staff within his office – and their effort to get Nixon “at all cost”.

The “Saturday Night Massacre”

When the Senate Watergate hearings revealed that many of President Nixon’s meetings and telephone calls had been recorded, both the Ervin committee and the special prosecutor sought release of certain tapes thought to be related to Watergate. 

Citing Executive Privilege, the White House argued that releasing private recordings by one branch of the U.S. government to a separate, co-equal branch of the U.S. government, and then making those recordings public, would infringe on the constitutional system of checks and balances and refused to release the tapes. The White House instead offered to provide summaries of the relevant conversations, verified for accuracy and completeness by a third-party in Mississippi Senator John C. Stennis, a Democrat. The Senate committee agreed to this compromise, as did Attorney General Richardson. Cox first agreed but then backtracked, rejecting the compromise.

Nixon announced the compromise on October 19, 1973, and directed Cox, an Executive Branch employee, to cease his demands for the tapes themselves. Cox called a press conference to announce he would defy the president’s order.

The following day, Nixon directed Attorney General Richardson to fire Cox and to fold the work of the Prosecution Force back into that of the Department of Justice. Richardson instead resigned. The deputy attorney general also refused to follow Nixon’s instructions and was fired. It fell to the third-ranking Justice Department official, Solicitor General Robert Bork to dismiss Cox, returning the investigation to DOJ’s Criminal Division. He did not, however, disband the Special Prosecutor’s office.

The episode became known as the Saturday Night Massacre. The public response to the firing amounted to a firestorm of protest, and further eroded the credibility of the White House. The following week, Nixon agreed to turn over the subpoenaed tapes and directed Acting Attorney General Bork to appoint a new special prosecutor. Bork chose Houston lawyer Leon Jaworski for the role and re-established the independence of the Special Prosecutor’s office.

The Road Map

The Watergate Special Prosecutor’s office produced a series of memos that detailed evidence they alleged to be President Nixon’s Watergate-related illegal conduct. The Special Prosecutor’s staff hoped these memos would produce a basis for a criminal indictment of the president. These memos remained undisclosed for more than 40 years.

Jaworski, however, ruled out such an indictment. So, the staff turned their focus to forwarding the evidence to the House Judiciary Committee, which had begun to consider Nixon’s impeachment. To transmit these memos – which contained sealed Grand Jury testimony—the Special Prosecutor’s staff developed what became known as the Road Map.

The Road Map included firm conclusions about Nixon’s conduct that were open to interpretation, as well as Grand Jury testimony, which is supposed to remain sealed forever. 

Nevertheless, Jaworski’s staff pressed him to transmit the Road Map from the Special Prosecutor’s Office through Judge Sirica to the House Judiciary Committee; this would require the Grand Jury to consent to its release. Jaworski finally agreed, violating assurances he had given to the White House that his office would not violate grand jury secrecy (and despite earlier telling his staff that his office’s mandate did not “authorize us to violate grand jury procedures”).

This highly irregular, indeed unprecedented, procedure also violated Nixon’s Constitutional right to confront any evidence placed before Congress, likely to be used in an impeachment trial. Former White House deputy counsel Geoff Shepard, recently wrote, “The special prosecutors had, in effect, fashioned a detour around the Bill of Rights.”

Prosecutorial and Judicial Misconduct

Research into newly released files from the National Archives has uncovered serious ethical breaches by both the special prosecutor’s office and by judges of the D.C. Circuit Court presiding over the Watergate cases, namely John J. Sirica and Gerhard A. Gessel.

Notably, on December 14, 1973, Jaworski and three senior members of his staff met secretly with the presiding judges without Nixon’s lawyers present. Such ex parte meetings violate the legal profession’s ethical standards.

Long-held rules governing Grand Jury secrecy were also thrown aside when Sirica released to the House Judiciary Committee the special prosecutor’s Road Map.

President Nixon’s Resignation

On July 24, 1974, the Supreme Court, in an 8-0 decision, ruled that tapes that had been subpoenaed by the Special Prosecutor’s Office must be turned over to Judge Sirica for review, before being forwarded to prosecutors. Nixon agreed to comply with the Court’s decision and turned over the tapes.

By July 30, 1974, the House Judiciary Committee had adopted three articles of impeachment against the President. Nixon’s support in the Congress eroded considerably. His prospects for avoiding impeachment by the House and conviction in the Senate were judged to be almost non-existent.

On August 5, 1974, the White House released transcripts of three June 23, 1972, conversations between the President and his chief of staff Bob Haldeman. The transcripts showed Nixon agreeing that the CIA should be directed to tell the FBI not to interview two witnesses in its Watergate investigation. The implication at the time was that Nixon had been involved in the cover-up from its very outset – though subsequent analyses have offered different interpretations.  What remained of Nixon’s support in Congress almost entirely evaporated.

On August 8, 1974, citing his loss of political support in Congress, the President announced his resignation, effective at noon the next day.

The Watergate Cover-up Trials

On March 1, 1974, the Watergate Grand Jury indicted former attorney general John Mitchell, former White House aides Bob Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, Charles Colson and Gordon Strachan, and former election committee staff members Robert Mardian and Kenneth Parkinson for trying to cover-up those responsible for the Watergate break-in. 

Nixon was listed as an “unindicted co-conspirator” by the grand jury – a term fashioned by prosecutors as there was a question of whether a sitting president could be indicted. Nixon’s acceptance of a pardon by President Ford on September 8, 1974, prevented the possibility of indictment after his presidency. 

The trial was scheduled to be held in Washington, D.C., with the jury drawn from residents of the city. Despite the compelling assertion that the jury pool would be tainted by pre-trial publicity, efforts by the defendants to have the trial moved to another venue were denied.

When the trial began on October 1, 1974, only five of the original seven defendants went to trial together: Mitchell, Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Mardian and Parkinson. The trial lasted three months. On January 1, 1975, the jury convicted Mitchell, Haldeman, Ehrlichman, and Mardian and acquitted Parkinson. Mardian’s conviction was later overturned on appeal.

On February 21, 1975, Judge Sirica sentenced Haldeman, Ehrlichman, and Mitchell to terms in prison of 2½ to 8 years. 

The Changing Face of the Watergate Scandal

When Richard Nixon was threatened with impeachment, it was only the second time in American history – and the first time in more than 100 years – that the House of Representatives initiated a presidential impeachment.

In the years since, impeachment has become much more common. A Republican controlled House of Representatives impeached President Bill Clinton in 1999. A Democrat controlled House of Representatives twice impeached President Donald J. Trump, in 2019 and 2021. All three impeachment trials ended in acquittal by the Senate.

In the last two decades, information related to the Watergate scandal, which was once secret, has been released from the National Archives in response to Freedom of Information Act requests and lawsuits. Other documents, held in the papers of various reporters and others involved in investigating the matter, have also become accessible. 

As a result, 50 years after the Watergate break-in, new analyses are taking place and some conclusions are being revisited and revised. Some recently published books and articles question the conventional wisdom, while others reassert earlier criticisms of the Nixon administration. The question of whether Richard Nixon’s conduct met the Constitutional standard for impeachment is openly debated today.

Watergate 50th Anniversary Coverage

Black, Conrad. “Why Nixon Deserves to Be Acquitted by History.” The New York Sun. June 13, 2022.

Caldwell, Christopher. “Regime Change, American Style.” First Things. June 1, 2022

McCarthy, Andrew. “Watergate Fifty Years Later.” Law & Liberty. June 1, 2022.

Postell, Joseph. “Watergate: The End of the Beginning.” Law & Liberty. June 15, 2022.

Varadarajan, Tunku. “Michael Barone: Jan. 6 and the Unhealthy Nostalgia for Watergate.” The Wall Street Journal. June 10, 2022.

Washington Post Live. “50th Anniversary of Watergate: Inside the White House with Dwight Chapin & Ken Khachigian.” June 14, 2022.

Additional Reading

Bork, Robert H. Saving Justice, Watergate, the Saturday Night Massacre, and Other Adventures of a Solicitor General. (Encounter Books, 2013).

Brinkley, Douglas and Nichter, Luke. The Nixon Tapes: 1971-1972. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014).

Brinkley, Douglas and Nichter, Luke. The Nixon Tapes: 1973. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015).

Chapin, Dwight. The President’s Man: the Memoirs of Nixon’s Trusted Aide. (William Morrow, 2022).

Haldeman, H. R. The Haldeman Diaries: Inside the Nixon White House. (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1994).

Himmelman, Jeff. Yours in Truth, a Personal Portrait of Ben Bradlee. (Random House, 2012).

Holland, Max. Leak, Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat. (University Press of Kansas, 2012).

Jaworski, Leon. The Right and the Power, The Prosecutions of Watergate. New York: Reader’s Digest Press, 1977).

Nixon, Richard M. The Memoirs of Richard Nixon. (Grosset & Dunlap, 1978).

Price, Raymond. With Nixon. (Viking, 1977).

Rosen, James. The Strong Man; John Mitchell and the Secrets of Watergate. (Doubleday, 2008).

Schoen, Douglas, The Nixon Effect. (Encounter Books, 2016).

Shepard, Geoff. The Nixon Conspiracy, Watergate and the Plot to Remove the President (Bombardier Books, 2021).

Thomas, Evan. Being Nixon. (Random House, 2015).