The money trail and the “Smoking Gun”

In part 4 of our series on the Watergate crisis, we look at the deepening cover-up orchestrated by Nixon. Election day 1972, the day he had been planning for since 1968, came just after the FBI announced that the break-in at DNC headquarters was just one of a slew of illegal actions taken by CRP to spy on the Democrats. But Nixon won re-election in a landslide, because most Americans in November 1972 believed that the president had no connection with the break-in. Nixon might have been an uptight, old-fashioned, awkward war-hawk, but he wasn’t someone who would hire some half-baked military rejects (as the Burglars were perceived at the time) to break into Democratic offices. The whole burglary was so amateurish and pathetic that few people believed that Nixon—Tricky Dick, the man who was always one step ahead—could have had anything to do with it.

But Nixon had everything to do with it. In 1974, one of his conversations with Haldeman, held 6 days after the break-in, would be revealed to the nation. We’re indebted to for this transcript of the conversation; go there to read the whole excerpt. For now, here are the most damning parts of it (with repeated words and “uhs” taken out):

Haldeman: Now, on the investigation, you know, the Democratic break-in thing, we’re back to the problem area because the FBI is not under control, because [FBI Director Patrick] Gray doesn’t exactly know how to control them, and their investigation is now leading into some productive areas, because they’ve been able to trace the money, not through the money itself, but through the bank, you know, sources – the banker himself. And it goes in some directions we don’t want it to go. …the way to handle this now is for us to have [Deputy CIA Director Vernon] Walters call Pat Gray and just say, “Stay the hell out of this…this is business here we don’t want you to go any further on it.” That’s not an unusual development…

Nixon:  Uh huh.

Haldeman:   …and that would take care of it.

What we’ve heard so far is Haldeman saying he will tell the deputy director of the CIA to tell the director of the FBI to stop investigating a crime—the Watergate break-in. Remarkably, Haldeman ends by saying this is not unusual. Even more remarkably, Nixon agrees.

Nixon:  What about Pat Gray, ah, you mean he doesn’t want to?

Haldeman:  Pat does want to. He doesn’t know how to, and he doesn’t have any basis for doing it. Given this, he will then have the basis.

Nixon: Yeah.

Haldeman:  …And the proposal would be that Ehrlichman and I call them in—

Nixon:  All right, fine. …I mean, well, we protected [CIA director Richard] Helms from one hell of a lot of things.

According to Haldeman, Gray wants to help in the cover-up, but doesn’t know how to remove his agency from the case without raising suspicions. Word from the White House will allow him to say it is on the basis of national security. Nixon makes the alarming claim that Richard Helms owes him for the protection Nixon has given him in the past from “one hell of a lot of things.”

Nixon:  Of course, this is a hunt that will uncover a lot of things. You open that scab there’s a hell of a lot of things and that we just feel that it would be very detrimental to have this thing go any further. …what the hell did [former Attorney General John] Mitchell know about this thing?

Haldeman:  I don‘t think he knew the details, but I think he knew.

Nixon:  You call them [Walters and Helms] in. Good. Good deal! Play it tough. That’s the way they play it and that’s the way we are going to play it.

Haldeman:  O.K. We’ll do it.

So as soon as he found out about the CRP connection to the break-in, Nixon was working not only to cover it up but to stop the FBI investigation completely. His certainty that a) Gray was completely on board with obstruction of justice; b) the head of the CIA Helms would do Nixon’s bidding because of the “things” he had done; and that c) obstructing justice was a minor thing is shocking. This was the “tough” Nixon that most Americans thought was too smart to get involved in something as sloppy and dangerous as the Watergate break-in.

But despite this assurance, the FBI continued its investigation into how CRP money had gotten in the burglars’ bank accounts. FBI director Gray pushed back when he was ordered to lay off in the name of national security, not buying the argument that somehow the burglars were connected with an attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro. Gray’s resolve led Vernon Walters to back down, and what should have been the removal of the FBI from the case, and the disappearance of Watergate from the public eye, turned into only a few days’ delay.

By March 1973, Nixon had come up with a new plan to get Watergate off his back. He would have Haldeman, Ehrlichman, and Dean take the blame for the break-in and resign. The tie to the White House would be explained, Nixon would not be implicated, and the scandal would die. Haldeman and Ehrlichman were willing to go along. But John Dean was not. He did not realize how deeply Nixon was involved with the cover-up, and he had a meeting with the president in March in which he said that the bribes he was paying to the burglars and others to keep them quiet, and the documents he had destroyed, were obstruction of justice. Famously, Dean described Watergate as “a cancer on the presidency.” We know all that he said because the conversation was taped, and revealed to the nation in August 1974. (Dean had the strange feeling that he was being recorded at the time. Nixon kept asking him to repeat things in full sentences.) Nixon told Dean to keep making the payments, and Dean refused, saying he was going to testify about all of his actions to the Senate Watergate committee. Nixon told him to do what he had to do, and fired him a few days later.

On April 20, Haldeman and Ehrlichman resigned. They were tried and convicted and given prison sentences. Nixon claimed that Dean had resigned, too. He then announced that he had appointed a new Attorney General to replace John Mitchell: Elliot Richardson.

Next time: Elliot Richardson’s wild ride

Watergate: The cover-up begins

Hello and welcome to part 3 of our series on the Watergate crisis, which ended 40 years ago this year. We left off in part 1 with the conviction of the CRP burglars for conspiracy, burglary, and violating federal wiretapping laws when they broke into the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, DC in June 1972.

One of those burglars was Howard Hunt, a former CIA official who was identified as working for the Republican Party. Hunt was also one of the  White House “Plumbers”, a group created in 1971 to stop the leaking of classified documents to the press. The most notable example of a leak was the publication of the Pentagon Papers by Daniel Ellsberg, a military analyst working for the RAND Corporation who had access to top-secret government documents on the Vietnam War that revealed that President Lyndon Johnson had lied to the American public about U.S. military operations in Vietnam, and their success, and that the U.S. had secretly begun bombing suspected Viet Cong bases and suppliers in Cambodia and Laos. Ellsberg had come to question the war before he got access to the secret papers, and once he saw them, he became firmly against the war. He copied the papers and gave them to the New York Times, where their contents were made known. They were commonly known as the Pentagon Papers, and they created deep controversy in the U.S., and gave new momentum to the already growing anti-war movement.

Nixon was furious about the Pentagon Papers, and determined to find a way to smear Ellsberg and make him seem crazy. Nixon’s top advisor, John Ehrlichman, told the Plumbers to break into the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist in Los Angeles, looking for notes that might cast doubt on Ellsberg’s sanity. They did not find anything, and Ehrlichman told Nixon only that there had been an “aborted” operation in Los Angeles. The Plumbers then used some of their members on the Watergate break-in, looking for documents that would reveal the Democratic election strategy, or some damaging evidence against their candidate, George McGovern.

When the FBI investigators on the Watergate break-in found Hunt’s name, Ehrlichman was afraid it would lead back to the Ellsberg break-in, and ordered John Dean, the president’s legal attorney, to open Hunt’s White House safe and burn everything in it. This was done by Dean and by Acting FBI Director Patrick Gray.

Nixon was told about the break-in at this point. He was also told about the attempt to erase Hunt’s connection to CRP, the Committee to Re-Elect the President, a group working to ensure Nixon’s victory in 1972. Nixon approved, and told his other top advisor, H.R. Haldeman, to have the CIA block the FBI’s investigation into the question of who paid the burglars to break into the DNC headquarters.

At a press conference a few days afterward, Press Secretary Ron Zieglar described the Watergate break-in in a phrase that would become infamous: he called it “a third-rate burglary attempt”. This was part of the White House strategy to downplay the event as the bizarre actions of a few unknown nobodies that no one should pay any attention to. On August 29, 1972, Nixon said that attorney Dean had investigated the break-in (which Dean had not) and that the result was that “I can say categorically that [no] one in the White House staff, no one in this Administration, presently employed, was involved in this very bizarre incident.” This was true to Nixon’s pattern of lying to the public; the disclaimer “presently employed” is a strange one: it plants doubt in the listener’s mind by giving them the idea that someone on Nixon’s staff had been involved in the break-in and been fired, so that as Nixon spoke, technically no one still employed by him was guilty. In reality, of course, men presently employed by the White House were responsible. So that addition made no sense, and may have been an indicator of Nixon’s nerves.

John Mitchell, the former Attorney General who resigned earlier in 1971 so he could run CRP, also claimed that he had no idea who had broken into the Watergate (when it was men working for him, who had told him the plan, which he had approved). The Nixon Administration ties to the break-in were being successfully covered up—until a check for $25,000 marked “Nixon re-election campaign” was found in the bank account of one of the burglars. The FBI investigated and found CRP money in all the burglars’ accounts, and also expense reports filed by the burglars and submitted to the CRP.

Next time—following the money trail