President Trump cannot fire Robert Mueller

Posted on February 6, 2018. Filed under: Politics, three branches of government, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , , , , |

When we decided to write a series on Watergate back in 2014, we did not know how pertinent it would become just three years later.

We re-ran this post in January 2017, in response to the Trump Administration’s sudden firing of acting Attorney General Sally Yates. As we said at the time, “President Trump firing an attorney general who stood up to his unconstitutional requests is all too reminiscent of a horrible 24 hours in our nation’s history, when President Nixon tried to fire his attorney general for refusing to help Nixon break the law. Two attorneys general would resign in what was called the Saturday Night Massacre.”

Today, the deja-vu continues. We’re rerunning our January 2017 rerun of the September 2014 Saturday Night Massacre post with heavy hearts but every hope that most Americans will stand unwavering in support of our democratic process in the face of Trump’s threats to fire the Special Prosecutor of the Russian investigation, Robert Mueller.

If you don’t want to read about the terrible parallel to Watergate, here’s the argument in a nutshell: Trump cannot fire Mueller because Mueller is protected from just that sort of intimidation. The special counsel cannot be fired by the president he is investigating because the president doesn’t want to be investigated. FactCheck.org puts it well:

Because Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the investigation, the decision to appoint a special counsel fell to Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein. In his order making the appointment, Rosenstein cited federal regulations issued by the attorney general in 1999, 28 C.F.R. § 600.4-600.10. The rules were drafted in the wake of the Kenneth Starr investigation of President Bill Clinton.

According to those regulations, a special counsel “may be disciplined or removed from office only by the personal action of the Attorney General” (or in this case, the acting attorney general). And Rosenstein can’t just do it on a whim, either. According to the regulation, special counsel can only be removed “for misconduct, dereliction of duty, incapacity, conflict of interest, or for other good cause, including violation of Departmental policies.”

In a Senate hearing on June 13, Rosenstein said he alone exercises firing authority, and that he had not seen any evidence of good cause for firing Mueller.

“It’s certainly theoretically possible that the attorney general could fire him, but that’s the only person who has authority to fire him,” Rosenstein said. “And in fact, the chain of command for the special counsel is only directly to the attorney general, in this case the acting attorney general.”

Only the deputy attorney general who appointed Mueller can fire him and only for cause. But Trump could fire the DAG, or order the special-counsel regulations repealed and fire Mueller himself.

That said, let’s revisit Watergate and the Saturday Night Massacre, when the president tried to indirectly fire the special prosecutor:

It’s post 5 in our series on the Watergate crisis, and here we come to the most shocking part of the entire event, which is the Saturday Night Massacre of October 20, 1973. We left off last time with the forced resignations and false confessions of Haldeman and Ehrlichman, and the firing of John Dean for deciding he would tell all he knew to the Senate Watergate Committee. Bear in mind that Dean knew that the original break-in had been carried out by CREEP and approved by former Attorney General John Mitchell, and he knew that the president had ordered evidence to be destroyed and people to be paid off to keep quiet, but he did not know that Nixon had tried to stop the FBI investigation. No one but Nixon, Haldeman, and Ehrlichman knew that. The only way anyone else could find that out was if they listened to the secret tape recordings Nixon made of all of his conversations, including the one we mentioned last time from June 23, 1972—six days after the break-in—in which Nixon told Haldeman to have the CIA director, Richard Helms, call the head of the FBI, Patrick Gray, and tell him to “stay the hell out of this” in the name of national security. Luckily, only a handful of men in Nixon’s administration knew about the tapes. Unluckily for Nixon, one of them told all he knew to the Senate Watergate Committee, on live national TV.

On Friday the 13th, July 1973, White House assistant Alexander Butterfield was asked if there was any type of recording system used in the White House. After some prodding, Butterfield said there was, and that it automatically recorded every word spoken in the Oval Office, Cabinet Room, and Nixon’s private office. Three days later, after the weekend break, Butterfield reiterated this claim. Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox subpoenaed Nixon for these tapes. He wanted to listen to them and see if they showed that the president ordered the break-in, had tried to cover it up, or just knew about it. Nixon refused, citing executive privilege and again saying that national security would be damaged if the tapes were made public. Cox said he would only make public information relating to Watergate; if there was none, no part of the tapes would be made public. Nixon still refused and ordered Cox to rescind the subpoena, which Cox refused to do. On Friday, Nixon offered a compromise: he would allow Mississippi Senator John Stennis to listen to the tapes and write a summary of their contents. Cox refused. He did not trust Nixon to give Stennis access to tapes that would incriminate himself. The subpoena stood.

Now the events unfolded that would be called the Saturday Night Massacre, events which threatened the very basis of constitutional law in the U.S. It’s hard to believe that finding out that the president had tried to obstruct a criminal investigation to protect the criminals could be overshadowed by any other of his actions, but what Nixon ordered on Saturday, October 20, 1973 surpasses even that obstruction of justice in its seriousness.

That morning, Nixon told his chief of staff Alexander Haig to call his new Attorney General, Elliot Richardson, and tell him to fire Cox. Richardson had just been appointed as Attorney General by Nixon in April after the “resignation” of John Dean. A few days earlier, on Thursday, Richardson had met with Nixon and learned that he wanted Cox fired if he wouldn’t accept the Stennis compromise. Richardson told the president he felt sure Cox would accept it, but left the meeting already resolved to resign if Cox didn’t. He knew that Nixon would ask him to fire Cox because only Richardson could: as Attorney General, he had appointed Cox as special prosecutor, and only he could fire him. Richardson did not believe the refusal to accept the Stennis compromise was grounds to fire Cox, but Nixon did. After that Thursday meeting, he told Haig “No more tapes, no more documents, nothing more! I want an order from me to Elliot to Cox to that effect now.”

When Haig called Richardson at 7.00 on Friday night to tell him to fire Cox, Richardson refused, saying he would resign instead. As this was happening, Cox (unaware of this call) issued a statement to the press just in time for the evening deadline saying that the president was refusing to comply with a court order “in violation of the promises which the Attorney General made to the Senate” that the Watergate break-in would be investigated thoroughly. Cox’s statement was front-page on Saturday morning, and he was planning to hold a press conference at 1.00. Richardson phoned Cox to tell him what had happened. At the press conference, Cox reminded reporters that only the Attorney General could fire him. Meanwhile, Haig phoned Richardson again and ordered him to fire Cox; Richardson refused. Knowing what would happen next, Richardson met with his Deputy Attorney General, William Ruckelshaus, and told him that he, Ruckelshaus, would be asked to fire Cox once Richardson’s resignation was made public. Ruckelshaus said he would not do it and that he, too, would resign.

Nixon summoned Richardson to his office and told him that if he didn’t fire Cox, Nixon couldn’t meet with the Soviet Premier to work out a solution to the crisis in the Middle East because Brezhnev wouldn’t respect a man who was being publicly defied by a subordinate. Again Richardson refused, and Nixon said “I’m sorry that you insist on putting your personal commitments ahead of the public interest.” Richardson resigned. As Richardson left, Haig was on the phone to Ruckelshaus, telling him to fire Cox. When he balked, Haig barked “Your commander in chief has given you an order! You have no alternative.” Undaunted, Ruckelshaus replied, “Except to resign”, which he did. Finally, Nixon sent a limousine to pick up Solicitor General Robert Bork from his home and bring him to the White House. There, Nixon told him to fire Cox. He had a letter of dismissal ready, waiting for Bork’s signature. Intimidated, Bork signed it. Nixon told him, “You’ve got guts.”

At 8.25 that evening, White House press secretary Ron Ziegler held a press conference announcing the resignations of Richardson and Ruckelshaus and the firing of Cox, saying “the office of the Watergate Special Prosecution Force has been abolished as of approximately 8 PM tonight.”

The nation was shocked. The way they experienced it, they woke up to read Cox’s claim that the president was refusing to obey a court order. Then they watched his press conference at 1.00 PM where he outlined his rightful claim for the tapes. Then they heard an 8.25 PM press conference saying that Cox, Richardson, and Ruckelshaus were all fired, and that the president had declared the Watergate investigation over. It was abundantly clear that Nixon had eliminated three men whom he was afraid of—what was he afraid of? What did he think they would discover if they had the tapes? And more importantly, would the president’s illegal, unconstitutional firing of the special prosecutor be allowed to stand? was the president above the law? Could he do whatever he wanted, no matter what? As commander in chief, if he committed a crime, did the American people “have no alternative” but to let him do it, and to quietly accept an imperial presidency?

The name “Saturday Night Massacre” may seem overdone—like the “Boston Massacre”, in which only five people died. But what was being massacred was the Constitution, separation of powers, and the rule of law that said that in the U.S. no one, no matter their position, is above the law. The coverage on the news that night reiterated this perception of danger:

John Chancellor, NBC News: Good evening. The country tonight is in the midst of what may be the most serious Constitutional crisis in its history. The President has fired the special Watergate prosecutor, Archibald Cox. Because of the President’s action, the attorney general has resigned. Elliott Richardson has quit, saying he cannot carry out Mr. Nixon’s instructions. Richardson’s deputy, William Ruckelshaus, has been fired.

Ruckelshaus refused, in a moment of Constitutional drama, to obey a presidential order to fire the special Watergate prosecutor. And half an hour after the special Watergate prosecutor had been fired, agents of the FBI, acting at the direction of the White House, sealed off the offices of the special prosecutor, the offices of the attorney general and the offices of the deputy attorney general.

All of this adds up to a totally unprecedented situation, a grave and profound crisis in which the President has set himself against his own attorney general and the Department of Justice. Nothing like this has ever happened before.

Nothing like this had ever happened before. Nixon had thrown down a gauntlet to the nation: you must accept my power to live above the law. I will not be questioned. How would the nation react?

 

And now back to the present, February 2018:

Just as members of our federal government rose up to save the Constitution and the United States in 1973, we must fight for our system of government, which explicitly says the president is not above the law. We, the people, do have “an alternative” if a president breaks the law—we impeach that president. Nixon’s actions posed “a grave and profound crisis”; so do Trump’s. How will the members of our federal government act in 2018?

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Why don’t we remember Watergate?

Posted on October 1, 2014. Filed under: Politics, U.S. Constitution, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , |

Hello and welcome to the final post in our series on the Watergate Crisis, in which we ask the depressing question, Why have Americans forgotten about Watergate? This series has only given an outline of the terrible challenge to our democracy posed by President Nixon’s actions, and those of his top advisors. Their attempt to put the executive branch above the law and create an imperial presidency, if successful, would have allowed the president, any president, to commit any crime s/he felt was necessary to achieve her/his goals. Whether or not the president’s goals were good ones would be immaterial.

The American public’s response to this attempted hostile takeover was spectacular. They rose up almost as one to protest. Network news, newspapers large and small, and the man on the street all knew that the Constitution was being violated and they all refused to sit back and accept that. Nixon was out of office once his criminal activities and determination were clear. Maybe that’s part of the problem. The reaction was so swift and complete, and Nixon out so quickly (and immediately pardoned by Gerald Ford, so there was no long criminal trial after his resignation), and Americans so eager to leave the sordid episode behind them, that Watergate was collectively buried. More Americans today know about George Washington’s alleged infidelity (a complete lie, by the way) or Lincoln’s alleged homosexuality (don’t know, but it doesn’t seem likely) than the actual, open, undeniable crimes committed by Richard Nixon.

But we think the amnesia surrounding Watergate is caused by something far worse than a quick burial. One of the long-term effects of the crisis was a deep mistrust of the federal government. This is so inexplicable. Representatives of the federal government, notably the Watergate special prosecutor Cox, Attorneys General Richardson and Ruckelshaus, the Supreme Court, and all the members of the Senate Watergate Committee heroically resisted efforts to corrupt them. It was men within the president’s inner circle who committed and/or ordered the crimes, not the machinery of the federal government. The federal government rejected the attempt to transgress the Constitution, and the next two presidents after Nixon, Ford and Carter, made strenuous efforts to restore the dignity and honor of the executive branch. Yet somehow, over the 1980s, the message of Watergate became “You can’t trust the government.”

Perhaps the controversial/criminal actions of the Reagan Administration, coming so soon after Nixon’s, became merged with Nixon in the public mind, and led people to believe that the government had not been trustworthy since Kennedy.

Or maybe the steady decrease in civics education from the 1970s on created new generations of Americans who have no idea why Nixon’s actions were criminal.

Or maybe the imperial actions of President George W. Bush, and over a decade of invasion of privacy and other constitutional violations, notably by the Patriot Act, have made Americans forget that the president is not supposed to govern by executive order.

Whatever the reason, it’s bad news to forget about Watergate—what it threatened, who stood up to it, and how the Constitution and good government triumphed. If we begin to believe as a nation that we have “never” had good government, that “all” presidents are corrupt, or that the president is “supposed to” rule the nation like a king, then Nixon wins, corruption wins, and it’s as if Bill Ruckelshaus never stood up to the power of the president who told him he had “no choice but to obey” and said, “I have a choice—I can resign.” We all have the choice to refuse to obey when our Constitution is threatened, whether it’s by the federal government, or by our own ignorance.

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Nixon Resigns… and passes the buck

Posted on September 25, 2014. Filed under: Politics, U.S. Constitution, What History is For | Tags: , , , |

Second to last post in our series on the Watergate Crisis; here we follow the crisis to its end, in President Nixon’s resignation on August 8, 1974. The Smoking Gun tape released three days earlier evaporated any support Nixon had left in Congress, and the handful of its members who had voted against impeachment in the House Judiciary Committee said they would now vote for it when the full House voted. The night of August 7, two Senators and a Congressman met with Nixon and told him impeachment in the House and Senate was a certainty. Faced with this, Nixon decided to resign before he could be impeached.

It was a move true to his character. In a way, resigning before he could be impeached was just another form of being above the law—no one would impeach Richard Nixon. He would not submit to Congress in that way. He would get out before the law could be exercised on him, before democratic procedure could be completed.

Nixon gave two resignation speeches that were exemplars of his twisted logic. The first was to the nation, on August 8, 1974, where he said, in part,

In all the decisions I have made in my public life, I have always tried to do what was best for the Nation. Throughout the long and difficult period of Watergate, I have felt it was my duty to persevere, to make every possible effort to complete the term of office to which you elected me. In the past few days, however, it has become evident to me that I no longer have a strong enough political base in the Congress to justify continuing that effort. As long as there was such a base, I felt strongly that it was necessary to see the constitutional process through to its conclusion, that to do otherwise would be unfaithful to the spirit of that deliberately difficult process and a dangerously destabilizing precedent for the future….

—That first sentence is breathtakingly deceitful. If Americans had learned anything by August 8, 1974, it was that Nixon was always out to do what was best for Nixon. He goes on to describe Watergate as a cross he has been forced to bear rather than a crime committed in his name that he himself covered up. Nixon then blames Congress for failing to support him, and forcing him to abrogate the “constitutional process” (by which he means serving his full elected term). To hear Nixon lament a breach of the Constitution at this point is, to put it succinctly, pretty rich.

I would have preferred to carry through to the finish whatever the personal agony it would have involved, and my family unanimously urged me to do so. But the interest of the Nation must always come before any personal considerations. From the discussions I have had with Congressional and other leaders, I have concluded that because of the Watergate matter I might not have the support of the Congress that I would consider necessary to back the very difficult decisions and carry out the duties of this office in the way the interests of the Nation would require.

—Again, Congress is the villain here. There is also a veiled threat (something Nixon was good at): there are “very difficult decisions and duties” the president must handle, but now, because of Congress, Nixon has to leave office, and it’s likely that the man to take his place will not be able to do as good a job handling these difficulties as Nixon.

I have never been a quitter. To leave office before my term is completed is abhorrent to every instinct in my body. But as President, I must put the interest of America first. America needs a full-time President and a full-time Congress, particularly at this time with problems we face at home and abroad. To continue to fight through the months ahead for my personal vindication would almost totally absorb the time and attention of both the President and the Congress in a period when our entire focus should be on the great issues of peace abroad and prosperity without inflation at home. Therefore, I shall resign the Presidency effective at noon tomorrow. Vice President Ford will be sworn in as President at that hour in this office.

—Again, no one puts the nation ahead of personal interests like Nixon. Again, Congress is a villain. And again, the nation is in particular peril “with problems we face at home and abroad” and will likely suffer in Nixon’s absence, so in a way we, the American people, are also villains for failing to support Nixon, and we will get our just desserts.

The second speech was given the next day to the White House staff, privately. It was mostly impromptu, and rambling, and in places very weird. Nixon talked about his parents and how saintly his mother was, and he talked about Theodore Roosevelt’s struggle to recover from the death of his first wife. We’ll focus on the parts where he came closest to addressing why he was leaving office:

…I am proud of this Cabinet. I am proud of all the members who have served in our Cabinet. I am proud of our sub-Cabinet. I am proud of our White House Staff. As I pointed out last night, sure, we have done some things wrong in this Administration, and the top man always takes the responsibility, and I have never ducked it. But I want to say one thing: We can be proud of it — five and a half years. No man or no woman came into this Administration and left it with more of this world’s goods than when he came in. No man or no woman ever profited at the public expense or the public till. That tells something about you.

—In defending his staff, Nixon really places blame on them for the first time. No one had thought the Watergate cover-up extended beyond Nixon and his top half-dozen aides. By saying he is proud of them and that “we” have done “some things wrong”, and that as “top man” he has taken responsibility for those wrongful acts, Nixon really seems to be saying he took the fall for his entirely criminal staff. Then he seems to note that none of them ever made any money from their crimes.

Mistakes, yes. But for personal gain, never. You did what you believed in. Sometimes right, sometimes wrong. And I only wish that I were a wealthy man — at the present time, I have got to find a way to pay my taxes — and if I were, I would like to recompense you for the sacrifices that all of you have made to serve in government. We think sometimes when things happen that don’t go the right way; we think that when you don’t pass the bar exam the first time — I happened to, but I was just lucky; I mean, my writing was so poor the bar examiner said, “We have just got to let the guy through.” We think that when someone dear to us dies, we think that when we lose an election, we think that when we suffer a defeat that all is ended. We think, as [Theodore Roosevelt] said, that the light had left his life forever. Not true.

—Again, it’s the staff who committed the crimes—“you” did what “you” believed in, “Sometimes right, sometimes wrong.” And then again the odd swerve into talking about money. And then, after accusing his staff of crimes and of making him take the fall, he comforts them by saying they mustn’t worry about him, that the light has not left their lives forever just because he is leaving office. They will survive their grief at losing him, somehow.

It is only a beginning, always. The young must know it; the old must know it. It must always sustain us, because the greatness comes not when things go always good for you, but the greatness comes and you are really tested, when you take some knocks, some disappointments, when sadness comes, because only if you have been in the deepest valley can you ever know how magnificent it is to be on the highest mountain.

…Always give your best, never get discouraged, never be petty; always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.

—Nixon’s suffering has made him great; it has purified him to the point where he can end with a parable. To hear Nixon, whom the tapes revealed to be one of the most petty men in public office, constantly pursuing old grudges and trying to harm people for small offenses, loftily telling people not to be petty is remarkable. To hear the man who hated just about everyone he ever met say you should never hate because then “you destroy yourself” is almost funny.

He was right, though; his hatred and pettiness did destroy him, and he lost while most of the people he tried to bring down won. Next time, we’ll go over the legacy of Watergate.

Next time: Why don’t we remember Watergate?

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The money trail and the “Smoking Gun”

Posted on September 4, 2014. Filed under: Politics, U.S. Constitution, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , |

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 Watergate.info 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

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Watergate: The cover-up begins

Posted on August 22, 2014. Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , |

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

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