The Watergate Scandal

How a Break-In and a Cover-Up Brought Down a U.S. President

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Gill, Kathy. "The Watergate Scandal." ThoughtCo, May. 15, 2017, thoughtco.com/watergate-scandal-definition-3368100. Gill, Kathy. (2017, May 15). The Watergate Scandal. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/watergate-scandal-definition-3368100 Gill, Kathy. "The Watergate Scandal." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/watergate-scandal-definition-3368100 (accessed September 25, 2017).
Richard Nixon
Richard Nixon after receiving the 1968 presidential nomination at the Republican National Convention in Miami. Washington Bureau/Getty Images

The Watergate scandal was a defining moment in American politics and led the resignation of President Richard Nixon and the indictments of several of his advisers. The Watergate scandal was also a watershed moment for how journalism was practiced in the United States.

The scandal takes its name from the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C. The Watergate hotel was the site of a June 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters.

Five men were arrested and indicted for breaking and entering: Virgilio González, Bernard Barker, James W. McCord, Jr., Eugenio Martínez and Frank Sturgis. Two other men tied to Nixon, E. Howard Hunt, Jr. and G. Gordon Liddy, were hit with conspiracy, burglary and violation of federal wiretapping laws.

All seven men were either directly or indirectly employed by Nixon's Committee to Re-elect the President (CRP, sometimes referred to as CREEP). The five were tried and convicted in January 1973.

The indictments occurred as Nixon was running for re-election in 1972. He defeated Democratic opponent George McGovern. Nixon was certain to be impeached and convicted in 1974, but the 37th president of the United States resigned before he was to face prosecution.

Details of the Watergate Scandal

Investigations by the FBI, the Senate Watergate Committee, the House Judiciary Committee and the press (specifically Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of The Washington Post) revealed the break-in was one of several illegal activities authorized and carried out by Nixon's staff.

These illegal activities included campaign fraud, political espionage and sabotage, illegal break-ins, improper tax audits, illegal wiretapping, and a "laundered" slush fund used to pay those who conducted these operations.

Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein relied on anonymous sources as their investigation revealed that knowledge of the break-in and its to cover-up reached into the Justice Department, the FBI, the CIA, and the White House.

The primary anonymous source was an individual they nicknamed Deep Throat; in 2005, former Deputy Director of the FBI William Mark Felt, Sr., admitted to being Deep Throat.

Watergate Scandal Timeline

In February 1973, the U.S. Senate unanimously approved a resolution that impaneled the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities to investigate the Watergate burglary. Chaired by Democratic U.S. Sen. Sam Ervin, the committee held public hearings that became known as the "Watergate Hearings."

In April 1973, Nixon asked for the resignation of two of his most influential aides, H. R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman; both were indicted and went to prison. Nixon also fired White House Counsel John Dean. In May, Attorney General Elliot Richardson appointed a special prosecutor, Archibald Cox.

The Senate Watergate hearings were broadcast from May to August 1973. After the first week of the hearings, the three networks rotated daily coverage; the networks broadcast 319 hours of television, a record for a single event. However, all three networks carried the nearly 30 hours of testimony by former White House counsel John Dean.

After two years of investigations, evidence implicating Nixon and his staff grew, including the existence of a tape recording system in Nixon's office.

In October 1973, Nixon fired special prosecutor Cox after he subpoenaed the tapes. This act prompted the resignations of Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus. The press labeled this the "Saturday Night Massacre."

In February 1974, the U.S. House of Representatives authorized the House Judiciary Committee to investigate whether sufficient grounds existed to impeach Nixon. Three articles of impeachment were approved by the Committee, recommending that the House begin formal impeachment proceedings against President Richard M. Nixon.

Court Rules Against Nixon

In July 1974, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that Nixon had to hand over the tapes to investigators. These recordings further implicated Nixon and his aides. On  July 30, 1974, he complied.

Ten days after handing over the tapes, Nixon quit, becoming the only U.S. President to have resigned from office. The additional pressure: impeachment proceedings in the House of Representatives and certainty of a conviction in the Senate.

The Pardon

On  September 8, 1974, President Gerald Ford granted Nixon a full and unconditional pardon for any crimes he may have committed while President.

Memorable Lines

Republican U.S. Sen. Howard Baker asked, "What did the President know, and when did he know it?" It was the first question that focused on Nixon's role in the scandal.

Sources

Watergate - Museum.tv
Watergate Scandal - Wikipedia
Nixon Forces Firing of Cox; Richardson, Ruckelshaus Quit - Washington Post