Richard Nixon was nearly impeached, convicted and removed from office, but he resigned before any of that could happen. His illegal activities while president, and his involvement in the Watergate cover-up, are indelibly etched in the annals of U.S. History.
When culled down to the basics, however, the Nixon saga can be very instructive in the current Trump era. Comparisons between Nixon’s attitudes/actions and Trump’s show some similarities well worth scrutinizing. So without further excess verbiage, what follows is a highly condensed chronology of the Nixon/Watergate/impeachment story. Following that will be a few extra facts and observations. In the meantime, see what you think.
The Nixon Chronology
- June/July 1971:
- The New York Times, Washington Post and other media outlets publish the “Pentagon Papers,” a secret history of the Vietnam War up until 1967, created by the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD). That information was leaked to the press by Daniel Ellsberg, a former DOD analyst who helped to create the documents.
- Because the FBI wouldn’t do his bidding and commit illegal acts, Nixon creates a covert special operations unit called the “Plumbers.” Working under the cover of The Committee to Re-elect the President, the “Plumbers” overall mission was to stop leaks within the Nixon administration and to discredit Nixon’s enemies.
- September 1971:
- Under the direction of the White House, the “Plumbers” burglarized the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist. Their intent was to find incriminating evidence about Ellsberg.
- May 1972:
- Undetected, the “Plumbers” burglarize the offices of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) at the Watergate complex in Washington DC where they photograph documents and install electronic eavesdropping equipment.
- June 1972:
- Five “Plumbers” return to the DNC but are caught by a security guard and arrested by the police. Initially, the five burglars are not connected to the White House.
- August 1972:
- In the bank account of one of the Watergate burglars, investigators discovered a $27,000 deposit by way of a check intended for the Nixon re-election campaign. The connection between the “Plumbers” and the White House begins to take shape.
- October 1972:
- Revelations show that the FBI had found clear evidence of how operatives of the Nixon Campaign not only directed the Watergate break-in but also was deeply involved in an extensive effort to spy on and sabotage any persons or groups opposed to the president.
- November 1972:
- Despite the damaging FBI information, Richard Nixon is re-elected in a landslide.
- January 1973:
- The Watergate five go on trial. Two are convicted of burglary, wiretapping and conspiracy. The other three plead guilty.
- April 1973:
- Four of Nixon’s inner circle leave the White House. One, John Dean, is fired. The other three, Attorney General Klinedienst, John Earlichman and H.R. Halderman, resign.
- May 1973:
- Senate televised hearings into the Watergate incident begin.
- Archibald Cox is assigned by the U.S. Attorney General as the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Special Prosecutor to investigate the Watergate situation and anything related to it.
- July-October 1973:
- Through the Watergate hearings, it comes to light that President Nixon had been secretly recording all of his conversations in the White House.
- A federal judge, Cox, the DOJ Special Prosecutor and the Senate investigating committee demand the tapes be turned over for review. Nixon refuses but suggests he submit a summary of the tapes. His offer was rejected.
- Because Special Prosecutor Cox won’t back off, Nixon orders Attorney General Richardson to fire him. Richardson refuses and resigns. And when Deputy Attorney General Ruckleshouse also refuses to fire Cox, he too resigns. Next in the DOD chain of command, Solicitor General, Robert Bork, does fire Cox. This series of events becomes known as The Saturday Night Massacre.
- Leon Jaworski becomes the new DOJ Special Prosecutor.
12. February 1974:
- By a 410-4 vote, the House of Representatives passes Resolution 803 authorizing the House Judiciary Committee to consider impeachment proceedings against Richard Nixon.
- March-April 1974:
- A grand jury for the new DOJ Special Prosecutor, Jaworski, indicts seven Nixon aides for criminal activity related to Watergate and it names Nixon as an unindicted co-conspirator.
- Nixon submits over 1,200 pages of White House tape transcripts to authorities.
- July 1974:
- Nixon finally releases specified recordings to Special Prosecutor Jaworksi after a unanimous Supreme Court rules that he must do so.
- Three Articles of Impeachment are approved by the House Judiciary Committee and are sent to the full house for a vote: Obstruction of Justice, Abuse of Power and Criminal Cover-up.
- August-September 1974:
- Nixon releases the transcripts of several recordings that prove his involvement in the Watergate cover-up. This made his impeachment in the House and conviction in the Senate a certainty.
- Three Republican Senators, including Barry Goldwater, visit Nixon and suggest he leave office voluntarily instead of suffering defeat in Congress.
- Nixon resigns on national TV, negating a need for an impeachment vote in the full House of Representatives.
- Vice President Gerald Ford immediately becomes President and eventually pardons Nixon from any prosecution he might face for his actions now that he had become a private citizen.
There you have it, Nixon at a glance. Ring any bells with regard to the current occupant of the White House? Now, even though Nixon got off scot-free, 40 of his aides, associates or collaborators were indicted, convicted or plead guilty to breaking the law. Many ended up in prison. Nixon didn’t pardon any of them before his resignation and Gerald Ford didn’t pardon them after Nixon left. That was then. What about now?
So the question arises as to what might eventually await Donald Trump’s aides, associates and collaborators even regardless of an impeachment proceeding, if, indeed, crimes were committed by any of these people. Would Trump pardon them selectively, en masse or not at all? Or, if Trump were impeached and removed from office, would the new president, Pence, pardon anyone, including the president? Can the President pardon himself as he claims?
One last thing before closing. During the Nixon years, the importance of a free press, as enshrined in our constitution, became vividly apparent in ways it never had before. It was Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post who most helped expose Nixon’s shenanigans to the world and blazed a trail leading to Nixon’s resignation.
And in that light, it will be today’s free press that will continue to help uncover the truth of what has been going on with Trump and crew. And then the facts will speak for themselves, whatever they may be.
For further information:
Nixon’s Resignation Speech (History.com 3 min.)
Watergate Scandal (History.com 2:33)
Time Magazine’s Take on Nixon (CNN.com 1:33)
Articles and books
A Short History of Impeachment: Johnson, Nixon and Clinton (Infoplease.com)
Impeachment History: Andrew Johnson (Indivisible of Central Florida)
Nixon Impeachment (Watergate.info.com)
Removal of a President Under the Constitution (Indivisible of Central Florida)
The Case for Impeachment (HarperCollins Publishers)
Watergate Fast Facts (CNN.com)