WATERGATE Watergate is the popular name for the political scandal and constitutional crisis that began with the arrest (June 17, 1972) of five burglars who broke into DEMOCRATIC National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office building in Washington, D. C. It ended with the resignation (Aug. 9, 1974) of President Richard M. NIXON.
The burglars and two co-plotters-G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt-were indicted (September 1972) on charges of burglary, conspiracy, and wiretapping. Four months later, they were convicted and sentenced to prison terms by District Court Judge John J. Sirica, who was convinced that pertinent details had not been unveiled during the trial and proffered leniency in exchange for further information.
As it became increasingly evident that the Watergate burglars were tied closely to the Central Intelligence Agency and the Committee to Re-elect the President (CRP), some of Nixon's aides began talking to federal prosecutors. The defection of aides such as Jeb Stuart Magruder, assistant to CRP director John N. Mitchell, quickly implicated others in Nixon's inner circle. The Senate established (February 1973) an investigative committee headed by Sen. Sam Ervin, Jr.
, to look into the growing scandal. Amid increasing disclosures of White House involvement in the Watergate break-in and its aftermath, Nixon announced the resignations of John Ehrlichman and H. R. Haldeman, two of his closest advisors, and the dismissal of his counsel John W.
Dean III. Growing suspicion of presidential involvement in the scandal resulted in an intensification of the investigation. Leaders in this inquiry included Judge Sirica, reporters for the Washington Post, the Ervin committee, and Archibald COX, who was sworn in as special prosecutor in May 1973. Dean told the Ervin committee in June that Nixon had known of the cover-up. A month later, former White House staff member Alexander Butterfield revealed that Nixon had secretly tape-recorded conversations in his offices. Both Cox and the Ervin committee began efforts to obtain selected tapes.
Nixon, citing EXECUTIVE PRIVILEGE, refused to relinquish them and tried to have Cox fired. On Oct. 20, 1973, Attorney General Elliot L. Richardson, refusing to dismiss Cox, resigned in protest. His deputy, William Ruckelshaus, also refused and was fired. Nixon's solicitor general, Robert H.
Bork, who was next in command, then fired Cox. The "Saturday night massacre," as the events of that evening became known, heightened suspicions that Nixon had much to hide. Leon Jaworski, who replaced Cox as special prosecutor on November 1, continued to press for the tapes. On Mar.
1, 1974, a federal grand jury indicted seven men, including Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Mitchell, and White House special counsel Charles Colson, for conspiracy to obstruct justice. At the same time, the House Judiciary Committee began investigating the Watergate affair and related matters. The president released (April 30) edited transcripts-containing suspicious gaps-of Watergate-related Oval Office conversations. Not satisfied, Judge Sirica subpoenaed additional tapes. When Nixon refused, the case moved to the Supreme Court, which ruled (July 24) against him by an 8-0 vote. The Court conceded that a president could withhold national security material but insisted that Watergate was a criminal matter).
On July 27-30, the HOUSE Judiciary Committee, whose public hearings had disclosed evidence of illegal White House activities, recommended that Nixon be IMPEACHED on three charges: obstruction of justice, abuse of presidential powers, and trying to impede the impeachment process by defying committee subpoenas. The committee rejected two other possible counts: Nixon's unauthorized, secret bombing of Cambodia in 1969 and his use of public funds to improve his private property. A beleaguered President Nixon released three tapes to the public on Aug. 5, 1974. One revealed that he had taken steps to thwart the FBI's inquiry into the Watergate burglary. The tape made it clear that Nixon had been involved actively in the cover-up from its beginnings.
These disclosures destroyed the president's remaining congressional support. With House impeachment inevitable and SENATE conviction probable, Richard Nixon became (Aug. 9, 1974) the first U. S. chief executive to resign..