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What was Watergate?

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In light of Robert Mueller’s investigation into Donald Trump’s possible ties to Russian interference in the 2016 US Presidential election, it is worth looking back at the Watergate scandal. Comparing the two situations, one cannot help but get a sense of déjà vu. 

President Richard Nixon was involved in a widescale scandal that eventually led to his resignation. History does tend to repeat itself, as the US president is once again wrapped in an international political scandal. On that note, this article aims to shed light on what really happened during the Watergate Scandal. 

Who was Richard Milhous Nixon?

Before he became president, Nixon was a lieutenant commander in the US Navy during World War II. Afterwards, he became a Californian congressman and senator. He continued climbing the political career ladder and served as US vice president to Dwight D Eisenhower for eight years, before he decided to run for president himself.

In 1960, he entered the presidential race, but lost to John F Kennedy. Needless to say, Nixon was not happy with this outcome. He blamed the media for favoring his opponent. He did eventually make it to the White House in 1968, but that resentment never went entirely away. 

During Nixon’s five-and-a-half years presidency, he waged five overlapping wars: on the media, Democrats, the US judiciary, US history, and not-surprisingly, on the anti-war movement itself. 

His goal was to undermine anyone who he saw as an enemy, including people who leaked the Pentagon Papers. In response, Nixon appointed the so-called ‘White House Plumbers’, who were tasked with stopping the leak of classified documents. Eventually, the ‘Plumbers’ were tasked with other illegal activities. 

The Watergate robbery

In the early morning of June 17, 1972, several burglars were arrested in the Watergate buildings in Washington DC which was the office of the Democratic National Committee. This was no ordinary robbery though. The crime was connected with Nixon’s reelection campaign.

Investigations showed that they found wiretapping phones and stolen documents on the burglars. One of the robbers was identified as E Howard Hunt, an ex-CIA officer and one of Nixon’s ‘Plumbers’. 

As a matter of fact, Nixon never ordered the break-in. However, to make the matter more suspicious, Nixon went to great lengths to cover the crime up. The real scandal was the subsequent collusion to distance himself and his administration from the crime. 

Reportedly, six weeks after the burglary, Nixon ordered his chief of staff Bob Haldeman to cover the incident saying: “They have to be paid. That’s all there is to that.”

Nixon’s second term

Somehow, Nixon was able to overcome the growing discontent surrounding the Watergate break-in and he won the re-election in 1972. He beat his democratic opponent George McGovern with one of the most substantial margins in US history.

During his second term, Nixon’s attempt to obstruct justice continued. Later investigations highlighted how Nixon and his aides planned to instruct the CIA to impede the FBI’s investigation. This plan did not work, however, and in January 1973 seven conspirators were indicted. Five of them pleaded guilty and the other two were convicted in trial. 

Two important personas in uncovering the Watergate scandal were Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. They later won a Pulitzer Prize for their reporting. 

Their work included following the money trail which led the burglary back to Nixon’s people. As they kept investigating the issue, their stories were continuously and vehemently denied by the White House and its press secretary at the time, Ronald Ziegler. 

Much of the information that they received came from an anonymous whistleblower only known as ‘Deep Throat’. Many years later, in 2005, it was revealed that the anonymous source had been W. Mark Felt, a former associate director of the FBI.

The infamous tapes

Several of Nixon’s aides testified in front of a grand jury. Some admitted that the president had secretly taped every conversation that took place in the Oval Office. During the summer and fall of 1973, Nixon tried everything to protect the tapes.

The prosecution would not give up that easily though. A special prosecutor named Archibald Cox was adamant about obtaining the tapes. When Nixon realized that he was not going to give up, he ordered for him to be fired. 

In protest, several officials of the Department of Justice resigned. This event took place on Saturday October 20, 1973, which came to be known as the Saturday Night Massacre. 

The saga continues In March 1974, when seven of Nixon’s officials were indicted. They became known as the Watergate Seven. Meanwhile, the battle over the Oval Office tapes continued and went all the way to the US Supreme Court. Eventually, the court ruled unanimously that the tapes had to be released. 

It came to light that 18 minutes of the recording had been erased. Nixon’s personal secretary Rose Mary Woods claimed that she had done this by accident, but further investigations proved that the tape had purposely been erased in several sections. 

In August 1974, a new audio tape surfaced which contained a recording in the Oval Office in which Richard Nixon and Bob Haldeman hatched a plan to block FBI investigations, claiming that national security was the reals issue in the Watergate break-ins. 

This particular extract from the tape was henceforward known as the ‘smoking gun’. Nixon’s own lawyers later stated that it “proved that the President had lied to the nation, to his closest aides, and to his own lawyers for more than two years.” 

The end of the Nixon era

It was clear that this was game-over for President Richard Nixon. Facing certain impeachment, he decided to resign. On August 9, 1974, Nixon and his wife left the White House. As he stepped into the helicopter, he gave his famous v-sign salute which later became one of his best-known trademarks.

The famous Nixon v-sign

He was succeeded by President Gerald Ford, who issued a presidential pardon for Nixon. Thus, Richard Nixon himself never faced any charges, but in total the scandal resulted in 69 government officials being charged and 48 being found guilty. Reading this story in 2019, one cannot help but be alarmed by the similarities between the Watergate Scandal and the current Russia investigation. As the world continues to watch the American presidency, this might be the year in which President Donald J. Trump’s fate will be decided. 



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