The Watergate Scandal and the Resignation of President Richard Nixon

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On April 30, 1973, President Richard Nixon addressed the nation not three months after his second inauguration, stating that he had fired two of his White House aides for their participation in what was to be known as the Watergate scandal. Those that were let go were Bob Haldeman and John Ehrlichman. Nixon said that he was in Florida when he first heard the news reports on the break-in at the offices of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate Building in Washington, D.C., and stated: “I was appalled at this senseless illegal action, and I was shocked to learn that employees of my Re-election Committee were apparently among those guilty' (Nixon, 243). Nixon claimed that he was given assurances repeatedly that his aides were not involved. He believed that he trusted those giving him these reports. He ordered that everyone was to cooperate fully with the FBI and others in their investigations or resign from their service. Nixon stated, “I will not place blame on subordinates; the responsibility, therefore, belongs here in this office, I accept it' (Nixon, 248). He went on to say, “There can be no whitewash at the White House' (Nixon, 252). The arrest and testimonies of several of Nixon’s aides and Nixon’s refusal to cooperate with the prosecution led to Nixon’s impending impeachment and the resignation of his presidency.

On July 16, 1973, an aide revealed in his testimony, that there were recordings of everything said in each of the President’s offices, which the President then refused to turn over to the prosecutor. In 1974 the tapes of the wiretapping and the recordings of conversations between Nixon and his staff were subpoenaed, but the President claimed to be honoring it by giving only transcripts of the conversations which announced his innocence, alleging that the tapes absolved him of any wrongdoing. In one of the transcripts, Nixon is speaking to Haldeman, Ehrlichman, and Henry Petersen stating, “I made clear there would be no coverup, we all have to do the right thing, we cannot have this kind of business, and we are going to get to the bottom of this thing' (Nixon, 267). Speaking to John Dean, Nixon stated, “Tell the truth, that is the thing I have told everybody around here' (Nixon, 267). Nixon firmly stated during this time he was innocent of any wrongdoing.

In May of 1973, William Merrill contacted Jack Miller, an old friend, to see if he could give his name to the Special Prosecutor, Archibald Cox. Jack Miller agreed to give Archibald Cox his name to become part of the prosecuting staff. Later that day, he sent a letter to the Special Prosecutor to let them know he was interested in becoming a part of their staff. William Merrill knew that his salary would be significantly lower than what he was currently making in his law firm if he were to be given the job. Merrill waited for a few days, then made an excuse to go to Washington on a separate business matter to talk to Cox in person. In mid-May, he got a call from Cox’s office stating that they wanted him as part of the staff, Merrill would require an FBI clearance. Even before the FBI clearance came in, on June 18, he received a phone call from the office asking if he could be available right away, to which he agreed. The next day, he arrived in Washington D. C. and took the oath as a Watergate Special Prosecutor in which he promised: “to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States of America' (Merrill, 8).

His first interview was with Charles Colson, who said he had received $5,000 in cash for break-in expenses from Everette Howard Hunt, a CIA agent and Gordon Liddy, an FBI agent. After the interview, Merrill in his excitement, almost shouted, “If he testifies, the defendants are dead' (Merrill, 16). It seemed that they had only just begun to uncover a little bit of the scandal. It would seem that David Young, of the Special Investigations Unit was in charge of getting the Plumbers to block the exposure of information that was supposedly being of great risk to the national security. William Merrill knew it was of great importance to interview David Young, a member of Henry Kissinger’s National Security Council. David Young had been recruited from a large prominent New York law firm by Henry Kissinger. In Young’s first interview with the original prosecutors he gave such roundabout answers that the prosecutors knew he was covering up information, his attorney told them if he was not given immunity, he would not testify, citing the Fifth Amendment. Allegedly, David Young had the only copy of a memo authorizing the break-in. In the memo, dated August 11, 1971, David Young and Egil Krogh recommended: “a covert operation to examine all the files still held by Ellsberg’s psychoanalyst' (Merrill, 16).

In July of 1973, Merrill met with General Robert Cushman, deputy director of the CIA. Merrill received a copy of a transcript of a conversation that Cushman had recorded between him and Hunt (unbeknownst to Hunt). During this time, the former Attorney General Mitchell was testifying in front of the Ervin Committee. Mitchell testified that the cover-up of the burglary was to avoid public disclosure. Due to Mitchell’s testimony, Merrill suggested to Henry Ruth, deputy special prosecutor, “that we should consider the advisability of having the trial of the Fielding break-in before the trial of the Watergate cover-up' (Merrill, 24).

A confrontation between Cox and Nixon had been escalating since Cox was appointed Special Prosecutor for the Watergate cover-up. Nixon did not cooperate with Cox concerning the submission and access to documents and files that had been repeatedly requested. Cox was also met with more than a few obstructions for obtaining the tapes of the wiretaps coordinated by the White House.

On July 23, Nixon refused to hand over the tapes, Cox stated publicly in an interview; that he would have them subpoenaed if Nixon did not produce the files. Cox went to Judge Sirica to obtain a subpoena for the tapes that Cox felt they held strong evidence of the Watergate coverup. The President’s lawyers opposed the subpoena; however, Judge Sirica ordered compliance concerning the subpoena. The President’s lawyers appealed the subpoena order; however, the appeal was denied by the Court of Appeals. After the Court of Appeals denied the subpoena order, Cox knew by continuing to insist on getting the tapes, that he was putting his career at risk. After Cox held a press conference, he returned to his office and stated: 'Well, I might not be here Monday' (Merrill, 44).

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In June of 1973, John Dean made a statement of the misdeeds by the Republicans in the White House in which he also named Nixon and Colson; however, he was not able to produce evidence to back his statement and was accused of being a bitter ex-coworker.

In July 13, 1973, Alexander Butterfield, Haldeman’s former deputy, took to the witness stand. He stated that the President recorded their meetings on tapes that Judge Sirica forced to be handed over. On October 19, 1973, Nixon suggested that Judge Sirica take the transcripts instead of the tapes (Convard, Quentin, et al., 12).

On October 19, John Dean would plead guilty for his role concerning the Watergate break-in; later that same day, Nixon stated he would hand over a summary of the tapes and that he wanted Cox to stop trying to get the tapes by subpoena. The press quoted Cox as saying “For me to comply with those instructions would violate my solemn pledge to the country to challenge exaggerated claims of executive privilege. I shall not violate my promise' (Merrill, 44).

Later, after the press conference held by Cox, Merrill stopped by his office to grab some memos he had on evidence pertaining to President Nixon. He found out that Cox had been fired and that the offices had been sealed off by the FBI. He had gone to a friend’s house for dinner, which was also an attorney; after everyone else left, Merrill told his friend what the FBI had done so he told Merrill to make copies and he would put them in a safety deposit box for safekeeping. After leaving his friends' law office, Merrill expected the FBI to be at his house and was surprised to find that they were not there.

A few days after Cox went into the office to say goodbye, Merrill met with Acting Attorney General Bork and the head of the Criminal Division of the Department of Justice Henry Peterson concerning the Fielding break-in; Bork signed a letter to the White House, pressing for documents and files. In the Washington Post, it was reported that “Nothing has dismayed the White House more than the aggressive investigation of the plumbers by the Cox task force…Nixon aides believe Merrill’s investigation…intends to implicate Mr. Nixon himself and that Merrill was said to be “an implacable foe of the President' (Merrill, 48).

When the Supreme Court agreed on the ruling of the Commission, the tapes were handed over. The tapes made clear that Nixon had done everything within his power to stop FBI investigations. Since he now had no deniability, on August 8, 1974 Richard Nixon resigned his post as the thirty-seventh President of the United States.

In the wake of the Watergate scandal, evidence would suggest that politics had gained a ‘black eye’. It would seem that at the time of all of the allegations if Nixon was innocent of any wrongdoing, he would have given the tapes instead of a summary of the transcriptions of the meetings that had taken place between him and his trusted office subordinates. Assumedly, Nixon thought he could get away with corrupting justice and creating a breach in the Constitutional rights of the American people. Perhaps, had President Nixon told the truth from the very beginning, there would not have been such a lengthy trial with so many put on the stand to testify against him. As evidence would also suggest, there should not have been any ‘whitewash by the White House’. It would seem that the Constitution proved to have more power than even the President of the United States.

Works Cited

  1. Convard, Quentin, et al. The Watergate Scandal: The Conspiracy That Brought Down Nixon., 2017. EBSCOhost,
  2. Merrill, William H. Watergate Prosecutor. Michigan State University Press, 2008. JSTOR,
  3. Perlstein, Rick, editor. Richard Nixon: Speeches, Writings, Documents. Princeton University Press, 2008. JSTOR,
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