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The Nixon Administration and Watergate

'Executive Privilege'

Project: Nixon, Ford, and Watergate
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White House counsel John Dean meets with President Nixon, who tells him that Watergate is taking up too much time from his top aides, H. R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman. Henceforth, Dean can now stop reporting to them and report directly to Nixon. Dean finds Nixon’s rationale puzzling. According to Dean’s later testimony before the Senate Watergate Committee (see June 25-29, 1973), “He also told me that they were principals in the matter and I, therefore, could be more objective than they.” Dean isn’t sure what Nixon means by calling Haldeman and Ehrlichman “principals.” Dean later testifies that Nixon is adamant about never allowing either of the aides to “go to the Hill” and testify before the Senate. Instead, he says, he will protect them with a claim of executive privilege. At most, he says, the two aides will be allowed to respond to written questions. Dean tells Nixon that this “could be handled.” [Time, 7/9/1973]

Entity Tags: John Dean, H.R. Haldeman, Richard M. Nixon, John Ehrlichman, Senate Watergate Investigative Committee

Category Tags: 'Executive Privilege', Senate Watergate Investigation, Allegations of White House Cover-up

President Nixon says he will invoke “executive privilege” to prevent White House counsel John Dean from testifying at the confirmation hearings of FBI director L. Patrick Gray (see February 28-29, 1973). “No president could ever agree to allow the counsel to the president to go down and testify before a committee,” Nixon says. “I stand on the same position there that every president has stood on.” The Washington Post reports Nixon’s claim along with the news that Dean has apparently made two critical sets of Watergate documents disappear (see June 28, 1972). [Bernstein and Woodward, 1974, pp. 273; Reeves, 2001, pp. 574]

Entity Tags: L. Patrick Gray, Richard M. Nixon, John Dean

Category Tags: 'Executive Privilege', Allegations of White House Cover-up

John Dean.John Dean. [Source: Southern Methodist University]According to his later testimony before the Senate Watergate Committee (see June 25-29, 1973), White House counsel John Dean talks for the first time to President Nixon about the payment of “hush money” to the seven Watergate defendants (see June 20-21, 1972 and March 21, 1973). With Nixon’s top aide, H. R. Haldeman, present, Dean, according to his testimony, “told the president that there was no money to pay these individuals to meet their demands. He asked me how much it would cost. I told him that I could only estimate, that it might be as high as a million dollars or more. He told me that that was no problem and he also looked over at Haldeman and repeated the statement. He then asked me who was demanding this money, and I told him it was principally coming from [Watergate burglar E. Howard] Hunt through his attorney.” Nixon then reminds Dean that Hunt has been promised executive clemency (see January 8-9, 1973). Though Nixon will deny any knowledge of either payoffs or executive clemency, if Dean’s testimony is true, Nixon could well be guilty of obstruction of justice. The White House will also claim that this topic first comes up on March 21 rather than today (see March 21, 1973). [Time, 7/9/1973]

Entity Tags: H.R. Haldeman, E. Howard Hunt, Richard M. Nixon, John Dean, Senate Watergate Investigative Committee

Category Tags: 'Executive Privilege', Senate Watergate Investigation, Allegations of White House Cover-up, Payoffs and Blackmail

In regards to the Watergate investigations, President Nixon promises that he will not use the claim of executive privilege to impede testimony or the presentation of evidence: “Executive privilege will not be invoked as to any testimony concerning possible criminal conduct or discussions of possible criminal conduct, in the matters presently under investigation, including the Watergate affair, and the alleged cover-up.” It is with this understanding that former White House counsel John Dean testifies before the Senate Watergate Committee (see June 3, 1973). [Washington Post, 7/17/1973]

Entity Tags: Senate Watergate Investigative Committee, John Dean, Richard M. Nixon

Category Tags: 'Executive Privilege', Senate Watergate Investigation

President Nixon refuses to testify before the Senate Watergate Committee, and will not provide access to White House documents. Nixon invokes “executive privilege” in his denials. Weeks before, Nixon promised not to use the executive privilege claim to impede testimony or evidence (see May 22, 1973). [Gerald R. Ford Library and Museum, 7/3/2007]

Entity Tags: Nixon administration, Senate Watergate Investigative Committee, Richard M. Nixon

Category Tags: 'Executive Privilege', Senate Watergate Investigation, Allegations of White House Cover-up

Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox and the Senate Watergate Committee demand that President Nixon hand over a selection of presidential documents and the secret White House tapes (see July 13-16, 1973). Nixon refuses to hand over any of the requested material. [Gerald R. Ford Library and Museum, 7/3/2007] He invokes “executive privilege,” which Nixon says is essential to maintaining the constitutional mandate of the separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches. Cox immediately subpoenas the documents and tapes, as does the Senate committee. Commitee chairman Sam Ervin (D-NC) says: “I deeply regret that this situation has arisen, because I think that the Watergate tragedy is the greatest tragedy this country has ever suffered. I used to think that the Civil War was our country’s greatest tragedy, but I do remember that there were some redeeming features in the Civil War in that there was some spirit of sacrifice and heroism displayed on both sides. I see no redeeming features in Watergate.” Vice chairman Howard Baker (R-TN) is a bit more equivocal, saying he is disappointed in being “on the brink of a constitutional confrontation between the Congress and the White House.” The documents, Baker says, are “essential, if not vital, to the full, thorough inquiry mandated and required of this committee.” In a letter to Ervin, Nixon says the tapes are not essential to the investigation; he has personally gone through them and they “are entirely consistent with what I know to be the truth and what I have stated to be the truth.” However, some of the comments on the tapes could be misconstrued, he says, and much of the conversations on the tapes are of a “frank and very private” nature. The tapes will remain “under my sole personal control,” Nixon writes. “None has been transcribed or made public and none will be.” Cox argues that, as a member of the executive branch himself, there is no issue over separation of powers; White House consultant Charles Alan Wright retorts in a letter to Cox that since he does not report either to the attorney general or the president, his role is hard to define. But if Cox is indeed a member of the executive branch, “you are subject to the instructions of your superiors, up to and including the president, and can have access to presidential papers only as and if the president sees fit to make them available to you.” Even more importantly, Wright notes, if the tapes become available to the judiciary, then the argument of separation of powers involving the executive and judicial branches is an issue. Cox rejects Wright’s argument. The ultimate arbiter of this dispute may not even be the Supreme Court, as it has no power to compel Nixon to turn over the tapes even if it rules against him. Impeachment and conviction seems the only legal method to ultimately force Nixon’s hand if he continues to be recalcitrant. [Washington Post, 7/24/1973]

Entity Tags: US Supreme Court, Archibald Cox, Charles Alan Wright, Sam Ervin, Richard M. Nixon, Senate Watergate Investigative Committee

Category Tags: 'Executive Privilege', Senate Watergate Investigation, Watergate Special Prosecutor, Allegations of White House Cover-up, Watergate Tapes and Documents

The Senate Watergate Committee files a lawsuit against President Nixon for his failure to comply with its subpoena for documents and tapes (see July 23-26, 1973). [Gerald R. Ford Library and Museum, 7/3/2007]

Entity Tags: Senate Watergate Investigative Committee, Richard M. Nixon

Category Tags: 'Executive Privilege', Allegations of White House Cover-up, Watergate Tapes and Documents

August 16, 1972 front page of the Washington Post, reporting on Nixon’s address.August 16, 1972 front page of the Washington Post, reporting on Nixon’s address. [Source: Southern Methodist University]President Nixon delivers his second prime-time televised speech about Watergate to the nation. He says that both the Senate investigations have focused more on trying to “implicate the president personally in the illegal activities that took place,” and reminds listeners that he has already taken “full responsibility” for the “abuses [that] occurred during my administration” (see April 30, 1973). But in light of the increasing evidence being revealed about the Watergate conspiracy, Nixon’s speech is later proven to be a compilation of lies, half-truths, justifications, and evasions.
'No Prior Knowledge' - He again insists that “I had no prior knowledge of the Watergate break-in; I neither took part in nor knew about any of the subsequent cover-up activities; I neither authorized nor encouraged subordinates to engage in illegal or improper campaign tactics. That was and that is the simple truth.” He says that in all the Senate testimony, “there is not the slightest suggestion that I had any knowledge of the planning for the Watergate break-in.” He says only one witness has challenged his statement under oath, referring to former White House counsel John Dean (see April 6-20, 1973) and June 25-29, 1973), and says Dean’s “testimony has been contradicted by every other witness in a position to know the facts.” Instead, says Nixon, he insisted from the outset that the investigation into the Watergate burglary be “thorough and aboveboard,” and if there were any evidence of “higher involvement, we should get the facts out first.” A cover-up would be unconscionable, he says. He again insists that he was told in September 1972 that an FBI investigation, “the most extensive investigation since the assassination of President Kennedy… had established that only those seven (see June 17, 1972) were involved.” Throughout, Nixon says, he relied on the reports of his staff members, Justice Department, and FBI officials, who consistently reassured him that there was no involvement by anyone in the White House in the burglaries. “Because I trusted the agencies conducting the investigations, because I believed the reports I was getting, I did not believe the newspaper accounts that suggested a cover-up. I was convinced there was no cover-up, because I was convinced that no one had anything to cover up.”
Internal Investigation - He didn’t realize that those assurances were wrong until March 21, when he “received new information from [Dean] that led me to conclude that the reports I had been getting for over nine months were not true.” He immediately launched an internal investigation (see August 29, 1972), initially relying on Dean to conduct the investigation, then turning the task over to his senior aide, John Ehrlichman, and to the Attorney General, Richard Kleindienst. The results prompted him to give the case to the Criminal Division of the Justice Department, ordering the complete cooperation of “all members of the administration.” He never tried to hide the facts, Nixon asserts, but instead has consistently tried “to discover the facts—and to lay those facts before the appropriate law enforcement authorities so that justice could be done and the guilty dealt with.”
Refusal to Turn over Tapes; 'Privileged' Communications - Nixon says he is resisting subpoenas to turn over the secret recordings he has had made of White House and other conversations (see July 13-16, 1973) because of “a much more important principle… than what the tapes might prove about Watergate.” A president must be able to talk “openly and candidly with his advisers about issues and individuals” without having those conversations ever made public. These are “privileged” conversations, he says, similar to those between a lawyer and his client or “a priest and a penitent.” The conversations between a president and his advisers, Nixon says, are “even more important.” The conversations on those tapes are “blunt and candid,” made without thought to any future public disclosure, and for future presidents and their advisers to know that their conversations and advice might one day be made public would cripple their ability to talk freely and offer unfettered opinions. “That is why I shall continue to oppose efforts which would set a precedent that would cripple all future presidents by inhibiting conversations between them and those they look to for advice,” he says. “This principle of confidentiality of presidential conversations is at stake in the question of these tapes. I must and I shall oppose any efforts to destroy this principle.”
'Hard and Tough' Politics - Watergate has come to encompass more than just a burglary, Nixon says, but has brought up issues of partisan politics, “enemy lists” (see June 27, 1973), and even threats to national security. Nixon has always run “hard and tough” political campaigns, but has never stepped outside the law and “the limits of decency” in doing so. “To the extent that these things were done in the 1972 campaign, they were serious abuses, and I deplore them,” he says. The “few overzealous people” involved in the Watergate burglary should not reflect on his administration or the political process as a whole. He will “ensure that one of the results of Watergate is a new level of political decency and integrity in America—in which what has been wrong in our politics no longer corrupts or demeans what is right in our politics.”
Legal Wiretapping to Protect the Nation - The measures he has taken to protect the security of the nation have all been within the law and with the intention of protecting the government from possible subversion and even overthrow, he asserts. The wiretaps he authorized had been legal, he says, until the 1972 decision by the Supreme Court that rejected such wiretaps as unlawful (see June 19, 1972). Until then, Nixon says, he—like his predecessors—had implemented such wiretaps “to protect the national security in the public interest.” Since the Supreme Court decision, he says, he has stopped all such surveillance efforts. But the law must be mindful of “tying the president’s hands in a way that would risk sacrificing our security, and with it all our liberties.” He will continue to “protect the security of this nation… by constitutional means, in ways that will not threaten [American] freedom.”
The Fault of the Radicals - He blames the antiwar and civil rights movements of the 1960s as encouraging “individuals and groups… to take the law into their own hands,” often with the praise and support from the media and even from “some of our pulpits as evidence of a new idealism. Those of us who insisted on the old restraints, who warned of the overriding importance of operating within the law and by the rules, were accused of being reactionaries.” In the wake of this radical, anti-government atmosphere, the country was plagued by “a rising spiral of violence and fear, of riots and arson and bombings, all in the name of peace and in the name of justice. Political discussion turned into savage debate. Free speech was brutally suppressed as hecklers shouted down or even physically assaulted those with whom they disagreed. Serious people raised serious questions about whether we could survive as a free democracy.” That attitude permeated political campaigns, to the extent that “some persons in 1972 adopted the morality that they themselves had tightly condemned and committed acts that have no place in our political system… who mistakenly thought their cause justified their violations of the law.”
Looking Forward - It is time to put Watergate behind us, Nixon says, to abandon this “continued, backward-looking obsession with Watergate” and stop “neglect[ing] matters of far greater importance to all of the American people.… The time has come to turn Watergate over to the courts, where the questions of guilt or innocence belong. The time has come for the rest of us to get on with the urgent business of our nation.” [White House, 8/15/1973; White House, 8/15/1973; White House, 8/15/1973; AMDOCS Documents for the Study of American History, 6/1993; Gerald R. Ford Library and Museum, 7/3/2007]

Entity Tags: US Department of Justice, US Supreme Court, John Dean, Richard Kleindienst, Richard M. Nixon, Federal Bureau of Investigation, John Ehrlichman, Senate Watergate Investigative Committee

Category Tags: 'Executive Privilege', Senate Watergate Investigation, Nixon, Ford Relations with Media, Allegations of White House Cover-up, Illegal Wiretapping & Surveillance, Nixon Campaign 'Dirty Tricks', Political Subordination of FBI, CIA, Watergate Tapes and Documents

Judge John Sirica orders President Nixon to hand over nine of the secret White House tapes for Sirica to review in private. Nixon refuses, but will lose in the courts. [Gerald R. Ford Library and Museum, 7/3/2007]

Entity Tags: Richard M. Nixon, John Sirica

Category Tags: 'Executive Privilege', Watergate Tapes and Documents

The cover of ‘Conservatives Without Conscience.’The cover of ‘Conservatives Without Conscience.’ [Source: Barnes and Noble (.com)]Author and former Nixon White House counsel John Dean writes in his book Conservatives Without Conscience that it was never public opinion that drove Richard Nixon to resign his office (see August 8, 1974).
Loss of Support among White House Officials Forced Resignation - In 1981, social scientist Bob Altermeyer wrote in his book Right Wing Authoritarianism that Nixon resigned, not because of his plummeting poll ratings, but “because [Nixon]‘s attorney had forced the disclosure of evidence so damaging that it seemed certain he would be convicted of high crimes by the Senate.” Dean approvingly cites Altermeyer’s conclusion and adds, “This is true, but there is more to the story.” Nixon had a number of legal recourses to answer any charges brought against him, Dean writes, “many of which [President] Bush and [Vice President] Cheney are promoting today under the rubric of national security and the inherent power of the presidency.” Nixon finally resigned, Dean argues, not because of public opinion, or of fear of the law, or even because of the erosion of support he suffered among members of Congress. It was the abandonment of Nixon by his own defenders in the White House that finally drove Nixon to resign. “Other than White House counsel Fred Buzhardt, and possibly chief of staff Al Haig (with whom Buzhardt had roomed at West Point), no one was aware that Nixon was lying about what he knew and when he knew it once the cover-up had initially fallen apart. Nixon provided the lawyer he had hired to defend him in the House’s impeachment inquiry (see May 9, 1974), James St. Clair, with false information, and St. Clair—as it happened—was a man of integrity and not a right-wing authoritarian follower. When he found out that his client had lied to him he had two choices: to resign or to join the new cover-up. He was, as it happened, interested in participating in the latter.”
Bush, Cheney Would Defy Law, Dean Argues - Dean continues: “Nixon at one point considered defying the Supreme Court ruling that he turn over his incriminating tapes (evidence that revealed that his defense was a sham) (see July 24, 1974) on the very grounds that Bush and Cheney argue. They have authority under the Constitution to read it and comply with it as they see fit. Once it was apparent that Richard Nixon had broken the law, he made the most significant decision of his presidency: the decision to honor the rule of law and resign.… [T]here is little doubt in my mind that Bush and Cheney, in the same situation, would not budge; rather, they would spin the facts as they always have, and move forward with their agenda. The president and vice president, it appears, believe the lesson of Watergate was not to stay within the law, but rather not to get caught. And if you do get caught, claim that the president can do whatever he thinks necessary in the name of national security.” [Dean, 2006, pp. 181-182]

Entity Tags: George W. Bush, Alexander M. Haig, Jr., Fred Buzhardt, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, James St. Clair, Richard M. Nixon, John Dean, Bob Altermeyer

Category Tags: 'Executive Privilege'

James Reston Jr.James Reston Jr. [Source: James Reston, Jr]James Reston Jr., a member of David Frost’s research team for the famous Nixon-Frost interviews (see Early 1976), publishes his book, The Conviction of Richard Nixon, about those debates and their echoes in the actions of the Bush administration. Reston writes that “it might be argued that the post-September 11 domestic abuses find their origin in Watergate. In 1977 the commentators were shocked when Nixon said about his burglaries and wiretaps, ‘If the president does it, that means it’s not illegal’ (see April 6, 1977).… These brazen words… come eerily down to us through the tunnel of the last thirty years.”
Presidential Immunity - Reston writes: “In the area of criminal activity, Nixon argues, the president is immune. He can eavesdrop; he can cover up; he can approve burglaries; he can bend government agencies like the CIA and the FBI to his own political purposes. He can do so in the name of ‘national security’ and ‘executive privilege.’ And when these acts are exposed, he can call them ‘mistakes’ or ‘stupid things’ or ‘pipsqueak’ matters. In the 21st century, Nixon’s principle has been extended to authorizing torture, setting up secret prisons around the world, and ignoring the requirement for search warrants. A president can scrap the Geneva Convention and misuse the Defense Department and lie about the intelligence analyses. He is above the law. This is especially so when the nation is mired in an unpopular war, when the country is divided, when mass protests are in the streets of America, and an American president is pilloried around the world. If Nixon’s words resonate today, so also does the word Watergate.”
Echoes of Nixon and Watergate - Reston continues: “Again the nation is in a failing, elective war. A Nixon successor is again charged with abuse of power in covering up and distorting crucial facts as he dragged the country, under false pretenses, into war. Again secrecy reigns in the White House, and the argument is made that national security trumps all.… In 2007 the issue has returned with a vengeance. And one can become almost wistful in realizing that the period after Watergate brought an era of reform. A campaign finance law was passed; Congress reasserted its control over intelligence activities; and moral codes were enunciated for public officials. National security, the New York Times editorialized after the interviews, was no longer ‘the magic incantation’ that automatically paralyzed inquiry. After September 11, the incantation became magic again. And so, people have asked, after the Bush presidency, who will be his David Frost? It is hard to imagine that there will be one.” [Reston, 2007, pp. 9-10, 180]

Entity Tags: US Department of Defense, James Reston, Jr, George W. Bush, Federal Bureau of Investigation, David Frost, Central Intelligence Agency, Richard M. Nixon, Geneva Conventions

Category Tags: 'Executive Privilege', Political Subordination of FBI, CIA

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