Friday, February 22, 2013

February 22, 1973

Howard Baker, the top Republican on the Senate Watergate Committee meets secretly in the White House with the president in the Oval Office -- there's no record of it in the White House official records of such things. Baker tells the president (according to a conversation between Nixon and Erhlichman the next day) that the committee intends to build up slowly to the major witnesses; in Nixon's words, they would "call of a lot of pipsqueak witnesses, little, little shitasses over periods of weeks to build it up, and then build the pressure to call" the headliners. The fight, from the White House, is to keep Colson, Haldeman, and Ehrlichman -- and Dean, too -- from testifying based on a doctrine of executive privilege; the committee is going to try to defeat that by making it politically impossible for Nixon to refuse. Baker suggests just having the big names go first, in order to deflate the whole thing, but as Nixon tells Erhlichman the problem with it is exposing Haldeman and Colson (and, presumably, Ehrlichman too) to perjury. To Baker, he suggests some sort of deal in which the top men give testimony privately, but Baker won't go for it -- and, Emery points out, was in no position to grant it anyway.


Most of the Nixon/Baker meeting was not taped or not clear enough to understand. One bit:

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President Nixon: I know you'll do a good job. You're exactly right. The main thing is to have no damn cover-up. That's the worst that can happen, more than the substance of this is to prepare. No coverup, but also if it does get rough, then I think you may have to at a certain time turn and get away from this. You are going to have to get away from this.

--

It's classic Nixon from this period: claiming, and perhaps in some sense wanting, to come clean...except if it actually comes to it, of course the last thing he can do is come clean. At least Baker is smart enough to get through the meeting without being drawn into obstruction of justice himself.

Baker has also selected his minority counsel, as Haldeman tells Nixon in an earlier meeting:

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Haldeman: [...] Oh, Baker has appointed Fred Thompson, Minority Counsel

President Nixon: Oh shit, that kid.

Haldeman: I guess so.

President Nixon: They are going to lose them all...It's too damn bad the kid (unintelligible)

Haldeman: I guess that's the way it is. Is this Fred Thompson the young guy from Tennessee?

President Nixon: Yes. He is a young kid.

Haldeman: Well, we're stuck with him. Yes.

President Nixon: Yeah, I know.

3 comments:

  1. I checked out the corresponding Daily Diary (http://www.nixonlibrary.gov/virtuallibrary/documents/dailydiary.php), which notes from 9:35 to 12:25, "A complete record of the President's meetings during this time period was not available to the Office of Presidential Papers."

    Almost quaint.


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  2. Excuse my ignorance, but what was the problem with Thompson in the eyes of the White House?

    Also, what does Nixon mean by 'turn and get away from this'? Is he talking to Baker here?

    And J.B., with your incentives hat on (not that you ever take it off!), what do you think Baker is thinking at this point? Is impeachment now actually discernible on the horizon to guys like him, and Nixon's power over him therefore seriously diminished? If he's working to avoid obstruction of justice, how much does he have to worry at the other extreme about appearing disloyal to other Republicans?

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  3. I think that Nixon thought that Fred Thompson was too dumb to be a good interrogator for his side and that the Democrats would run circles around him. At some point Nixon got himself recorded saying "Oh shit, he's dumb as hell," referring to Thompson.

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