"The point that the P is trying to determine with E and me is, who should talk to Mitchell to tell him the jig is up, and that the only way for this to be a plus is for you to go in and volunteer a statement."
That's how (in Haldeman's notes) April 14, a Saturday, begins in Nixon's Executive Office Building office. The business with confronting John Mitchell is, really comical: the White House conspirators have believed on and off from the start that the fallback line if the cover-up goes south is to have the people from the campaign take responsibility. Now that's combined with Colson's idea that the president should be the one to "crack the case."
EHRLICHMAN: (Unintelligible) he wants to be able to -- he wants you to be able to, to say afterward
that you cracked the case.
PRESIDENT: Go ahead. What else?
EHRLICHMAN: Well, I forget what else. Do you remember, Bob? Uh, uh --
HALDEMAN: Well, that was basically (unintelligible)
EHRLICHMAN: Basically, basically, uh, he, he feels that the next forty-eight hours are the, are the last chance...
EHRLICHMAN: ...for the White House to get out in front of this and that once Hunt goes on, then that's the ball game.
PRESIDENT: But you've got to be out in front earlier.
EHRLICHMAN: Well --
PRESIDENT: But, I mean/sorry, not earlier, but publicly.
EHRLICHMAN: Uh, either
EHRLICHMAN: ...either publicly or with provable, identifiable steps which can be referred to later as having been the proximate cause.
This will, in fact, become the basis of the cover-up of the cover-up: the president didn't know anything about the original crime beyond what the prosecutors had or anything about the cover-up until March.
It's a long conversation, late this morning. They cover the issue of pardons:
PRESIDENT: He says, for example, will he [Hunt] say that Colson promised him clemency?
EHRLICHMAN: No. Apparently not.
PRESIDENT: And, uh, you see the, the only, the only possible involvement Of the President in this is that. Now apparently, John, either you or Bob or Dean, somebody told me they said Cols-, told Colson not to discuss it with me.
EHRLICHMAN: I did.
PRESIDENT: You did. How did, bar-, how did it get to you then, John? How did you know that the, the matter had to be discussed with [Hunt's lawyer] Bittman or something like that?
EHRLICHMAN: Well, I...
PRESIDENT: When did this happen?
EHRLICHMAN: I had...
PRESIDENT: I remember a conversation this day, it was about five thirty or six o'clock, that Colson only dropped it in sort of parenthetically. He said, "I had a little problem today," -- and we were talking about
the defendants-- and I said, I sought to reassure him, you know, and so forth. And I said, "Well, that's" -- told me about Hunt's wife -- he said, "It's a terrible thing," and I said, "Obviously we'll do just, we will take that into consideration." And that was the total of the conversation.
Then later back to Mitchell
EHRLICHMAN: Well, let's, let's take it just as far as you calling Mitchell into the Oval Office, as a, as a...
EHRLICHMAN: ...essentially convinced that Mitchell was linchpin in this thing...
EHRLICHMAN: ...and that if he goes down, it can redound to the administration's advantage. If he doesn't then we're --
PRESIDENT: How can it redound to our advantage?
PRESIDENT: There's others - - -
EHRLICHMAN: ...That. You have a report from me based on three weeks' work, that when you got it, you
immediately acted to call Mitchell in as the, as the provable...
PRESIDENT: I see.
PRESIDENT: I see.
EHRLICHMAN: ...and you say, "My God, I've got a report here. And it's clear from this report that you are guilty as hell. Now, John, for Christ's sake go on in there and do what you should. And let's get this thing cleared up and get it off the country's back and move on." And, uh, uh --
HALDEMAN: Well, plus the given side of it is that that's the only...
PRESIDENT: Even way to --
HALDEMAN: ...way to beat 'er down.
Ehrlichman then writes the news story to come out of this plan:
EHRLICHMAN: The other one, the other one goes: "Events moved swiftly last week, after the President
was presented with a report indicating that, uh, uh -- for the first time -- that, uh, uh suspicion of John Mitchell and, uh, Jeb Magruder as ring-leaders in the uh, Watergate break-in were in fact substantiated by, uh, considerable evidence. Uh, the President then, uh, uh, dispatched so and so to do this and that and it"--
maybe to see Mitchell or, or something of that kind and, uh, uh --" these efforts, uh, resulted in Mitchell going to the U.S. Attorney's office on Monday morning at nine o'clock, uh, asking to, uh, testify before the Grand Jury. Uh, uh, charges of cover-up, uh, by the White House were, uh, uh, materially dispelled by the diligent efforts of the President and his aides in, uh, moving on evidence which came to their hands in the, in the closing days of the previous week." Ah --
PRESIDENT: I, I'd buy that.
PRESIDENT: You see, the differ, uh, uh, the uh, the problem of my position up to this time has been, quite frankly, nobody ever told me a God-damn thing...
EHRLICHMAN: That's right.
PRESIDENT: ...that Mitchell was guilty.
But then, Nixon suddenly voices something that he rarely even hints at:
PRESIDENT: Well, what I'm getting at is this, that uh, we're just talking here, not with Dean -- we're talking about Dean naturally -- you call my attention to [fired Ervin Committee investigator] Lipschitz' thing only I don't give a damn about the part of this with Hunt, Liddy, and the Cuban...
PRESIDENT: ...(Unintelligible) are in this thing. It would be my (tape noise) a reasonable time had expired after the thing (unintelligible, with tape noise) and before I leave office and they'll get off. You get them full
pardons. That's what they have to have, John.
It's a strange interlude, with enough transcription issuses that it's hard to know exactly what Nixon was saying here, but: full pardons.
They eventually decide that Ehrlichman is the one to talk to Mitchell, and spend an enormous amount of time rehearsing what he should say, how Mitchell might respond, and how Erhlichman should press him.
Nixon, during all of this, is prone to digressions -- the pardon one above, and this fun one -- at least for those who have read or heard the March 21 transcript of Nixon and Dean:
PRESIDENT: How does Dean's, incidentally what is the, what is the, what is the liability or, uh, Hunt, or, uh--I'm thinking of the payoff thing...
PRESIDENT: ...in this business,--somebody in, uh, Dean, Dean, uh, Dean asked, told me about the problem of Hunt's lawyer, uh, wanted--had gotten--this was a few weeks ago--needed, uh, needed sixty thousand or forty thousand dollars or something like that. You remember? He asked me about it and I said
I, I don't know where you can get it. I said I would, uh, I mean, I frankly felt he might try to get it but I didn't know where. And then he left it up with Mitchell and Mitchell then said it was taken care of--am I correct? Is my recollection...
EHRLICHMAN: Yes, sir. (unintelligible)
PRESIDENT: Is that approximately correct?
Well, no it's not even close to approximately correct, and points to one of the problems with this conspiracy: the conspirators are constantly lying to each other, with none more likely to tell lies than the President of the United States.
Another topic is whether or not to fire John Dean -- who is still, remember, White House Counsel and as far as they know, still loyal to the president. Nixon has decided to fire Dean, but there's an argument that as much as he can no longer function because of the publicity, they might be better off (and Dean more loyal) if he's still at the White House. And then there's this:
PRESIDENT: My point is, my point is that as three of us talked here, I realize, that frankly--in Mitchell's case he's guilty. In Dean's case (tape noise) it's the question. And I do not consider him guilty. Now that's all
there is to that.
PRESIDENT: ...Because if he's, if, if that's the case then hell, wouldn't you say, half the staff is guilty.
EHRLICHMAN: That's it. He's, he's guilty of really no more except in degree.
PRESIDENT: That's right.
That, at least, is true.
During that last bit, Haldeman is out of the room -- calling Mitchell to come down from New York, so that Ehrlichman can confront him.
And then they talk about having a similar confrontation with Magruder, and this time Nixon makes it clear what the context of the CRP men falling on their swords is:
PRESIDENT: I would, also, though I'd put a couple of grace notes in and say, Jeb, let me just start here by telling you the President's own great affection for you and for your family--real affection--my mind was thinking last night of his poor little kids in school...
HALDEMAN: Yeah, beautiful kids.
PRESIDENT: ...and his lovely wife and all the rest. And just, just put--it breaks your heart. And say this, this is a very painful message for me--for, for him to--I, I've been asked to give you, but, but, but I must do it and that's that. Let's put it right out that way. And also--I'd just put that in so that he knows that I have personal affection. That's the way to, that's the way the so-called clemency's got to be handled. Do you see, John? -
EHRLICHMAN: I understand.
HALDEMAN: Do the same thing with Mitchell.
So they have a plan now,
But the plan, a few hours later, is a shambles. Haldeman calls Magruder, who just yesterday had told Haldeman's assistant that his testimony would work well with their CRP story...but today, Magruder says he'll implicate Dean and Gordon Stachan at the White House.
And then Ehrlichman's confrontation with Mitchell is a disaster. Ehrlichman doesn't even begin to deliver the message he's supposed to, and Mitchell returns to New York determined to continuing to stonewall. It's not exactly clear what happened. Emery (who has the taped conversation) suggests that perhaps Ehrlichman was frightened off by the possibility that the CRP men could, if pressed, turn on the White House staff, and surely they could have done so. Or perhaps Mitchell just intimidated everyone. At any rate, the idea of the president cracking the case and being the hero is, for now, not happening.
Now John Dean comes to the White House, still on this Saturday, and meets with Haldeman and Ehrlichman, and he reads to them a list of those who could be indicted for "post" activities -- including all three of them. And, he says, the list in fact the target list of the prosecutors. But they still trust what they're hearing from the Justice Department, and the people they are talking to -- Attorney General Richard Kleinsdienst, for one, haven't hinted at any of that. Because, as Dean knows, the knowledge is still closely held.
That's the end of part one for April 14. I'll have to get to the rest of it later.
But just one more bit, from the morning conversation:
EHRLICHMAN: Uh, old John, uh, Dean had a, had an interesting -- got a phone call from him about 12:30.
EHRLICHMAN: Oh, no. I was working on something I'll tell you about here.
PRESIDENT: What did you do?
EHRLICHMAN: Uh, well, not much last night.
PRESIDENT: You mean another subject?
EHRLICHMAN: Oh, no. No, this --
HALDEMAN: There is no other subject. (Laughs)
EHRLICHMAN: This week there's no other subject.