Today was another major Watergate day. This time super-major.
That's how Bob Haldeman begins his diary entry for Tuesday, April 17, the day that Richard Nixon publicly launched the cover-up of the cover-up. Haldeman's note early in the day:
Dean is the one who surprises and to some extent disappoints him [Nixon]. I found the latter rather shocking, considering that Dean has turned total traitor, and he shouldn't be surprised and disappointed. He should be shocked and furious.
The question for them now is whether to work to get immunity for Dean or not. Colson calls to urge Nixon to intervene and prevent it, and Haldeman and Ehrlichman's interests are there, too. Immunity isn't going to come without testimony, and there's not way, at this point, that any of Nixon's closest aides survive that without at least indictments.
But here their interests are not necessarily the same as Nixon's, because Dean has threatened Nixon only in the context of a trial. Immunity could mean that Dean doesn't volunteer anything about his conversations with the president -- indeed, he's told Nixon that he hasn't so far, and while Nixon can't trust him there's at least some hope of it. On the other hand, Nixon hardly wants to create any divisions between himself and Haldeman, Ehrlichman, and Colson -- since all of them have far more on him than Dean does.
After two meetings for Nixon, Haldeman, and Ehrlichman, and after Nixon met with the Italian Prime Minister, the president then decided to finally make his press statement.
The first part was an announcement that he would, after all, allow his staff to testify for the Senate Watergate Committee, although he said he was reserving the right to have them decline to answer any question on the grounds of executive privilege. And then he's not able to say he's solved the case, so instead:
My second announcement concerns the Watergate case directly.
On March 21, as a result of serious charges which came to my attention, some of which were publicly reported, I began intensive new inquiries into this whole matter.
Last Sunday afternoon, the Attorney General, Assistant Attorney General Petersen, and I met at length in the EOB to review the facts which had come to me in my investigation and also to review the progress of the Department of Justice investigation.
I can report today that there have been major developments in the case concerning which it would be improper to be more specific now, except to say that real progress has been made in finding the truth.
If any person in the executive branch or in the Government is indicted by the grand jury, my policy will be to immediately suspend him. If he is convicted, he will, of course, be automatically discharged.
I have expressed to the appropriate authorities my view that no individual holding, in the past or at present, a position of major importance in the Administration should be given immunity from prosecution.
The judicial process is moving ahead as it should, and I shall aid it in all appropriate ways and have so informed the appropriate authorities.
As I have said before and I have said throughout this entire matter, all Government employees and especially White House Staff employees are expected fully to cooperate in this matter. I condemn any attempts to cover up in this case, no matter who is involved.
It's front-page news. And it's helped along by press secretary Ron Ziegler's comment, after Nixon is done. Ziegler gave a rehearsed answer to a question about Nixon's comments, saying that it was "the operative statement." When then asked the obvious follow-up, Ziegler affirmed that everything he and the president had said before this was "inoperative."
As a press event, it was mostly a disaster. But it served Nixon's purposes. First, it put pressure on both Dean and the prosecutors, who now pressed Dean to plead guilty to some charges. Total immunity wasn't coming. And it put down Nixon's first marker on the cover-up to the cover-up: the story that he had only learned over any of it, from John Dean, on March 21.
The pressure was building on Nixon, though, for one thing: to remove his two top staff assistants. Henry Peterson, in an afternoon meeting, argued strongly for ridding himself of them. What Peterson doesn't realize, however, is that they haven't betrayed the president; they've worked closely with him. But Dean hasn't talked yet about Nixon, and even Dean doesn't have any idea at all how well-informed and active Nixon has been of the cover-up from the start. Rogers, too, thought that they should resign, as had incoming WH Counsel Garment.
Nixon hasn't made that decision yet -- or at least, hasn't really made it yet. But the writing is on the wall. Part of Nixon's case against removing them is that all there is yet are rumors and accusations, and he should hang tough against that, but he must know by now that indictments are inevitable. And now he mentions to them that Bebe Rebozo will raise money for their legal fees, and that if they did leave he intends to have them set up and then run his post-presidential foundation.
Nixon certainly does know where he's vulnerable to Dean, though -- all day long, he runs past Haldeman the question of the hush money/"blackmail" for Hunt, the million dollars that Dean told him about. Nixon still isn't honest about it with his chief of staff, but he's clearly upset about it, and keeps circling back to it.
At the end of the day, past midnight, Nixon and Haldeman talk on the phone again. And Haldeman ends his notes for the day still wondering why Mitchell didn't step up and take the blame.