Sunday, April 28, 2013

April 27, 1973

Floods in Mississippi. The President flies down there and back, meeting with Haldeman on the way there (and earlier in the morning) and both Haldeman and Ehrlichman on the way back. More of the same: would they take a leave? Resign? An indefinite leave or a 30 day leave? At one point, there's a proposal that they take a vacation? Nixon pretty clearly has decided that they're gone, but he's not able to simply say it, and so this has been going on all week.

Pat Gray, the story of destroying the material in Hunt's safe having reached the press, finally puts himself out of his misery and resigns. Gray, for some reason, is never prosecuted. Agents opened his office safe after he left, and found Watergate materials he had obtained from the CIA and never passed along to the people investigating the case.

Kleindienst and Nixon talk on the phone about that after Nixon gets back from Mississippi:


Kleindienst: ...In view of Pat's resignation, Mr. President, it would be my recommendation that I just administratively permit Mark Felt, who --

President Nixon: No, I tell you. I don't want him. I can't have him. I just talked to Bill Ruckelshaus and Bill is a Mr. Clean and I want a fellow in there that is not part of the old guard and that is not part of that infighting in there.[...] He'll do it as acting director until we get a full director.


Mark Felt was already passed over once when Gray was installed Acting Director, and Nixon was right to not trust him: he was the source feeding Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein information as "Deep Throat."

Next, a call with Henry Petersen:


Petersen: ...I just wanted to call you and give you a report on that -- on the Ellsberg case.

President Nixon: Yes.

Petersen: Judge Byrne had opened it up last night and was inclined to the view that disclosure to him was sufficient.

President Nixon: Yeah.

Petersen: And then apparently overnight he changed his opinion.

President Nixon: Right.

Petersen: And read the memorandum from Silbert to me in open court, indicated that the defendants were entitled to a hearing on it, requested disclosure of the source, which I've authorized, and asked for all the information the government has. We don't have anything.


In some ways, the whole point of the cover-up was to keep the Plumbers operations, the whole "White House horrors," secret. Now not only is the cover-up of Watergate blown beginning with McCord's accusations, but everything else is coming out. And while the judge doesn't declare a mistrial at this point, the whole point of the Plumbers -- the operation to get Ellsberg rather than just let the law take its course -- now is close to letting Ellsberg go free.The trial is suspended for now, with Judge Byrne waiting for the government to double-check whether there's any more information they have on Ellsberg that the didn't turn over. It is, of course, another headline story.

Petersen also comes to his senses and refuses Nixon's earlier request of detailing the government's case against Haldeman and Ehrlichman, saying; " I don't think I can produce. I'll tell you why. Most of the information -- almost everything they have -- [...] It's all grand jury." Nixon accepts it, but it must be a blow; if Petersen isn't going to keep him informed over everything the prosecutors are up to, his situation (not to mention the situations of Haldeman and Ehrlichman) are set back considerably.

Petersen then says that, with negotiations with Dean stalled, he no longer has any advice against Nixon firing Dean, but he also presses Nixon to get rid of Haldeman and Ehrlichman as soon as possible.

Haldeman then comes in, and they go over the March 21 tape again. Nixon's concern this time is that it can't be read as ordering Dean to make the payoff to Hunt.

Later that night, Nixon meets with Ron Ziegler, his press secretary who he's now talking to more now as Haldeman and Ehrlichman are on the way out and Chuck Colson is gone. The conversation turns, early on, to the biggest topic there is...


President Nixon: [...] I can do quite a job of that Goddamn press, I hate to do it, but I will. I have to. But tell me this, in spite of all their vindictiveness and so forth, they -- the press still wants the President to come out all right? I mean -- I mean my -- except for [pundit Martin] Agronsky and a few others, they don't call for impeachment so far. I heard on the Agronsky show they had --

Ziegler: they didn't call for impeachment. They referred to it, you know, the wording.

President Nixon: Christ, impeach the President on John Dean -- John Dean's word. [Pause] I wonder what documentary stuff Dean's talking about. He claims he's goe some documentary stuff. [...]

[And then later in the conversation]

President Nixon: ...But they can't want frankly to see Agnew be President.

Ziegler: That's right.

President Nixon: No, really. You know -- well, I don't think of impeachment, good God Almighty, the point is they've got to want this country to succeed. The whole hopes of the whole Goddamn world of peace, Ron, you know, where they rest, they rest right here in this damn chair. [...]


Nixon is heading to Camp David for the weekend, and he concludes his conversation with Ziegler about the outlines for a speech to the nation on Watergate, a speech which will mark the end of the White House service of his top two staff members. He talks about how hard it has been to actually get them to resign, but the mechanics of doing the deed are already well on their way on this Friday night.


  1. This is a really fascinating thread, and we all appreciate the amount of work you've put into it. I'm curious as to why you might think that Nixon's crimes rose to the level of impeachment, while other presidents' have not.

    Was it because much of this was committed in the pursuit of re-election, as was explained to me as a child?

    Was it because, as you so thoroughly document, Nixon's people were convinced that he was perfectly willing to sacrifice them to save himself? Thus, Felt provided the means to push Nixon out?

    It's documented that Bush II and Cheney purposefully and knowingly committed the war crime of torture. And yet, not a whisper of prosecution. Were they saved by the fact of 9/11?

    Do you feel that it takes a perfect storm to oust a president?

    1. Let me take a shot at the first part of this one.

      Democrats in Congress tried (will try, on our timeline here) to impeach Nixon for war crimes, including the bombing of Cambodia that was revealed by the Pentagon Papers. Now that was equally as much a criminal conspiracy as anything in Watergate or the cover-up. So why couldn't they impeach?

      Well, part of it surely was that Nixon definitely didn't own Vietnam. He might have owned the bombing of Cambodia, but responsibility for the conflict in general was shared by both parties.

      But another part of it was, there is a sense in which the community of political actors within Washington don't view war crimes as important, at least in part because it doesn't touch their prerogatives but even more so because war crimes don't threaten the foundational principles of the Republic. And I don't think the Watergate bugging does either, and I am totally convinced that there is no way that the bugging alone, had the conspirators simply come forward in the weeks after, would have led to impeachment and conviction. I don't even think if they had picked the day after the election and laid their cards on the table, that it would necessarily have resulted in impeachment and conviction despite all that went on before November, including the smoking gun tape of Sept 23... I would assume that had they opened up in November, the tapes might never have been found.

      It would have been a firestorm, sure. But Nixon would have survived. The bugging was a political crime, and Nixon would have been politically crippled. He'd have survived, though, and recovered, and been given enough of a foreign policy hand to continue as an effective foreign policy leader, with some constraint to his and Kissinger's options.

      But it was, it always is, the cover-up. The cover-up meant that almost every senior White House official was enmeshed in a web of lies, deceit, perjury, and obstruction of justice. It became an attack on the rule of law, and that is a core foundational principle of the republic. And at that point, the political class can no longer ignore not just the loss of respect, but the real loss of power and the real danger of a secret imperium above the law. So they attacked, and as they attacked, the cover-up started to go levels deeper. Not even after Nixon's resignation did the obstruction, lies and deceit stop, the attempts to flout the rule of law. I don't buy that it takes a perfect storm; any President that tried to pervert the course of justice and the rule of law as Nixon did would be meted out rough and harsh justice. If the storm were perfect, it was located entirely within the Nixon White House itself.

    2. My answer to this is a little different than Tybalt's.

      I do think that a large part of why impeachment actually happened had to do with the general way that Nixon refused to respect the constitutional order.

      But it's also true that there's a difference between everyone knowing that there are felonies, and an actual confession to felonies. If Nixon had confessed -- fully confessed -- in summer 1972 or November 1972, I think he would have probably had to have been impeached.

      "I would assume that had they opened up in November, the tapes might never have been found." But see, that's the problem; that's the modified limited hang-out: a partial confession. And the problem from June on is that there's no fallback position that works.

      E.g. Dean knows less in November than he does in March/April 1973, he still knows a lot, and he probably still uses what he knows (including Fielding and other WH horrors) to cut his best deal, and that unravels more (and also leads to the tapes coming out, no?).

    3. So your answer is that it's all Prisoner's Dilemma. Dean is willing to sell Nixon out. Felt is willing to talk to the press. Had they hung together, they would not have hung separately?

  2. It's quite amazing, on reflection, that the acting head of the FBI could, in full knowledge of the public and his successors, withhold evidence from an ongoing investigation and never even be asked to account for it because there was too much high-profile crime going on, by even more powerful people, that he was just sort of lost in the shuffle.

    I asked a couple of weeks ago about whether Ehrlichman (in particular) knew that he was done for. So by now, they clearly actually do know they are done for, both E and Haldeman. And yet...?

    So, I have another unanswerable question about what people know. Do E and H know, at this point, that the President is so badly advised and so twisted off his supports that he's going to make a hash of things if they aren't there? Are they just clinging because they know that Nixon would make a titanic blunder of choosing a new chief, or new chief advisers?

    1. I could be wrong here, but my thought is that his pick for a successor isn't just about poor judgement. Nixon has few if any good options left. Either the candidate is in on the conspiracy, which means they're still a threat, or they aren't, in which case there's always the danger they tell the truth to the press or a judge.

      The only other option is someone who can be easily duped in which case they wouldn't be an ideal candidate either.


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