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Watergate—Conspiracy to Coverup

Watergate—Conspiracy to Coverup

by William H. Benson

March 21, 2019

     On June 17, 1972, police nabbed five burglars inside the Democratic National Party’s headquarters, in a sixth floor suite in the Watergate Hotel, alongside the Potomac River, in Washington D.C.

     On June 23, 1972, President Nixon met with his chief of staff, Robert Haldeman, who disapproved of the FBI’s investigation thus far to determine who had overseen and funded the burglary.

     To the President, Haldeman said, “The only way to solve this is for us to have CIA Deputy Director Vernon Walters call Pat Gray [the FBI director] and just say, ‘Stay out of this. We don’t want you to go any further on it.’” Nixon approved. “All right, fine,” he said.

     Thus began Nixon’s conspiracy to coverup his associates’ criminal actions.

     Nixon instructed the CIA to thwart the FBI’s investigation into a criminal case that would have implicated White House officials. According to historians and legal pundits, this conversation was Nixon’s “smoking gun,” an “abuse of presidential power and a deliberate obstruction of justice.”

     Also, Nixon’s personal attorney, Herbert W. Kalmbach, distributed “hush money. He “funneled over $200,000 to the five burglars and to the two men who had orchestrated the break-in, G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt.” “Haldeman let Kalmbach use a $350,000 cash fund from the White House.”

     Late in June, Nixon’s press secretary Ron Ziegler dismissed the Watergate break-in as “a third-rate burglary attempt.”

     Then, when asked, Nixon’s former attorney general and head of Nixon’s re-election campaign John Mitchell, “denied any involvement with Watergate and disavowed any knowledge whatsoever of the five burglars.”

     On August 29, 1972, Nixon met with reporters at his San Clemente, California residence, and said that “an internal investigation into the June break-in revealed that no one on the White House staff, in his administration, or anyone ‘presently employed’ was involved.”

     On March 21, 1973, forty-six years ago this month, Nixon met John W. Dean III, Nixon’s young legal counsel, in the Oval Office to discuss the hush money that Kalmbach had paid thus far.

     Dean then delivered dire news to Nixon. “We have a cancer—within—close to the Presidency, that’s growing daily. It’s compounding.”

     Dean asked the president to consider Kalmbach’s hush money payments to the burglars, and then Dean delivered his punchline. “Bob [Haldeman] is involved in that; John [Ehrlichman] is involved in that; I’m involved in that; [John] Mitchell is involved in that. And that’s an obstruction of justice.”

     At that moment, Nixon could have stopped the coverup. He could have called in FBI agents, and told them what he knew, and when he knew it. He could have directed them to John Dean. Those actions might have saved his presidency, even though his associates may have gone to jail.

     Instead, that same day, Nixon discussed with Dean an additional payment to E. Howard Hunt, who was to appear before a judge in two days and receive sentencing. Hunt was now demanding another $122,000, in order to buy his further silence.

     Nixon asked Dean, “How much money do you need?”

     Dean replied, “I would say that these people are going to cost, uh, a million dollars over the next, uh, two years.”

     Nixon said, “We could get that. If you need the money. You could get the money. What I mean is, you could get a million dollars. And you could get it in cash. I know where it could be gotten. But the question is, ‘who would handle it’”

     Evan Thomas wrote in his 2015 biography of Nixon, “It is hard to explain this failure of judgment, the most critical mistake Nixon ever made. Favoring hush money over full disclosure was a moral lapse, regardless of whether Nixon had committed a crime, but the reasons for his actions are complex and not easy to sort out.”

     Thirteen months later, on April 30, 1973, Nixon appeared on television and again proclaimed his innocence. That day, he accepted Haldeman and Ehrlichman’s resignations, and he fired John Dean.

     Nixon said, “America, in its political campaigns, must not again fall into the trap of letting the end, however great that end is, justify the means. The easiest course would be for me to blame those to whom I delegated the responsibility to run the campaign, but that would be the cowardly thing to do.”

     Next time in these pages, Watergate—Cracks in the Coverup.