Watergate and Trump

Trump, John Connally and Nixon at the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation Gala in Houston, 1989.

Having lived through Nixon’s Watergate and Trump’s January 6 putsch, I might be in a position to shed some light on the comparative gravity of the two scandals—tales of two presidents who decided that the Constitution was drafted for little people.

On paper, Nixon’s and Trump’s criminality strike me as being on a similar level: both abused the trust of their office to remain in power—at whatever cost. Nixon paid off the Watergate burglars to remain silent, destroyed evidence (including eighteen minutes on one of the Oval Office tapes), and obstructed justice, even though he still would have won by a landslide had he done nothing nefarious in the 1972 election. But compared to Trump’s organized crimes—that of turning the presidency into a racket and making a bid to suspend the constitution—Nixon looks small time, like some hustler in The Sting, marking his cards or fixing horse races.

But do we have the full story of these scandals? Lets look at Watergate to understand how not all the bad news is fit to print.

The Received Wisdom of Watergate

For those who missed the Nixon era (and you didn’t miss much), the Watergate affair began in June 1972, when five burglars with links to the White House were arrested while breaking into the Watergate (it’s a Washington office, apartment building, and hotel complex) offices of the Democratic National Committee (DNC).

In the world according to the Washington Post and Hollywood (their outlooks tend to be similar), the burglars broke into the DNC offices with the intention of tapping the telephone of the DNC chairman, Larry O’Brien, who was then supporting the 1972 presidential campaign of Senator George McGovern.

According to this outline of history, the phone tap would enable the Nixon re-election campaign to get the inside word on the McGovern campaign strategies and perhaps increase Nixon’s margin at the polls from 49 states (what Nixon won) to all 50 (I am still assuming McGovern would have won the District of Columbia).

Democrats were outraged that Nixon’s bagmen tried to bug the opposition’s telephones (in the spirit of Secretary of State Henry Simpson, who said that “Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail…”) and beat the drums of the Washington Post and other publications during the campaign, claiming that there was something rotten in the Denmark of the Nixon organization.

In turn, the Nixon presidency—to use one of the phrases of Watergate—decided to stonewall all the investigations into the burglary, and in so doing, it destroyed evidence, suborned testimony, obstructed justice, paid the burglars hush money, and otherwise covered up the many trails that led from the Watergate break-in back to the Oval Office.

Nixon Über Alles

In summer of 1972, if President Nixon had said, “Some in my campaign have screwed up, and I have fired them,” no one would have batted an eye about Watergate, especially as no bugging device (sorry, Hollywood) was ever found on O’Brien’s telephone. (Unfortunately, Nixon would have had to fire himself.)

Instead Nixon mobilized much of his administration to eliminate the suggestion that it was behind the break-in (and other black box operations) so that by 1973—when the Senate voted 77-0 to conduct hearings on the scandal—it was investigating a full blown case of obstruction justice that, clearly, Nixon himself had orchestrated from the earliest days of Watergate.

Nixon himself was never impeached for his Watergate crimes. Nor was he charged, after his presidency, for his criminal trespasses, which were many.

In exchange for ascending to the presidency, Vice President Gerald Ford cut a deal with his friend and patron, Nixon, to pardon the ex-president for any crimes that he might have committed while in office. (Technically, a pardon should only be granted after someone has been convicted of a crime.)

So despite Watergate consuming almost two years of political air time (1972-74), Nixon “walked” rather than face the same number of impeachments and indictments that have followed Donald Trump into retirement. He was free to write books and give interviews (such as those with TV talk show host David Frost), but he mostly lived out his life with a scarlet letter embroidered on his pinstriped suits (which were more elegant than those for which Trump might well be fitted). Nevertheless, Watergate became the gold standard of presidential scandals.

Does Trump meet the measure?

The Trump Rap Sheet

Leaving aside Trump’s sexual transgressions (which would land a New York teenager 10 to 20 years in Attica), Trump’s crimes, as I see them, are these:

In the first investigations into his 2016 campaign links with Russia, he obstructed justice and suborned witnesses, although in that same election (while it doesn’t strike me as capital offense) he also disguised payments to porn stars to cover up his past proximity to easy virtue.

In the 2020 election cycle, Trump abused his office to shake down (by withholding military aid and sending over threatening goons) the Ukrainian government for dirt on Hunter and Joe Biden—something his henchmen then lied about to Congress during the impeachment hearings.

When all that didn’t work, and Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential election, Trump embarked on a conspiracy of racketeering proportions to steal the otherwise lost election.

He and his myrmidons advanced a “We won” scenario by intimidating state election officials, creating lists of phony electors, lying to Congress regarding the results, and pressuring the Justice Department and other bodies of government to intervene on behalf of this electoral scam.

When none of those avenues overturned the results in a handful of closely-contested 2020 swing states, Trump leaned on his vice president (“We know where you live…”) and hired a mob to sack Congress while it was certifying Biden’s election (causing injury and death to dozens of law enforcement officers).

Then, before leaving the White House in high dudgeon, Trump packed up dozens of boxes containing national security documents and trundled them off to his golf club in Florida, where he stored them in shower stalls and lied to the National Archives and the Justice Department when they came looking for the state secrets.

So far there is no proof that foreign powers with pay-to-play membership at Mar-a-Lago had access to the purloined letters in steam rooms, but it would have to be a fairly incompetent intelligence service if it could not penetrate a few boxes stored on stage in a club dance theater.

But do Trump’s crimes rhyme with Watergate?

Summer Fiction: All the President’s Men

This summer, idling at my sister’s beach house on some rainy days, I came across my college copy of Bob Woodward’s and Carl Bernstein’s All the President’s Men and decided to reread it.

The book was published in February 1974, and Nixon only resigned from office in August 1974, after congressional leaders sat down with him and said they had the votes to convict him after impeachment.

In 1974, I was finishing my sophomore year in college and was consumed by all things Watergate. I subscribed to the New York Times and read the Washington Post in the library, and I watched the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite each night in a college lounge, mostly to get a Watergate update.

In those days I had no reason to question the official story—that Nixon had tried to bug the offices of the Democratic Party and obstructed justice to cover up various crimes and abuses of power. It was the same line that came out in the 1976 Hollywood version of All the President’s Men, in which Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman save the republic from its Dementors.

As before, I found the book a page-turning, breathless account of enterprising reporters intent on exposing evil. Except this time, I hardly believed anything that I read. I might well have been reading Seven Days in May or The Manchurian Candidate.

Who Broke In and Why?

The biggest problem with All the President’s Men, if not the Post’s coverage of Watergate, is that it is largely “unsourced” although in the book version of the story the reporters do quote Hugh W. Sloan Jr. (a campaign re-election financial official) for attribution, while when the story first broke in the newspaper he was a “reliable source close to the Nixon campaign”. As such, what’s impossible to decipher—in coming to a conclusion about Nixon’s Watergate crimes—is the reason for the break-in and the essence of the cover-up.

All the President’s Men only begins after the five Watergate burglars are arrested (a “retired” CIA officer James McCord was the ringleader for the illegal entry; Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt were off stage during the actual break-in but later charged).

In their narrative, Woodward and Bernstein spend almost no time investigating the actual reasons for the break-in. They take it on faith that the Nixon re-election campaign committee (which had Attorney General John Mitchell as its head) had wanted the inside word on Democratic strategy and had tried to bug the DNC offices.

The rest of the book tries to establish a link from the cash that the burglars had in their pockets and hotel rooms back to the Nixon reelection campaign. All the President’s Men is more a campaign audit than it is an account of constitutional abuses. (They write: “The secret fund had brought the reporters full circle—first the bugging, and now the cover-up.”) “Follow the money” became their mantra.

Scandalized Informed Sources

As city reporters, Woodward and Bernstein are indefatigable. They doorstop witnesses, comb through phone directories, follow up every lead, and even cut corners when they have to—which is often, as during the summer and fall of 1972, the trail back to Nixon grows cold. 

Woodward and Bernstein know from Sloan that various campaign hierarchs, including Mitchell and Jeb Magruder, had access to a slush fund and that cash from that fund ended up in the pockets of the Watergate burglars. But they cannot quite pin the money tail on the Republican elephant in the White House until Woodward double checks with an anonymous source that the reporters nicknamed “Deep Throat”.

Here’s the passage in the book that introduces “Throat” to the readers:

Woodward had a source in the Executive Branch who had access to information at CRP [Committee to Re-elect the President] as well as at the White House. His identity was unknown to anyone else. He could be contacted only on very important occasions. Woodward had promised he would never identify him or his position to anyone. Further, he had agreed never to quote the man, even as an anonymous source. Their discussions would be only to confirm information that had been obtained elsewhere and to add some perspective.

In newspaper terminology, this meant the discussions were on deep background.” Woodward explained the arrangement to managing editor Howard Simons one day. He had taken to calling the source my friend,” but Simons dubbed him Deep Throat,” the title of a celebrated pornographic movie. The name stuck.

Woodward and Bernstein continue: “The man’s position in the Executive Branch was extremely sensitive. He had never told Woodward anything that was incorrect. It was he who had advised Woodward on June 19 [two days after the break in] that Howard Hunt was definitely involved in Watergate.”

Later it was reported, again by Woodward (in his 2006 book The Secret Man: The Story of Watergate’s Deep Throat), that Throat was Mark Felt, deputy director of the FBI, which, if true, means that much of the Watergate story in the Post anyway can be read as leaks organized by the FBI to bring down the president and cast suspicions on the CIA (which isn’t how Hollywood played up his patriotic games).

Deep Throat (Politics Imitating Porn)

In both the book and in the film, Deep Throat only appears in the shadows of an underground garage, patiently guiding Woodward at 3 a.m. toward truth, justice, and the American way. Woodward and Bernstein write in their book:

Deep Throat was already there, smoking a cigarette. He was glad to see Woodward, shook his hand. Woodward told him that he and Bernstein needed help, really needed help on this one. His friendship with Deep Throat was genuine, not cultivated. Long before Watergate, they had spent many evenings talking about Washington, the government, power.

It makes for dramatic reading, as it made compelling footage in the film—finally a civil servant high up in the Nixon administration that smelled a rat at the Watergate.

Woodward and Bernstein write, almost worshipfully, as if quoting from the lives of the saints:

Aware of his own weaknesses, he readily conceded his flaws. He was, incongruously, an incurable gossip, careful to label rumor for what it was, but fascinated by it. He knew too much literature too well and let the allurements of the past turn him away from his instincts. He could be rowdy, drink too much, overreach. He was not good at concealing his feelings, hardly ideal for a man in his position. Of late, he had expressed fear for the future of the Executive Branch, which he was in a unique position to observe. Watergate had taken a toll. Even in the shadows of the garage, Woodward saw that he was thinner and, when he drew on his cigarette, that his eyes were bloodshot.

They add: “He explained that the wiretapping had been done by ex-FBI and ex-CIA agents who were hired outside of normal channels. [White House aide Robert] Mardian had run the Justice Department end of the operation for the White House. Watergate was nothing new to the administration, Deep Throat continued.”

After this moment, all whistleblowers were canonized, including a few who were simply paid to leak.

Watergate’s Secret Agenda

For my other Watergate summer reading, I chose Jim Hougan’s Secret Agenda: Watergate, Deep Throat, and the CIA, which Random House published in 1984 and which challenges every known assumption about the Watergate break-in and cover up.

I also chose the Hougan book because in summer 1979, when Harper’s Magazine ran an excerpt from an early draft of the manuscript, I was the editor assigned to work on his story. (Full disclosure: Jim and I remain close friends to this day.)

Rather than simply run a blue pencil over the article, I took the train to Washington, went with Hougan to the Watergate, and “walked off” the scene of the crime, which as he explains in his book had little to do with collecting campaign intelligence and everything to do with procuring the goods for sexual blackmail.

In Secret Agenda, he writes: “As to the destination of the product generated by the [Watergate] monitoring operation, we know that [Lou] Russells employer, James McCord, was secretly in league with Howard Hunt. Hunt, as we have seen, had established within the White House a clandestine means for reporting ‘gossip’ on a regular basis to psychologists at the CIA. According to Senate investigators, this gossip was sexual in nature.”

Overall, Hougan calls into question the official history of the break-in and devotes much of his book to reconstructing the crime:

So many elements of the Watergate story have been repeated so often that they are taken on faith by the public, which has the impression that every aspect of the affair was thoroughly investigated. That impression is entirely mistaken: virtually no investigation was made of the attempted break-ins over the Memorial Day weekend. Neither was the June 17 break-in much investigated because, after all, the burglars were caught red-handed. In any case, the intent of most investigators was to identify those who were ultimately responsible for the burglaries, which, in and of themselves, held little interest for anyone. So it was that demonstrably false accounts of these events became an accepted part of history.

I guess the real scandals will never get into the newspapers.

What the Washington Post Didn’t Tell You

Here are a few of Hougan’s conclusions about the actual break-in:

—James McCord, the break-in organizer, maintained strong links to the CIA, even after he claimed to have retired from the organization, and many of his co-burglars at the Watergate also had numerous CIA ties, as did E. Howard Hunt, another coordinator for the break-in.

[Hougan: “What all these clandestine contacts add up to is the clear implication that the CIA was Howard Hunts real principal during his time of employment at the White House.”]

—McCord not only lied to his conspirators about his movements on the night of the break-in, but acted in a way that suggests he wanted the break-in to fail, if not be discovered by the police.

[Hougan: “In considering the break-in, it is immediately obvious that McCord had a secret agenda. Why else would he have lied to his own accomplices? But what is not so obvious is whether that agenda had sabotage as its objective.”]

—Hougan thinks it unlikely that either Attorney General John Mitchell or White House aide Charles Colson ordered the DNC break-in, but has suspicions about Magruder, White House lawyer John Dean, and Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman, all of whom were in the chain of command above the Watergate burglars.

—Reading between Hougan’s lines, while he never quite says it directly, it’s easy to conclude that Haldeman ran the White House spy network, and that he did so with the advice and consent of the president.

—No actual telephone bugs were found on any DNC telephones, but the burglars had some taps in their pockets, suggesting that the mission might have been to remove bugs placed earlier.

—The only telling piece of evidence found on the burglars was a key to the desk of DNC secretary Maxie Wells. Upon arrest, the burglar with the key went to great lengths to hide or throw it away, but the arresting officer intervened.

[Hougan: “And that Maxie Wellss desk was a target of the Watergate break-in is beyond a doubt. As we will see, in the course of making the arrests inside the DNC, Washing­ ton police would wrest a key from Eugenio Martinez.”]

—The burglars might have been interested in the contents of a secretary’s desk because it could have contained compromising information about certain Democratic politicians who might have been customers of nearby Columbia Plaza escort service.

—In the official history of Watergate, conspirator Alfred Baldwin, who was at a McCord listening post in a Howard Johnson’s hotel across the street from the DNC offices, was intercepting and logging information from the DNC, but it seems more likely that Baldwin was intercepting salacious material connected to the Columbia Plaza call girls and their power-broking clients.

—Without diminishing the importance of Deep Throat as a source for the Washington Post coverage of the scandal, Hougan points out that Woodward and Bernstein relied heavily on Robert Bennett of the Mullen Company as another “informed source”. As Hougan notes, Mullen turns out to have been a CIA front company, not simply a “Washington D.C. public relations firm”.

[Hougan: “Instead, Bob Woodward, the Post and the press as a whole were left to struggle in the dark, never realizing that one of their principal sources on the story was a CIA disinformation agent.”]

In summary, Hougan writes:

In looking back at the confusion surrounding the Watergate break-in, and at the investigation that followed, it is surprising that any consensus about the affair—even the mistaken consensus that prevails—should ever have emerged. The destruction of evidence was broad and deep, with several of the burglars, CRP [Committee to Re-Elect the President] and White House officials, CIA officers and agents, and the director of the FBI all participating. The resulting gaps were, in many cases, ignored or downplayed by investigators who did not wish to impugn the testimony of felons who were about to become important witnesses—Magruder, Dean and McCord, for example, each of whom had burned, buried or deep-sixed materials of clear importance to the case, and then gotten religion.” Contributing further to the false certainties that emerged was the willingness of so many to ignore information of an inconvenient kind: the key to Maxie Wellss desk, the FBIs findings with respect to bugs inside the DNC, and Alfred Baldwins account of the intimate” telephone conversations that he had heard. Still other evidence (i.e., the September bug) was obviously fabricated in an effort—successful, as it turned out—to conceal flaws that would otherwise have been fatal to the official version of the affair.

In other words All the President’s Men made for a great Hollywood treatment, but otherwise was a weak rough draft of history.

Think It Possible That You May Be Mistaken About Watergate

I could go on, but the point is clear that the Watergate scandal, bad as it was and as it remains in American history, did not happen as described in the Washington Post (which isn’t to say that the Nixon administration, in response to the Watergate arrests, did not lie and cover up its own contributions to the mug’s game).

In all likelihood, the CIA used the initiative of the White House hiring “plumbers” (Hunt et al.)—to block administration leaks to the press—to itself infiltrate the White House and, at the same time, collect compromising information on an array of politicians (including both Democrats and Republicans).

Hougan describes how CIA agent and lead Watergate burglar into the DNC offices, James McCord, sabotaged the break-in. Later at his trial—when the other burglars had been paid off into silence—McCord again broke ranks with his gang to write to Judge John Sirica that: “There was political pressure applied to the defendants to plead guilty and remain silent…. Perjury occurred during the trial in matters highly material to the very structure, orientation, and impact of the governments case, and to the motivation and intent of the defendants.”

I guess McCord never heard the adage: “An honest politician is one who, when he is bought, will stay bought.”

At the same time, McCord fell on his sword in swearing to the judge that the CIA had no hand in the break-in operation (even though most of the break-in team, except for Gordon Liddy, were or had been CIA operatives).

Then the Watergate narrative is further clouded by the hovering presence of Deep Throat, who may (or may not) have been the deputy director of the FBI, Mark Felt, with all the institutional biases that comes with such a position.

At the very least, Felt’s role in the affair would have been to steer the Post and perhaps other publications away from suspicions that the FBI’s acting director. L. Patrick Gray, had himself destroyed important evidence of White House involvement in the Watergate operation.

We know that Watergate was a scandal; we just don’t know whose scandal it was. As with many Washington underworld accounts, neither the CIA nor the FBI is very far from the storyboards or the credits.

The Abuses of Official History

Just because Watergate didn’t happen as described in either the Washington Post or now on Netflix serials doesn’t mean that Donald Trump is innocent of all ninety-one charges that have been brought against him in four criminal proceedings. But it does suggest that Washington scandals have a tendency to evolve in ways that are not always apparent to those digesting Twitter feeds or cable news.

Unfortunately, the press is often at the mercy of intelligence gathered by government agencies, which dole out news leads to suit their own institutional requirements. In other words, leaking to the Post may have been part of Mark Felt’s job description. And the same might be said of G-men Robert Mueller and James Comey.

For all we know, Trump’s crimes might be far worse than those with which he has been charged. For example, only the case in New York state brings up the extent to which the Trump Organization may have cooked its books—either to avoid paying taxes or perhaps to con investors and lenders.

But there remains the serious possibility that Trump and his doomsday gang operated the presidency as a vast Ponzi scheme, with Gulf or Russian money turning the wheels of power to keep an insolvent Trump Inc. afloat in exchange for political favors. It might explain how Jared Kushner walked away from the White House with a $2 billion payday from the Saudis.

What we do know is that both Richard Nixon and Donald Trump were graduates of McCarthy-ite lawyer Roy Cohn’s School of Dark Political Arts—in which one of the required courses was Constitutional Subversion in order to remain in power.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.