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Context of 'February 13, 1973: Burglars’ Speaking out Will be a ‘Problem,’ Nixon Says'

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Sam Ervin.Sam Ervin. [Source: Wally McNamee / Corbis]The US Senate votes 77-0 to create the Select Committee on Presidential Activities, which comes to be known as the Senate Watergate Committee. The chairman is Sam Ervin (D-NC), whose carefully cultivated image as a folksy “country lawyer” camouflages a keen legal mind. Ervin’s deputy is Howard Baker (R-TN). [Gerald R. Ford Library and Museum, 7/3/2007] Senate Republicans attempt to dilute the effectiveness of the investigative committee with resolutions demanding probes into the 1964 and 1968 elections as well—Hugh Scott (R-PA) says there is “wholesale evidence of wiretapping against the Republicans” in the 1968 campaign, yet refuses to present any evidence—but those resolutions fail in floor votes. After the vote, Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward learns that the resolutions were drafted by White House lawyers. [Bernstein and Woodward, 1974, pp. 250-251] Ervin, already chosen to head the committee, told fellow senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA), who held his own ineffective senatorial investigation, that he knew little more about the Watergate conspiracy than what he read in the papers, but “I know the people around [President] Nixon, and that’s enough. They’re thugs.” [Bernstein and Woodward, 1974, pp. 247] Ervin has already contacted Woodward and asked him to help him compile information. Ervin implies that he wants Woodward to convince his unnamed sources to come forward and testify. Woodward demurs, but he and colleague Carl Bernstein write a story reporting Ervin’s intention to call President Nixon’s top aides, including H. R. Haldeman, to testify. [Woodward, 2005, pp. 93-94] Woodward does suggest that Ervin should take a hard look at the secret campaign “slush fund” (see Early 1970 and September 29, 1972), and that everything he and Bernstein have found points to a massive undercover operation led by Haldeman. [Bernstein and Woodward, 1974, pp. 247-249]

Entity Tags: Richard M. Nixon, Edward M. (“Ted”) Kennedy, H.R. Haldeman, Carl Bernstein, Bob Woodward, Howard Baker, Hugh Scott, Sam Ervin, Senate Watergate Investigative Committee

Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate

In a conversation about Watergate with senior aide Charles Colson, President Nixon says: “When I’m speaking about Watergate, though, that’s the whole point, where this tremendous investigation rests. Unless one of the seven [burglars] begins to talk. That’s the problem.” [Reston, 2007, pp. 43-44] Colson and Nixon want to decide how to limit the exposure of top White House aides to the Congressional inquiry (see February 7, 1973), perhaps by allowing access to lower-level officials. Nixon says: “You can let them have lower people. Let them have them. But in terms of the people that are direct advisers to the president, you can say they can do it by written interrogatories, by having [Senate Watergate Committee head Senator Sam] Ervin and the two counsels conduct interrogatories. But don’t go up there on television (see May 17-18, 1973).” Colson believes “it’s a good compromise,” and Nixon goes on to say that he has considered not letting anyone testify, but “I’m afraid that gives an appearance of total cover-up, which would bother me a bit.… You let them have some others.… That’s why you can’t go. The people who have direct access to the president can’t go.” Later in the conversation, Colson makes a bold suggestion: “The other point is, who did order Watergate? If it’s gonna come out in the hearings, for God’s sakes, let it out now.… Least get rid of it. Take our losses.” Nixon asks: “Well, who the hell do you think did this? Mitchell [referring to John Mitchell, the former head of the Nixon re-election campaign]? He can’t do it. He’ll perjure himself. He won’t admit it. Now, that’s the problem. Magruder [Jeb Magruder, Mitchell’s former deputy]?” “I know Magruder does,” Colson says. Nixon responds, “Well, then he’s already perjured himself, hasn’t he?” Colson replies, “Probably.” Nixon knows what to do if and when he or either of his top two aides, H. R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, are called to testify. “In the case of Haldeman, Ehrlichman, and me, the only three you can probably do this with, they should either be written interrogatories or appointive-type things where they list out some highly specific areas. And that’s it and not beyond that. If they try to get beyond that, you just stonewall it or you just don’t remember something when you don’t have to.” [Reston, 2007, pp. 196-199]

Entity Tags: Sam Ervin, Charles Colson, H.R. Haldeman, Jeb S. Magruder, John Ehrlichman, Richard M. Nixon, John Mitchell

Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate

President Nixon and his senior political aide, Charles Colson, discuss the Watergate conspiracy and how the White House should handle it. Nixon says, “A cover-up is the main ingredient.” Colson agrees, “That’s the problem.” Nixon continues: “That’s where we gotta cut our losses. My losses are to be cut. The president’s losses got to be cut on the cover-up deal.” Nixon will not admit to knowing anything about a cover-up until March 23, when he will claim to have been told for the first time about a cover-up by White House counsel John Dean (see March 21, 1973). Author James Reston Jr. calls this conversation, and that of the day before (see February 13, 1973), examples of Nixon and his aides’ “very good gangster talk,” and writes that “there could not be more classic evidence of the president wriggling, maneuvering, scheming to escape the reach of the law.” [Reston, 2007, pp. 43-44] Nixon is not so worried about his former campaign chairman, John Mitchell. He “has a great stone face” and a “convenient memory,” he and Colson agree. Colson is fairly sure if burglar E. Howard Hunt begins talking to the Watergate prosecutors, he will “limit the losses,” but neither are fully convinced of Hunt’s commitment to silence. [Reston, 2007, pp. 199-200]

Entity Tags: Richard M. Nixon, John Dean, James Reston, Jr, E. Howard Hunt, John Mitchell, Charles Colson

Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate

The Senate Watergate Committee begins its first day of public hearings. The hearings are televised starting May 18. [Gerald R. Ford Library and Museum, 7/3/2007] Washington Post legal analyst Jules Witcover writes that the first day of hearings is as dramatic as “watching grass grow.” The witnesses, beginning with Robert C. Odle, director of administration for the Committee to Re-elect the President (CREEP), insist that neither he or any of his colleagues knew of any illegal activities, and did not learn of the Watergate burglary (see 2:30 a.m.June 17, 1972) until seeing news reports of the five burglars’ arrests. He says that when he saw CREEP security consultant James McCord was one of the five, his first thought was that he would have to find a replacement for McCord. Odle does say he saw another Watergate conspirator, G. Gordon Liddy, shred a large stack of documents the same day as the burglary, but thought little of it. Other witnesses, particularly two of the police officers who made the initial arrests, add little to the fund of knowledge already possessed by Watergate observers. Witcover writes that the senators on the committee, led by Senator Sam Ervin (D-NC), engage in little or no “showboating” for the cameras. Witcover predicts that when McCord and other witnesses begin testifying, the hearings should “heat up.” [Washington Post, 5/18/1973]

Entity Tags: Sam Ervin, Committee to Re-elect the President, G. Gordon Liddy, James McCord, Senate Watergate Investigative Committee, Jules Witcover, Robert C. Odle, Jr

Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate

The research staff for British interviewer David Frost, preparing for his upcoming interviews with former President Richard Nixon (see Early 1976), finds transcripts of two conversations between Nixon and his then-aide Charles Colson from February 1973 (see February 13, 1973 and February 14, 1973) in a batch of documents surrounding the prosecution of the Watergate burglars (see January 1, 1975). Former Watergate prosecutors Richard Ben-Veniste and George Frampton, informally advising the Frost research team, are both keenly interested in the transcripts. “You’ve got something no one else has,” Frampton says. “These transcripts must have been placed in the official exhibit by a clerical error.” The two explain the significance of the conversations between Nixon and Colson: they place Nixon directly in the plot to cover up the Watergate conspiracy six weeks before Nixon says he first learned of it. Frampton shows researcher James Reston Jr. just how he would have used the conversations against Nixon in court, while Ben-Veniste instructs Reston on how Frost should interrogate Nixon as a hostile witness. Frost should ask something like, “Is it still your position, Mr. Nixon, that between 21 March and 30 April, 1973, you acted to stop the cover-up and prosecute the guilty?” When Nixon answers yes, Frost should follow, “But in fact, as late as 16 April, 1973, you were working out ‘scenarios’ with Ehrlichman and Haldeman to make John Dean the Watergate scapegoat, weren’t you?” Other questions to ask include, “By what right were you offering campaign money for the defense of your associates who were charged in a criminal conspiracy?” and “Isn’t it really true that you never made any effort before 21 March to learn the details of a criminal activity that you knew was going on all around you?” [Reston, 2007, pp. 50-51]

Entity Tags: James Reston, Jr, Charles Colson, George Frampton, John Dean, David Frost, Richard Ben-Veniste, Richard M. Nixon

Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate

In his Watergate interview with former President Richard Nixon (see Early 1976 and April 13-15, 1977), David Frost continues from his earlier questioning about Nixon’s involvement in the Watergate conspiracy (see April 13, 1977) to the events of March 21, 1973 (see March 21, 1973). Now that Nixon’s status as a co-conspirator from the outset has been established, Frost wants to know why Nixon claims not to have known about the illegal aspects of the cover-up, or about the blackmail demands of Watergate burglar E. Howard Hunt, until this date. Nixon is cautious, claiming only that he learned of Hunt’s blackmail demands on March 21, and refusing to acknowledge that he knew anything about the $400,000 in payouts during the eight months preceding (see June 20-21, 1972).
Springing the Trap - Frost circles back, hoping for a flat confirmation: “So March 21 was the first day you learned about an illegal cover-up?” Nixon carefully says that March 21 was the day he learned of the “full import” of the cover-up, only having heard “smatterings” beforehand and being reassured by then-White House counsel John Dean that no White House personnel were involved. Frost springs his trap: “In that case, why did you say in such strong terms to [White House aide Charles] Colson on February 14, more than a month before, ‘The cover-up is the main ingredient, that’s where we gotta cut our losses. My losses are to be cut. The president’s losses got to be cut on the cover-up deal’” (see February 14, 1973). Nixon’s face betrays his shock. “Why did I say that?” he asks rhetorically, trying to gather himself. He fishes around for excuses, quickly settling on media reports at the time that tossed around charges of conspiracies, “hush money” payouts, and promises of executive clemency. That’s all he was referring to in the February 14 conversation, he says: the cover-up itself had to be avoided at all costs. Frost researcher James Reston, Jr. later writes, “It was an exquisite lie, a superb time warp.”
Error Goes Unnoticed - Only later do Reston and other research team members realize that no such stories had appeared in the media by February 14; in fact, allegations of a cover-up never made it into print until after burglar James McCord wrote his letter to Judge John Sirica on March 19 warning the judge of involvement of “higher-ups” in a conspiracy of silence (see March 19-23, 1973). No one had written publicly of any executive clemency deals until the subject was broached during the Senate Watergate investigative hearings (see February 7, 1973). But few of the millions who will see the interview will have the grasp of the chronology of events necessary to realize the extent of Nixon’s dishonesty.
Second Colson Bombshell - Frost reminds Nixon of his conversation with Colson of February 13 (see February 13, 1973), the day before, when they had discussed which Nixon official will have to take the fall for Watergate. Former campaign director John Mitchell couldn’t do it, the conversation went, but Nixon wants to know about Mitchell’s former deputy, Jeb Magruder. “He’s perjured himself, hasn’t he?” Nixon asked Colson. Frost asks Nixon, “So you knew about Magruder’s perjury as early as February the thirteenth?” Nixon bobs and weaves, talking about events from the year before, how Mitchell and Colson hated each other, how Colson and Ehrlichman hated each other. Frost brings Nixon back on point by reading another quote from the February 13 conversation, where Nixon says that “the problem” will come up if “one of the seven [indicted Watergate burglars] begins to talk…” Frost asks, “Now, in that remark, it seems to be that someone running the cover-up couldn’t have expressed it more clearly than that, could he?” Frost wants to know precisely what the phrase “one of the seven begins to talk” means. Nixon argues, but Frost refuses to be distracted. How can it mean anything else except “some sort of conspiracy to stop Hunt from talking about something damaging?” Frost asks. Nixon retorts, “You could state your conclusion, and I’ve stated my views.”
Nixon's Own Words Prove Knowledge, Complicity - Frost proceeds to pepper Nixon with his own quotes proving his knowledge and complicity, nine of them, a barrage that leaves Nixon nearly breathless. Nixon finally accuses Frost of taking his words out of context. Frost’s final quote is from an April 21 meeting where Nixon told aides John Dean and H. R. Haldeman, “Christ, just turn over any cash we got.” [Reston, 2007, pp. 126-134] After the taping, Nixon asks his aides about the Colson transcripts: “What was that tape? I’m sure I never heard that tape before. Find out about that tape.” [Time, 5/9/1977]

Entity Tags: James Reston, Jr, David Frost, Charles Colson, E. Howard Hunt, James McCord, John Sirica, Richard M. Nixon, John Dean, H.R. Haldeman, Jeb S. Magruder, John Mitchell

Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate

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