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Context of 'August 2, 1974: Ford Decides to Pardon Nixon, according to White House Lawyer'

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Alexander Haig.Alexander Haig. [Source: Brooks Institute]President Richard Nixon`s chief of staff Alexander Haig pays an urgent call on Vice President Gerald Ford to discuss the terms under which Nixon will resign (see August 8, 1974). Haig gives Ford a handwritten list of what White House counsel Fred Buzhardt, the author of the list, calls “permutations for the option of resignation.” The idea is for Nixon to agree to resign in return for Ford’s agreement to pardon Nixon for any crimes Nixon may have committed while president. Ford listens to Haig but does not agree to any terms. The next day, after learning of the meeting, Ford’s own counsel, Robert Hartmann, is outraged that Ford did not just throw Haig out of his office. With fellow counsel John Marsh, Hartmann demands that Ford call Haig and state unequivocally, for the record, and in front of witnesses that Ford has made no such agreements. Haig considers Hartmann essentially incompetent, and Hartmann views Haig as a power-hungry “assh_le.” The subsequent tensions between Haig, one of the Nixon holdovers in Ford’s presidency, and Ford’s staff will shape future events in the Ford administration. In part to counteract Haig’s influence, Ford will name former NATO ambassador and Nixon aide Donald Rumsfeld as the head of his transition team. Rumsfeld will in turn name former Wyoming congressman and current investment executive Dick Cheney as his deputy; Cheney has lectured his clients that Watergate was never a criminal conspiracy, but merely a power struggle between the White House and Congress. [Werth, 2006, pp. 20]

Entity Tags: Richard M. Nixon, Robert Hartmann, Fred Buzhardt, Alexander M. Haig, Jr., Donald Rumsfeld, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, John Marsh, Gerald Rudolph Ford, Jr

Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate

Betty Ford.Betty Ford. [Source: Wally McNamee / Corbis]Despite President Ford’s insistence that he is not considering a pardon for former President Richard Nixon (see September 5-6, 1974), and Ford’s own denials in his 1976 memoir A Time to Heal, Ford tells his lawyer, Robert Hartmann, that he and his wife Betty have decided that if Nixon resigns, Ford will likely pardon him for any Watergate crimes. “We felt we were ready,” Ford tells Hartmann. “This just has to stop; it’s tearing the country to pieces. I decided to go ahead and get it over with, so I called [Nixon’s chief of staff] Al Haig and told them they should do whatever they decided to do; it was all right with me” (see August 1-2, 1974). This is not the last time stories will conflict over Ford’s decision on whether to pardon Nixon (see August 30, 1974 and September 5-6, 1974). [Werth, 2006, pp. 204]

Entity Tags: Richard M. Nixon, Robert Hartmann, Alexander M. Haig, Jr., Betty Ford, Gerald Rudolph Ford, Jr

Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate

August 8, 1974: Nixon Resigns Presidency

Richard Nixon announcing his resignation to the country.Richard Nixon announcing his resignation to the country. [Source: American Rhetoric.com]President Richard Nixon, forced to resign because of the Watergate scandal, begins his last day in office. The morning is marked by “burn sessions” in several rooms of the White House, where aides burn what author Barry Werth calls “potentially troublesome documents” in fireplaces. Nixon’s chief of staff, Alexander Haig, is preparing for the transition in his office, which is overflowing with plastic bags full of shredded documents. Haig says all of the documents are duplicates. Haig presents Nixon with a one-line letter of resignation—“I hereby resign the office of president of the United States”—and Nixon signs it without comment. Haig later describes Nixon as “haggard and ashen,” and recalls, “Nothing of a personal nature was said… By now, there was not much that could be said that we did not already understand.” Nixon gives his resignation speech at 9 p.m. [White House, 8/8/1974; White House, 8/8/1974; American Rhetoric, 2001; Werth, 2006, pp. 3-8] On August 7, Haig told Watergate special prosecutor Leon Jaworski that Congress would certainly pass a resolution halting any legal actions against Nixon. But, watching Nixon’s televised resignation speech, Jaworski thinks, “Not after that speech, Al.” Nixon refuses to accept any responsibility for any of the myriad crimes and illicit actions surrounding Watergate, and merely admits to some “wrong” judgments. Without some expression of remorse and acceptance of responsibility, Jaworski doubts that Congress will do anything to halt any criminal actions against Nixon. [Werth, 2006, pp. 30-31] Instead of accepting responsibility, Nixon tells the nation that he must resign because he no longer has enough support in Congress to remain in office. To leave office before the end of his term “is abhorrent to every instinct in my body,” he says, but “as president, I must put the interests of America first.” Jaworski makes a statement after the resignation speech, declaring that “there has been no agreement or understanding of any sort between the president or his representatives and the special prosecutor relating in any way to the president’s resignation.” Jaworski says that his office “was not asked for any such agreement or understanding and offered none.” [Washington Post, 8/9/1974]

Entity Tags: Nixon administration, Leon Jaworski, Richard M. Nixon, Alexander M. Haig, Jr., Barry Werth

Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate

President Ford assigns attorney Benton Becker to find out what the technicalities of a presidential pardon are. Among Ford’s questions: Can a president pardon someone before that person is indicted? Would it stop a conviction if issued after an indictment but before jury deliberations? Does a pardon need to cite specific crimes, or can it be for across-the-board violations of the entire US criminal code? Would it affect charges brought by individual states or communities? In light of some senators’ push for Richard Nixon’s impeachment even though he has already resigned, would it stop an impeachment proceeding? “What does a pardon really mean?” Ford asks Becker. “Am I erasing everything he did, as if it never occurred? Does a pardon erase a criminal act or does it only erase criminal punishment?” [Werth, 2006, pp. 248-249]

Entity Tags: Gerald Rudolph Ford, Jr, Richard M. Nixon, Benton Becker

Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate

Researching the legal and technical aspects of presidential pardons (see August 30, 1974), Benton Becker, President Ford’s lawyer, finds that they only apply to federal crimes, meaning, for example, that Richard Nixon can still be prosecuted for crimes in California arising from his connections to the Ellsberg burglary (see September 9, 1971). It would not affect a Senate impeachment trial, even though the possibility of that happening is increasingly remote. Becker finds two legal references of particular use in his research: the 1915 Supreme Court case of United States v. Burdick, which attempted to answer the fundamental question of the meaning of a presidential pardon; and an 1833 quote from the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Marshall, who wrote, “A pardon is an act of grace… which exempts the individual on whom it is bestowed from the punishment the law inflicts for a crime he has committed.” Becker determines that such an “act of grace” is an implicit admission of guilt. Unlike the proposed conditional amnesty for draft evaders (see August 31, 1974), a pardon will strike convictions from the books and exempt those pardoned from any responsibility for answering for their crimes, but it does not forget (in a legal sense) that those crimes took place. “The pardon is an act of forgiveness,” Becker explains. “We are forgiving you—the president, the executive, the king—is forgiving you for what you’ve done, your illegal act that you’ve either been convicted of, or that you’ve been accused of, or that you’re being investigated for, or that you’re on trial for. And you don’t have to accept this—you can refuse this.” The Burdick decision convinces Becker that by pardoning Nixon, Ford can stop his imminent prosecution, and undoubted conviction, without having to condone Nixon’s crimes. For Nixon to accept a pardon would be, in a legal sense, an admission of criminal wrongdoing. [Werth, 2006, pp. 263-265]

Entity Tags: US Supreme Court, Gerald Rudolph Ford, Jr, Richard M. Nixon, John Marshall, Benton Becker

Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate

Richard Nixon’s lawyer, Jack Miller, has prepared a “deed of trust” for Nixon’s presidential documents and tapes. According to the proposal, Nixon and the government will share ownership, and the files will be available for court subpoenas for up to five years. Two keys will be necessary to access the material, with Nixon retaining one and the General Services Administration (GSA) retaining the second. Miller is not sure Nixon will accept the plan, but he presents it to President Ford’s lawyers Benton Becker and Philip Buchen. (Nixon has another reason for wanting to retain control of the documents; his agent, Irv “Swifty” Lazar, is peddling a proposal for his biography to publishers, with an asking price of over $2 million. The documents will be a necessary source for the biography.) Buchen tells Miller that Ford is considering pardoning Nixon (see August 30, 1974). Miller is not sure Nixon wants a pardon, with its implication of guilt (see September 2, 1974). Miller has had trouble discussing Watergate with Nixon, who does not want to discuss it and certainly does not want to admit any guilt or complicity in the conspiracy. Becker says that the entire issue of Nixon’s pardon, and the concurrent question of the Nixon files, has to be resolved quickly. [Werth, 2006, pp. 280-281]

Entity Tags: Richard M. Nixon, Benton Becker, Irv ‘Swifty’ Lazar, General Services Administration, Philip Buchen, Herbert (“Jack”) Miller

Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate

President Ford and his lawyer, Benton Becker, discuss pardoning Nixon.President Ford and his lawyer, Benton Becker, discuss pardoning Nixon. [Source: David Hume Kennerly / Getty Images]President Ford authorizes his attorney, Benton Becker, to tell Richard Nixon, “It’s not final, but in all probability a pardon will be forthcoming.” Ford agrees not to seek a decision on Nixon’s presidential files (see September 4, 1974) as a condition for a pardon; however, a statement of contrition (if not an outright admission of guilt) is something Ford and his advisers want from Nixon in return for a pardon. As Becker prepares to leave for California to meet with Nixon and his lawyer, Ford tells Becker to carefully judge Nixon’s physical and mental health. As for the records, Becker will later recall: “We walked out of the office; [Ford] had his hand over my shoulder, he said, ‘I will never, ever give up those records. They belong to the American people. You let President Nixon know that I feel very strongly about this.’” [Werth, 2006, pp. 293] When Becker arrives in San Clemente, he meets with Ron Ziegler, Nixon’s former press secretary, who now serves as Nixon’s personal aide. Ziegler tells Becker, “I can tell you right now that President Nixon will make no statement of admission or complicity in return for a pardon from Jerry Ford.” Becker believes Ziegler was forewarned by Ford’s ad hoc chief of staff, Alexander Haig, who has maintained close contact with the Nixon staff since Nixon’s resignation. Ziegler apparently knows that Ford will not insist on either a document turnover or a statement of contrition in return for a pardon, and is toeing a hard line. Angered by what he considers Haig’s intolerable betrayal of Ford, Becker bluffs Ziegler, turning around and preparing to leave without further discussion. The bluff works; Ziegler and Becker discuss the problem until early in the morning hours. [Werth, 2006, pp. 294-295] By the next morning, Becker has overseen a tentative agreement with Nixon’s lawyer Jack Miller and General Services Administration (GSA) head Arthur Sampson. The agreement will “temporarily” store the documents in a facility near San Clemente, under restricted access requiring both Nixon and a GSA official to access the documents, and Nixon retaining control of who accesses the materials. On September 1, 1979, the agreement reads, Nixon will donate the materials entirely to the federal government. As for the tapes, Nixon retains the right to destroy the tapes after five years, which will be destroyed anyway on September 1, 1989, or on the occasion of Nixon’s death, “whichever event shall first occur.” [Werth, 2006, pp. 297-298]

Entity Tags: Ron Ziegler, Arthur Sampson, General Services Administration, Benton Becker, Gerald Rudolph Ford, Jr, Herbert (“Jack”) Miller, Alexander M. Haig, Jr., Richard M. Nixon

Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate

During the careful negotiations over the conditions of Richard Nixon’s possible pardon (see September 5-6, 1974), Nixon aide Ron Ziegler brings up the issue of the “statement of contrition,” and shows Benton Becker, the lawyer negotiating for President Ford, a draft statement. The statement, crafted by a speechwriter, blames the pressures of the office, Nixon’s preoccupation with foreign crises, and his decision to rely on the judgment of his staff, for his alleged involvement. The statement makes no admission of guilt or acceptance of responsibility whatsoever. Such a statement would invite state prosecution of Nixon even if Ford grants him a pardon for federal crimes, Becker notes. Nixon would be better off saying nothing at all than making this statement. A revised statement merely admits that Nixon was guilty of poor judgment. Becker presses for more. A third revision has Nixon admitting that he “can see clearly now that I was wrong in not acting more decisively and more forthrightly in dealing with Watergate, particularly when it reached the stage of judicial proceedings and grew from a political scandal into a national tragedy.” Becker seizes on the word “forthrightly” as an implied admission of contrition and a subtle acceptance of guilt. “The word is a synonym for ‘honestly,’” he will later recall. “That had meaning for me as a former prosecutor, because that meant obstruction of justice.” Ford, contacted by phone about the statement, is not happy with the legal parsing that Becker is trying to stretch into an implied admission of responsibility. Ford will later write, “I was taking one hell of a risk [in pardoning Nixon] and [Nixon] didn’t seem to be responsive at all.” [Werth, 2006, pp. 299-301] Becker finally meets face-to-face with Nixon, who seems to Becker unhealthily aged and almost “freakishly grotesque,” with long, thin arms dangling from the sleeves of his suit. Nixon doesn’t want to discuss Watergate at all, attempting repeatedly to steer the discussion towards football and responding in monosyllables to Becker’s attempts to discuss the details of the forthcoming pardon. After Becker manages to get a grudging, distracted acquiescence from Nixon to the deal, Nixon suddenly turns maudlin. He says Becker has been “a gentleman” towards him, and wants to give him a present. “But look around the office,” he says. “I don’t have anything anymore. They took it all away from me. Everything I had is gone.” Nixon gives Becker the last two bits of presidential memorabilia he owns, taken, he says, “from my personal jewelry box.” They are a presidential tiepin and a pair of presidential seal cufflinks. Nixon is almost in tears, and a distinctly uncomfortable Becker withdraws as graciously as he may. “I just wanted to get the hell out of there,” Becker will later recall. [Werth, 2006, pp. 304-306]

Entity Tags: Ron Ziegler, Benton Becker, Gerald Rudolph Ford, Jr, Richard M. Nixon

Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate

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