Profile: John Sirica
John Sirica was a participant or observer in the following events:
After the first day of testimony in the Watergate trial (see January 8-11, 1973), Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein piles into a taxicab with the four Miami-based Watergate burglars and their lawyer, and accompanies them to the airport and even onto the plane one of them is taking in order to have a conversation—an impromptu interview—with one of the men. (In the book All the President’s Men, Bernstein does not identify the subject of the conversation.) The airborne conversation flows with surprising ease. Bernstein learns that E. Howard Hunt has been pressuring the others for a week to plead guilty; their families will be cared for financially, and they will certainly receive some sort of executive clemency within a few months. Hunt is once again serving as a “case officer” giving orders to his lower-level operatives. Their lawyer, Henry Rothblatt (see Early January, 1973), is furious, and has instructed his clients to “stay away from that son of a b_tch Hunt.” (Hunt’s lawyer, William Bittman, denies that Hunt pressured anyone to do anything.) Bernstein, colleague Bob Woodward, and Post editors are leery of publishing the story, worrying that the trial judge, John Sirica, might consider the interview a possible obstruction of justice or interference with the trial. The next day, the New York Times’s Seymour Hersh prints a story that says burglar Frank Sturgis believes former Nixon campaign chief John Mitchell knew about, and even encouraged, the Watergate operation. Time magazine claims that the four Miami burglars will receive $1,000 a month for their jail sentences. And columnist Jack Anderson writes that campaign money for the defendants is being funneled through burglar E. Howard Hunt. Emboldened by the other stories, the Post prints Bernstein’s story. [Bernstein and Woodward, 1974, pp. 232-233]
After the press reports that the Watergate burglars will receive cash payments in return for their guilty pleas and their silence (see January 8-9, 1973 and January 8-11, 1973), Judge John Sirica angrily grills the four Miami-based defendants in court about the claims. To a man, they deny any pressure to plead guilty, any knowledge of cash payments to themselves or their families, and any knowledge of discussions of possible executive clemency. Defendant Virgilio Gonzalez even denies being a former CIA agent, when evidence has already established that he was on a $100/month retainer by the agency until the day after the Watergate burglary. (Defendant G. Gordon Liddy laughs aloud when Gonzalez makes this claim.) Gonzalez claims that the entire Watergate operation was somehow involved with the Communist regime of Cuba: Gonzalez says he is committed to “protect[ing] this country against any Communist conspiracy.” Sirica rolls his eyes in disbelief. Gonzalez claims not to know any specifics of the supposed connection between the Democrats and Castro’s Cuba, and says that he trusted the judgement of his superiors, Liddy and E. Howard Hunt. Fellow defendant Bernard Barker claims that none of them were paid for their actions: “These are not men that sell themselves for money,” Barker states. Barker confirms that he worked for Hunt, and says it was an honor for him to perform such a service. Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward later write, “The prosecutors’ assurances that everything would come out at the trial were fading into nothingness, as the defendants ducked into the haze of their guilty pleas.” The five who pled guilty are led off to jail before their bail and sentencing hearings. [Bernstein and Woodward, 1974, pp. 233-235; Gerald R. Ford Library and Museum, 7/3/2007] In his Watergate grand jury testimony, White House counsel John Dean will say that President Nixon approved executive clemency for Hunt in December 1972 (see January 10, 1973). [Bernstein and Woodward, 1974, pp. 312] In 1974, Barker will write that while in jail, James McCord is their group leader, but they do not fully trust him, partly because he is “very friendly with Alfred Baldwin, and to us Baldwin was the first informer” (see May 29, 1972). Another disconnection between McCord and the Cubans is his lack of participation in the Ellsberg burglary (see September 9, 1971). [Harper's, 10/1974]
Entity Tags: James McCord, Bob Woodward, Bernard Barker, Alfred Baldwin, Carl Bernstein, G. Gordon Liddy, Richard M. Nixon, Virgilio Gonzalez, E. Howard Hunt, John Sirica, John Dean
Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate
E. Howard Hunt, the leader of the seven Watergate burglars (see 2:30 a.m.June 17, 1972) currently on trial, tells fellow burglars Frank Sturgis, Virgilio Gonzalez, Eugenio Martinez, and Bernard Barker (sometimes called the “Cubans”) that if they plead guilty and keep their mouths shut, the White House will financially take care of their families. Hunt will plead guilty the next day; the others will plead guilty days later (see January 8-11, 1973). [Spartacus Schoolnet, 8/2007] Hunt has been pressuring the White House for executive clemency—in essence, a presidential pardon—for himself in return for his and the burglars’ guilty pleas and subsequent silence. [Reeves, 2001, pp. 557-558] Watergate burglar Bernard Barker will write of the decision to plead guilty in October 1974. He will recall Hunt as being thoroughly demoralized by the death of his wife Dorothy (see December 8, 1972), and telling Barker, “Well, you do what you want, but I am going to plead guilty.” When Barker asks why, Hunt replies: “We have no defense. The evidence against us is overwhelming.” Barker asks, “What about Liddy and McCord?” asking about the two accused burglars, G. Gordon Liddy and James McCord, who are being tried separately. Hunt replies: “Liddy and McCord are in a different sector. We are in one sector and they are in another. They have their own plan.” Barker then asks the Cubans’ lawyer, Henry Rothblatt, what his strategy is. Rothblatt confirms that they have no defense against the charges (see Early January, 1973), but he intends to “aggravate that Judge Sirica [John Sirica, presiding over the trial] to the point where I am going to drive him out of his cotton-pickin’ mind, and he is going to make so many mistakes with his arrogance that this will be a perfect case for appeal.” Unimpressed, Barker says he will follow Hunt’s lead and plead guilty. Rothblatt insists that Barker not trust Hunt and the others, saying: “They are a bunch of b_stards. They’ll double-cross you. They’ll sell you down the river.” Nevertheless, Barker and the other three burglars agree to follow Hunt’s lead and plead guilty. Rothblatt resigns from the case. Apparently, Barker is unaware at this time of Hunt’s negotiations with the White House for executive clemency for himself. [Harper's, 10/1974]
Entity Tags: Henry Rothblatt, E. Howard Hunt, Dorothy Hunt, Bernard Barker, Eugenio Martinez, G. Gordon Liddy, John Sirica, Virgilio Gonzalez, James McCord, Frank Sturgis, Nixon administration
Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate
During the trial of the “Watergate Seven” (see January 8-11, 1973), unbeknownst to the press, the prosecution, or Judge John Sirica, Watergate defendant James McCord has been quietly writing anonymous letters to his former supervisors and friends at the CIA. McCord’s letters warn them that the White House intends to blame the agency for the Watergate conspiracy. His last unsigned letter goes to former White House aide Jack Caulfield, now working for the IRS (see December 21, 1972). “If [CIA director Richard] Helms goes and the Watergate operation is laid at CIA’s feet, where it does not belong, every tree in the forest will fall,” he writes, apparently alluding to his intention to tell what he knows. “Just pass the message that if they want it to blow, they are on exactly the right course.” Caulfield did indeed pass the message to the White House. During the trial, Caulfield met with McCord, representing “the highest level of the White House,” promising money and executive clemency for McCord if he will plead guilty and stay quiet. McCord does not take the deal (see March 19-23, 1973). [Reeves, 2001, pp. 561-562]
During the Watergate trial of G. Gordon Liddy and James McCord (see January 30, 1973), Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward begin poring over the exhibits and papers filed as evidence with the court. Woodward begins calling the phone numbers listed in the address books of the burglars (see June 18, 1972). He is told by one of the first people he calls: “The FBI? They never, never contacted me. I never talked to them.” Woodward is appalled that the FBI has made such a fundamental investigative failure of not calling all of the people listed in the books. (An FBI internal report will later attempt to explain the lapse—see July 5, 1974.)
Woodward Calls Witnesses - When the court releases the names of upcoming witnesses, Woodward begins calling them, too. He asks one witness, who knows burglar E. Howard Hunt (see January 8-9, 1973) very well, what he will testify to. “I’ll tell you what I could testify to, but [prosecutor Earl] Silbert won’t ask,” the witness replies. “If the judge does or any of the attorneys, I’ll say it.” The witness has already told everything he knows to Silbert and FBI investigators.
Ehrlichman Allegedly Ran Plumbers - He says that if asked, he would tell the court that, according to Hunt, White House aide John Ehrlichman was in charge of the Plumbers (see December 7, 1972). Hunt would have rather dealt with another White House aide, Charles Colson, “because Colson understood that such [secret intelligence gathering operations against political opponents] are necessary.” Ehrlichman was reluctant to implement some of Hunt’s schemes, the witness says, but Colson pushed them through. Former Nixon campaign chief John Mitchell received typed logs and reports of the wiretaps on the Democrats, the witness says.
Conspiracy Linked to Dean - Most surprisingly for Woodward, the witness says that when Hunt was in hiding from investigators (see June 18, 1972) and demanding a lawyer, he insisted that White House counsel John Dean find him one. This is the first time anyone has publicly connected Dean to the Watergate conspiracy.
Not Asked - As the witness predicts, he will not be asked any of this when he testifies. Woodward and Bernstein write a long analysis of the trial, headlined “Still Secret: Who Hired Spies and Why,” observing that the Liddy/McCord trial is notable for “questions that were not asked, answers that were not given, witnesses who were not called to testify, and some lapses of memory by those who were.” At the bond hearing for Liddy and McCord after the trial, Judge John Sirica will say that he hopes the proposed Senate investigation (see February 7, 1973) can find out what the trials did not. [Bernstein and Woodward, 1974, pp. 237-241]
Entity Tags: Federal Bureau of Investigation, Carl Bernstein, Bob Woodward, ’Plumbers’, Charles Colson, Earl Silbert, John Dean, John Mitchell, James McCord, G. Gordon Liddy, John Sirica, E. Howard Hunt, John Ehrlichman
Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate
Hugh Sloan. [Source: Bettmann / Corbis]Former Nixon campaign treasurer Hugh Sloan testifies during the trial of the “Watergate Seven” (see January 8-11, 1973). Judge John Sirica becomes impatient with the diffident questioning of the prosecutors, excuses the jury, and grills Sloan himself. Sloan admits to disbursing $199,000 in secret campaign funds for G. Gordon Liddy’s covert campaign espionage operations, and that the transaction had been approved by both campaign director John Mitchell and campaign finance director Maurice Stans (see January 23, 1973). [Reeves, 2001, pp. 563-564; Spartacus Schoolnet, 8/2007]
G. Gordon Liddy. [Source: Robert Maass / Corbis]Following on the five guilty pleas of their fellow defendants (see January 8-11, 1973), the final two Watergate defendants, G. Gordon Liddy and James McCord, are found guilty of conspiracy, burglary, and wiretapping Democratic headquarters. [Gerald R. Ford Library and Museum, 7/3/2007] During the trial, the court hears damning testimony from confessed Watergate accomplice Alfred Baldwin (see Mid-January 1973) and former Nixon campaign treasurer Hugh Sloan (see January 23, 1973). As the trial progressed, the stolid solidarity of the defendants began to crack, with Liddy’s lawyer attempting to shift the blame for criminal actions onto E. Howard Hunt, who pled guilty three weeks before. McCord’s lawyer won little sympathy from the jury by attacking Judge John Sirica’s impartiality and competence during the trial. Prosecutor Earl Silbert, calling Liddy “the leader of the conspiracy, the moneyman, the boss,” told the jury in his final statement, “[W]hen people cannot get together for political purposes without fear that their premises will be burglarized, their conversations bugged, their phones tapped… you breed distrust, you breed suspicion, you lost confidence, faith and credibility.” He asked for “a verdict that will help restore the faith in the democratic system that has been so damaged by the conduct of these two defendants and their coconspirators.” The jury takes a mere 90 minutes to return its verdict. Sirica orders the two immediately jailed while he considers bail. [Washington Post, 1/31/1973; Reeves, 2001, pp. 567]
Convicted Watergate burglar James McCord (see January 30, 1973) writes a letter to the presiding judge, John Sirica, in response to Sirica’s requests for more information. McCord writes that he is “whipsawed in a variety of legalities”—he may be forced to testify to the Senate (see February 7, 1973), and he may be involved in future civil and other criminal proceedings. He also fears unspecified “retaliatory measures… against me, my family, and my friends should I disclose” his knowledge of the Watergate conspiracy. But McCord wants some leniency from Sirica in sentencing. McCord alleges that the five defendants who pled guilty did so under duress. The defendants committed perjury, McCord continues, and says that others are involved in the burglary. The burglary is definitely not a CIA operation, though “[t]he Cubans may have been misled” into thinking so. McCord writes, “I know for a fact that it was not,” implying inside knowledge of at least some CIA workings. McCord requests to speak with Sirica privately in the judge’s chambers, because he “cannot feel confident in talking with an FBI agent, in testifying before a Grand Jury whose US attorneys work for the Department of Justice, or in talking with other government representatives.” In his discussion with Sirica, he makes the most explosive charge of all: he and his fellow defendants lied at the behest of former Attorney General John Mitchell, now the head of the Nixon re-election campaign, and current White House counsel John Dean. [Bernstein and Woodward, 1974, pp. 275-276; Time, 1/7/1974; James W. McCord, Jr, 7/3/2007; Gerald R. Ford Library and Museum, 7/3/2007] It seems that McCord writes his letter to Sirica in retaliation for President Nixon’s firing of CIA director Richard Helms, and the White House’s attempts to pin the blame for the Watergate conspiracy on the CIA (see December 21, 1972).
President Nixon tells his aides, in a secretly recorded conversation (see July 13-16, 1973), to ensure that the nation never learns of the political and financial machinations that surround the Watergate burglary from his aides under investigation: “And, uh, for that reason, I am perfectly willing to—I don’t give a sh_t what happens, I want you all to stonewall it, let them plead the Fifth Amendment, cover-up or anything else.” Judge John Sirica, presiding over the Watergate trials, is appalled at later hearing this conversation. Sirica will later write, “A lifetime of dealing with the criminal law, of watching a parade of people who had robbed, stolen, killed, raped, and deceived others, had not hardened me enough to hear with equanimity the low political scheming that was played back to me from the White House offices.” [Werth, 2006, pp. 131-132] Nixon tells aides H. R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman that E. Howard Hunt, who has been blackmailing the White House (see March 21, 1973), is no longer a problem. But he wants something on paper that he can point to and say he knew nothing about the Watergate conspiracy, and that he had ordered an internal investigation of the matter. He sends counsel John Dean to Camp David for the weekend to write the document. [Reeves, 2001, pp. 578-579]
Virgilio Gonzalez, Frank Sturgis, former attorney Henry Rothblatt, Bernard Barker, and Eugenio Martinez, photographed during the trial. [Source: Wally McNamee / Corbis]The Watergate burglars are sentenced to jail. G. Gordon Liddy receives between six years eight months to twenty years in federal prison. The actual burglars—Bernard Barker, Virgilio Gonzalez, Eugenio Martinez, and Frank Sturgis—receive forty years. E. Howard Hunt receives 35 years. Judge John Sirica announces that the prison terms are “provisionary,” depending on whether they cooperate with government prosecutors. Convicted burglar James McCord is to be sentenced, but Sirica delays his sentencing, and reveals that McCord has written a letter to the court (see March 19-23, 1973) about the perjury and concealment that permeated the trial. After news of the letter hits the press, President Nixon writes in his diary that the letter is “a bombshell.” Watergate prosecutor Earl Silbert says he will reconvene the grand jury investigating the break-in. [Reeves, 2001, pp. 578-580]
John Dean being sworn in by committee chairman Sam Ervin. [Source: Bettmann / Corbis]In five days of explosive testimony before the Senate Watergate Committee, former White House counsel John Dean claims that President Nixon was personally involved with the cover-up of the Watergate burglary (see 2:30 a.m.June 17, 1972 and June 3, 1973) within days of the crime. Dean gives a seven-hour opening statement detailing a program of political and campaign espionage activities conducted by the White House in recent years. He also tells the committee that he believes Nixon has tape-recorded some of the conversations regarding the Watergate conspiracy (see July 13-16, 1973). Dean tells the committee that he has White House documents detailing elements of the conspiracy in a safe-deposit box, and has given the keys to that box to Judge John Sirica, the judge overseeing the Watergate prosecutions. [Gerald R. Ford Library and Museum, 7/3/2007; Spartacus Schoolnet, 8/2007] Dean, described by Time Magazine as “owlish” and speaking “in a lifeless monotone,” nevertheless displays “impressive poise and a masterly memory” as he “sp[ins] his detailed web of evidence. He readily admit[s] his own illegal and improper acts. But he emerge[s] unshaken from five full days of recital and cross examination, with his basic story challenged but intact.” Without a convincing rebuttal, it would be difficult for either the committee or the nation to believe that Nixon “was not an active and fully aware participant in the Watergate cover-up, as Dean charged.”
Implicates Nixon Aides - While Dean admits that he had no first-hand knowledge of Nixon’s complicity until September 1972, he directly implicates Nixon’s two most senior aides at the time, H. R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, of what Time calls “multiple actions in the Watergate coverup,” as well as former Nixon campaign chairman John Mitchell.
White House-Sourced Questioning of Dean Backfires - An initial White House attempt at rebutting Dean’s testimony, consisting of a statement and a list of questions drawn up by White House counsel Fred Buzhardt, are “easily handled” by Dean, and even backfires, to the point where the White House disavows any involvement in the material, saying that they were “Buzhardt’s friendly personal contribution to the proceedings.” The questions attempt to portray Dean as the “mastermind” behind the Watergate conspiracy, with Mitchell his “patron.” Time writes, “Creating a constitutional crisis almost alone, the Buzhardt statement in effect charge[s], Dean and Mitchell kept the truth of all that concealed for some nine months from such shrewd White House officials as H. R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, Charles W. Colson—and the president.” But few on the committee find Buzhardt’s contention believable, considering the increasing amount of evidence to the contrary.
Testimony Details 'Climate of Fear' at White House - As yet much of Dean’s testimony remains uncorroborated, but, Time writes: “even if those facts leave many unconvinced of Nixon’s complicity in Watergate, Dean’s dismaying description of the climate of fear existing within the Nixon White House is almost as alarming as the affair that it spawned. With little regard for the law and under repeated proddings by the president himself. Dean contended, the Nixon staff used or contemplated using almost any available tactic to undermine political opponents, punish press critics, subdue antiwar protesters and gather political intelligence, including lists of ‘enemies’” (see June 27, 1973). Overall, Dean says, the Watergate break-in (see 2:30 a.m.June 17, 1972) was “the first act in a great American tragedy” and he finds it “very difficult” to testify about what others, including “men I greatly admire and respect,” had done. He finds it easier to admit to his own crimes. [Time, 7/9/1973]
Washington Post headline of firings. [Source: Washington Post]After Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox refuses President Nixon’s offer of a “compromise” on the issue of the White House tapes (see October 19, 1973), Nixon orders (through his chief of staff Alexander Haig) Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire Cox. Richardson refuses the presidential order, and resigns on the spot. Haig then orders Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus to fire Cox. Ruckelshaus also refuses, and resigns also. Haig finally finds a willing Justice Department official in Solicitor General Robert Bork, who is named acting attorney general and fires Cox. (Of the firing, Bork tells reporters, “All I will say is that I carried out the president’s directive.”) White House press secretary Ronald Ziegler announces that the Office of the Special Prosecutor has been abolished. FBI agents are sent to prevent Cox’s staff from taking their files out of their offices. Ziegler justifies the firing by saying that Cox “defied” Nixon’s instructions “at a time of serious world crisis” and made it “necessary” for Nixon to discharge him. After his firing, Cox says, “Whether ours shall continue to be a government of laws and not of men is now for Congress and ultimately the American people.” The press dubs Cox’s firings and the abolishment of the OSP the “Saturday Night Massacre,” and the public reacts with a fury unprecedented in modern American political history. In a period of ten days, Congress receives more than a million letters and telegrams (some sources say the number is closer to three million), almost all demanding Nixon’s impeachment. Congress will soon launch an impeachment inquiry. Former Washington Post editor Barry Sussman writes in 1974 that Cox’s firing was not a result of impetuous presidential anger. Nixon had been more than reluctant to accept a special prosecutor for Watergate. Cox, named special prosecutor in the spring of 1973, had quickly earned the ire of White House officials and of Nixon himself, and by October 7, Nixon had announced privately that Cox would be fired. [Washington Post, 10/21/1973; Sussman, 1974, pp. 251; Gerald R. Ford Library and Museum, 7/3/2007]
Entity Tags: John Sirica, Archibald Cox, Alexander M. Haig, Jr., Barry Sussman, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Richard M. Nixon, William Ruckelshaus, John Stennis, Elliot Richardson, Robert Bork, Ron Ziegler
Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate
Lesley Stahl. [Source: John Neubauer / Getty Images]Judge John Sirica, presiding over the Watergate trial of former Nixon aide John Ehrlichman, subpoenas former President Nixon to appear as a witness on behalf of Ehrlichman. Ehrlichman has heard the tapes the prosecution intends to use against him, and, already convicted of conspiracy and lying about his involvement in the Ellsberg break-in (see September 9, 1971), knows he needs a powerful defense to avoid more jail time. He demanded that Watergate special prosecutor Leon Jaworski hand over the White House files on Ehrlichman for his defense. But Jaworski instead gave Ehrlichman an affidavit from Nixon’s former White House lawyer Fred Buzhardt, who affirmed that nothing in those ten million documents would help Ehrlichman in his defense. Days later, Buzhardt suffered a heart attack, rendering it impossible for Ehrlichman to challenge his affirmation. Ehrlichman hopes that the subpoena will muddy the legal waters by provoking a confrontation between Nixon’s lawyers and Jaworski’s. CBS reporter Lesley Stahl informs her viewers, incorrectly, that it seems Jaworski “has indicted Mr. Nixon.” [Werth, 2006, pp. 84-88]
Judge John Sirica, presiding over the Watergate trial of H. R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, and John Mitchell, postpones their trial until September 30. This gives Watergate special prosecutor Leon Jaworski some much-desired breathing room. Jaworski must decide whether to indict Richard Nixon. Jaworski’s staff unanimously believes Nixon must at least be indicted, if not actively prosecuted, or history will condemn the entire work of the special prosecution. George Frampton, one of Jaworski’s staff, notes that the politicians who could have made a decision on the issue have not done so. In a memo to Jaworski, Frampton writes that no one “can expect you now to abandon your mandate and responsibilities to the administration of justice in order to assume their burden.… I wonder if ten years from now history will endorse the notion that Mr. Nixon has ‘suffered enough.’ The powerful men around him have lost their liberty and their livelihoods. Mr. Nixon, on the other hand, will be supported in lavish style with a pension and subsidies at taxpayer expense until his death. He may reenter public life, no matter how morally crippled.” The breadth and depth of crimes allegedly committed by Nixon are such that Jaworski is not sure where to even start with an indictment. [Werth, 2006, pp. 162-163]
Former President Richard Nixon is admitted to the hospital with life-threatening blood clots. His lawyer tells Judge John Sirica, who is presiding over the conjoined trials of former Nixon aides John Ehrlichman, H. R. Haldeman, and John Mitchell, that even though Nixon has been subpoenaed to testify (see August 28, 1974), he will not be available to the court until early 1975. Sirica wants the trial over and done with by Christmas. Nixon thusly escapes ever having to publicly answer for, or even discuss under oath, his crimes. [Werth, 2006, pp. 338-339]
H. R. Haldeman testifying to Congress in July 1973. Haldeman’s testimony was damaging to all four defendants. [Source: Bettmann / Corbis]Former Nixon aides John Ehrlichman, H. R. Haldeman, and John Mitchell, along with former Mitchell aide Robert Mardian, are convicted of various Watergate-related crimes, including conspiracy, obstruction of justice, fraud, and perjury. Haldeman, Ehrlichman, and Mitchell receive sentences of two to eight years in prison; Mardian will be given a sentence of ten months to three years. They immediately appeal their convictions on the grounds that they could not receive a fair trial because of the massive publicity surrounding Watergate. This was the same argument President Nixon’s lawyers used to influence President Ford’s decision to pardon Nixon (see September 8, 1974). The appeals court will reject the contention. [New York Times, 2/16/1999; Werth, 2006, pp. 334]
Ehrlichman Asks for Leniency - All four will write letters to Judge John Sirica asking for leniency in sentencing. The only letter that is made public is Ehrlichman’s; he writes of his “profound regret” for his role in the Watergate conspiracy, and adds: “I have been found to be a perjurer. No reversal on appeal can remove the stigma.” Ehrlichman asks that he be allowed to spend his sentence working with the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico, using his legal talents to help them with land-use problems. Sirica will ignore the letter in his sentencing. Sirica will also ignore Haldeman’s argument that he only did the bidding of his boss, President Nixon, and that since Nixon never served jail time, neither should Haldeman. Mitchell, mired in divorce proceedings from his wife, says of the sentence: “It could have been a hell of a lot worse. They could have sentenced me to spend the rest of my life with Martha Mitchell.” [Time, 3/3/1975]
'Abdicated My Moral Judgments' - Reflecting on his conviction and his conduct during the Nixon years, Ehrlichman will say in 1977: “I abdicated my moral judgments and turned them over to somebody else. And if I had any advice for my kids, it would be never—to never, ever—defer your moral judgments to anybody: your parents, your wife, anybody.” [New York Times, 2/16/1999]
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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