Watergate affair

The Investigations

When a special Senate committee investigating corrupt campaign practices, headed by Senator Sam Ervin, began nationally televised hearings into the Watergate affair, former White House counsel John Dean testified that the burglary was approved by former Attorney General John Mitchell with the knowledge of chief White House advisers John Ehrlichman and H. R. (Bob) Haldeman; he further accused President Nixon of approving the coverup.

Attorney General Elliot Richardson appointed (May, 1973) a special prosecutor, Archibald Cox, to investigate the entire affair; Cox and his staff began to uncover widespread evidence of political espionage by the Nixon reelection committee, illegal wiretapping of citizens by the administration, and corporate contributions to the Republican party in return for political favors. In July, 1973, it was revealed that presidential conversations in the White House had been tape recorded since 1971; Cox sued Nixon to obtain the tapes, and Nixon responded by ordering Richardson to fire him. Richardson resigned instead, and his assistant, William Ruckelshaus, also refused and was himself fired. Solicitor General Robert Bork finally fired Cox (Oct. 20, 1973) in what became known as the Saturday Night Massacre.

Nixon's action led to calls from the press, from government officials, and from private citizens for his impeachment, and the House of Representatives empowered its Judiciary Committee to initiate an impeachment investigation. Meanwhile, in response to a public outcry against the dismissal of Cox, President Nixon appointed a new special prosecutor, Leon Jaworksi, and released to Judge Sirica the tapes of the Watergate conversations subpoenaed by Cox. Jaworski subsequently obtained indictments and convictions against several high-ranking administration officials; one of the grand juries investigating the Watergate affair named Nixon as an unindicted coconspirator and turned its evidence over to the Judiciary Committee.

Responding to public pressure, in Apr., 1974, Nixon gave the Judiciary Committee edited transcripts of his taped conversations relating to Watergate; however, Nixon's actions failed to halt a steady erosion of confidence in his administration, and by the middle of 1974 polls indicated that a majority of the American people believed that the President was implicated in the Watergate coverup. On July 24, 1974, the Supreme Court affirmed a lower court ruling that ordered Nixon to turn over to special prosecutor Jaworski additional subpoenaed tapes relating to the coverup. Meanwhile, the House Judiciary Committee completed its investigation and adopted (July 27–30) three articles of impeachment against President Nixon; the first article, which cited the Watergate break-in, charged President Nixon with obstruction of justice.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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