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Political Wire logo McConnell and White House Agree to Coordinate
Trump May Skip Presidential Debates
How Trump Deals with Impeachment Pressure
Divided Court Hears Trump Emoluments Case
Exit Poll Predicts Massive Win for Boris Johnson
Biden’s Lead Shrinks In South Carolina

House Judiciary Committee Debates Impeaching Trump

Last night, the House Judiciary Committee began the process of debating the articles of impeachment against Donald Trump. They did not get to the actual articles themselves, mind you; what happened on Wednesday night was four hours of pre-discussion posturing and mud-slinging.

Presumably, anyone who hasn't been in a coma for the last six months is aware that House Democrats think Donald Trump is as crooked as a dog's hind leg, while House Republicans think he's a vestal virgin, pure as the driven snow. In case there was someone who didn't know this, however, the two sides made sure to communicate their views on Wednesday. The Republican members accused Democrats of executing a "political hit job," "a rigged process," and a "naked partisan exercise," while the Democratic members accused Republicans of enabling a "constitutional crime spree" and asserted that the President is himself a "smoking gun" whose own words and actions prove his guilt (more on smoking guns below).

Things got particularly tense when discussing the whistleblower. House Republicans, who slurred the WB as a "dissident," insist that they want to hear testimony from them during the impeachment trial (although their Senate colleagues may not agree; see below). Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) went so far as to announce the name of the (suspected) individual in open session. Very classy move. Democrats, for their part, described the WB as a "patriot" whose testimony is irrelevant. They did not say the person's name.

Judiciary Chair Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) also decided to try out a little guilt trip. He turned to the Republicans on the committee and said:

Please keep in mind that, one way or the other, President Trump will not be president forever. When his time has passed, when his grip on our politics is gone, when our country returns, as surely it will, to calmer times and stronger leadership, history will look back on our actions here today. How would you be remembered?

That's probably good advice, but the Republicans were having none of it. They accused the Democrats of using their majority status to advance their partisan goals. Maybe that is what is happening here, and maybe it is not. Undoubtedly, however, any Republican or Democrat who served in Congresses past—say, any of the Congresses prior to January 3, 2019—would be interested to learn that it is now verboten for a party to use its majority status to advance partisan goals. In that context, one might remember how a handful of senators cooked up the 2017 tax cut bill in private, without any debate in committee, and then less than 24 hours later rammed it through the Senate on a straight party-line vote with no Democrats voting "aye."

Very clearly, the members of the House—particularly the Republican members—know that they only have a few more days as the center of attention, and then this whole mess is going to be handed off to the folks at the other side of the building. So, they are doing as much performance as they can, whether it be for their constituents back home, or for the audience of one who resides at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. Of course, none of this actually means anything. The articles are going to be approved by the Committee on a party-line vote, and then they are going to be approved by the whole House on a near-party-line vote, with nearly all of the Democrats and Rep. Justin Amash (I-MI) voting for, and a handful of Democrats and all of the Republicans voting against. Meanwhile, any "spin" conducted right now will largely be forgotten by the voting public by the time the actual impeachment trial starts in a few weeks.

In any case, the Committee will be discussing the actual articles of impeachment today. You can watch on C-SPAN if you would like to see what it looks like when a whole bunch of folks full of piss and vinegar decide to let it all hang out. (Z)

Biden Might Serve Only One Term

According to reports made public on Wednesday, Joe Biden, if elected, would likely serve only one term. He will be 82 on Inauguration Day in 2025 and 86 at the end of a second term. He considers 82 to be too old for someone to take on the toughest job in the world. So, he sees himself as someone who could rid the world of Donald Trump, and then turn the show over to someone younger.

The big question now for him is whether to announce this in public. His advisers are divided on that question. Some of them say that a public announcement could help mollify some younger voters by letting them know that a vote for him is not a vote for the status quo for 8 years. However, other advisers say that such an announcement would make him a lame duck on day 1 and encourage the Republicans to block everything, knowing that in 4 years they will not have to face an incumbent. Most likely, Biden won't officially say he will serve only one term, but it won't be much of a secret either.

Biden's decision makes the choice of his running mate much more important than usual, since that person will have a leg up on landing the big chair in 2024. Given the fact that women are strong supporters of the Democrats, it seems very likely that Biden will choose a woman as his running mate if he gets the nod. In fact, he has already named four women he might consider: Stacey Abrams, Sally Yates, and Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and Maggie Hassan (D-NH). From a political standpoint, Abrams makes a lot of sense. She is a young (46) and charismatic black woman who almost was elected governor of Georgia in 2018. Yates, a former deputy AG, is not well known and seems an unlikely pick. Shaheen is 72 and doesn't add a lot of youth to the ticket. Hassan, 61, is no spring chicken, but 61 is better than 72. Biden has also suggested he is open to running with Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), though that was probably politeness rather than an honest declaration. After all, black voters clearly rejected her in favor of Biden himself and California is already in the bag, so what does she have to offer?

Here are the other female Democratic senators, sorted on age.

Senator State Age Notes
Kyrsten Sinema Arizona 43 Too conservative to win the millennials
Tammy Duckworth Illinois 51 Has some baggage, scandal-wise, though she might appeal to her fellow veterans
Kirsten Gillibrand New York 53 Her presidential campaign fizzled
Catherine Cortez Masto Nevada 55 A Latina from a swing state is a possibility
Kamala Harris California 55 See Gillibrand
Tammy Baldwin Wisconsin 57 She's from a swing state, but older Democrats might see a lesbian as problematic
Amy Klobuchar Minnesota 59 A real possibility
Maria Cantwell Washington 61 As a former Microsoft executive, she can claim "business experience"
Tina Smith Minnesota 61 She doesn't even want to be a senator, let alone veep
Jacky Rosen Nevada 62 A longshot from a swing state; would be the highest-ranking Jew in U.S. history if elected
Patty Murray Washington 69 She's probably too old, too
Debbie Stabenow Michigan 69 She's probably too old
Elizabeth Warren Massachusetts 70 The millennials might go for her, but she's not young, either
Mazie Hirono Hawaii 72 Too old and not well known
Dianne Feinstein California 86 She's older than Biden (and, for that matter, Methuselah)

Our best guess at this moment is that among the senators, Cortez Masto, Hassan, Klobuchar, and Warren make the most sense.

What about governors? The Democrats have six female governors:

Governor State Age Notes
Gina Raimondo Rhode Island 48 She is the least popular governor in the country
Gretchen Whitmer Michigan 48 A popular young woman from a key swing state
Kate Brown Oregon 59 She is bisexual, which might not be helpful
Michelle Lujan Grisham New Mexico 60 A Latina from a Western state
Laura Kelly Kansas 69 Kansas isn't a swing state and she's too old
Janet Mills Maine 71 Again, too old

From this list, Whitmer stands head and shoulders above the rest. The Democrats hope to win back the Midwest and a young, moderately progressive woman from a key Midwestern swing state makes a lot of sense. And as a governor, she has executive experience. (V)

Biden Leads in California and Texas

New CNN/SSRS polls of California and Texas show Joe Biden out in front, although in California it's only by a hair. Here are the results for California, which has 495 delegates to the Democratic National Convention.

Candidate Pct. (CA)
Joe Biden 21%
Bernie Sanders 20%
Elizabeth Warren 17%
Pete Buttigieg 9%
Andrew Yang 6%
Michael Bloomberg 5%
Cory Booker 3%
Tulsi Gabbard 2%
Amy Klobuchar 2%
Julián Castro 1%
Tom Steyer 1%

Texas is a different story altogether. Here, Biden has a commanding lead:

Candidate Pct. (TX)
Joe Biden 35%
Bernie Sanders 15%
Elizabeth Warren 13%
Pete Buttigieg 9%
Michael Bloomberg 5%
Andrew Yang 3%
Julián Castro 3%
Cory Booker 2%
Tom Steyer 2%
Tulsi Gabbard 1%
Amy Klobuchar 1%
Michael Bennet 1%
Deval Patrick 1%

Although Biden's lead is enormous, Texas has fewer delegates (262) than California. Still, it has the second largest haul, just a bit more than Florida's 248 delegates. And with Sanders and Warren both on the cusp of the 15% minimum, Biden could claim a disproportionate percentage of those 262, if there are (multiple) districts where nobody but Uncle Joe makes the cut. Both California and Texas vote on March 3. Florida votes two weeks later. (V)

Bloomberg Donates $10 Million to Vulnerable House Democrats

Mike Bloomberg can dream about moving into the White House, but it is not going to happen. Still, he can have a huge impact on the election because he hates Donald Trump, is worth $50 billion, and at 77 presumably knows you can't take it with you. So today, he is going to announce that he will donate $10 million to vulnerable House Democrats.

What Bloomberg is signaling is that it is OK for Democrats from reddish districts to vote to impeach Trump, even though this will generate a torrent of negative ads from Republicans to try to take them down. His money means they can fight back with their own ads. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has cheered him on for his generosity. After such a large donation, it would be in poor taste for her to also ask him to exit the presidential race. But he'll figure that out himself before long. In 2018, Bloomberg spent $100 million to help elect House Democrats in difficult districts, so this may be the first of multiple donations. After all, $10 million is only 0.02% of his fortune. It is like the average American (net worth $68,828) donating about fourteen bucks. (V)

Senate Again Won't Pass Bill Fighting Foreign Meddling in U.S. Elections

Not only do Republicans deny that Donald Trump ever asked foreign countries (Russia and Ukraine) to get involved in U.S. elections, they are not even opposed to foreign meddling in principle. The House passed a bill aimed at deterring foreign interference in U.S. elections. It states that when the DNI determines that Russia (or another country) interferes in U.S. elections, serious sanctions would be put in place within 30 days. Sen. Mike Crapo (R-ID), who chairs the Senate Banking Committee, blocked the bill (again), as he did in 2018.

Crapo said that Trump has put more sanctions on Russia than any president in history. Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), one of the sponsors (along with Sen. Marco Rubio, R-FL), said that the bill has nothing to do with Trump. It is about securing American elections. Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said that if the bill were to come up for a vote, it would pass. So far Crapo is blocking it, but he's something of a red herring, as the rest of the Republican leadership also does not like it, either. (V)

Horowitz Goes after Barr

AG William Barr knows that to keep his job, he has to tell Donald Trump what he wants to hear. What Trump wants to hear is that the FBI put his 2016 campaign under surveillance to help Hillary Clinton. So, Barr hired U.S. Attorney John Durham to investigate the issue. Justice Department Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz ran a parallel, albeit narrower, investigation, and he beat Durham to the punch. Horowitz' 434-page report said that after the FBI learned that Russia was meddling in the election, there was good reason to take a look. Barr and Durham expressed doubts about that conclusion.

On Wednesday, Horowitz very publicly fired back at Barr and Durham. Answering a question from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Horowitz reiterated that the FBI had a valid reason to open a probe of the Trump campaign in 2016. He also noted that although the FBI made mistakes during the process, there is no evidence that there was any bias.

In short, Barr/Durham and Horowitz are openly disputing one another. It is rare to have top Justice Dept. officials arguing in public, but Barr is tied closely to Trump and Horowitz is trying to do his job properly. Since Horowitz believes the FBI acted properly and Trump doesn't want Barr to say that, we have an open conflict.

Another thing that Horowitz told the senators that Trump is not going to like is that he is concerned about leaks from some FBI offices to Trump's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani. He also said those leaks were under investigation.

Durham's report is up next; its release is likely to come within weeks. He had greater authority to collect information than did Horowitz, and was also able to consider a broader variety of sources. Given that, as well as the fact that Durham knows what Barr wants (and, by extension, what Trump wants), and that Durham is taking public potshots at Horowitz, it is safe to assume that the Durham report will be much more friendly to the President's conspiratorial thinking than the Horowitz report. That means that, as with so many things these days, partisans will be free to choose whatever version of reality suits them best. (V & Z)

Republicans May Not Call Witnesses at the Impeachment Trial

Many Republicans want the Senate impeachment trial of Donald Trump to not happen at all, but second choice is to make it happen quickly. To that end, some Senate Republicans are considering not calling any witnesses. Other senators want Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), Hunter Biden, and the whistleblower to testify. However, the Republican leadership seems to favor getting it over quickly. Sen. John Thune (R-SD) said: "I think there's going to be a desire to wrap this up in at least somewhat of a timely way." Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-SC) has openly hoped that neither side calls any witnesses. Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) has warned about a "bidding war" in getting witnesses.

The problem with Blunt's "bidding war" is that the senators might have to vote on calling witnesses and some of those votes could hurt the reelection prospects of vulnerable senators. As a consequence, it is not a sure thing that Republicans could get 51 votes when they need them. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is definitely going to earn his paycheck in January. (V)

Powell Ignores Trump and Says Interest Rates Won't Drop in 2020

Given his background in real estate, which lives on borrowed money, Donald Trump favors low interest rates. Low rates would also help his reelection campaign by giving the economy a sugar high, even if it leads to long-term damage. So, Trump has been pressuring the Fed to cut interest rates, even threatening to can the chairman if he doesn't. Trump has called Fed officials "boneheads" and demanded an interest rate of zero—that is, free money. Yesterday, Fed Chairman Jerome Powell announced that the Fed was not going to do Trump's bidding and that interest rates were going to stay where they are now through the end of 2020. To make it even worse for Trump, the Fed's vote was unanimous.

Powell's argument is that the stock market is surging, unemployment is low, and inflation has been tamed, so this is not the time to rock the boat. Unless something dramatic happens, Powell is not likely to change his mind.

Sen. Bernie Sanders agrees with Trump (!) on this one issue, and also wants lower interest rates. The other Democratic presidential candidates have said that the president (and presidential candidates) have no business interfering with the Fed. They (and most economists) believe that monetary policy should be insulated from politics, and yelling at the Fed chairman is completely inappropriate. (V)

Democrats Exploit Trump's Achilles Heel

Each party has strengths and weaknesses that the other can exploit to its advantage. Donald Trump can make up whatever "facts" he wants and Fox News will duly present them to their viewers, who swallow them whole. Democrats quaintly believe that actual facts still matter so they don't try to play this game. Advantage Republicans.

However, Trump loves to show off the deals he made, hoping that his ability to make deals will help his reelection prospects. His Achilles heel is that he doesn't understand (or even care) what is actually in his deals. Democrats are now exploiting this by essentially offering this "compromise": "We will give you a deal that you can brag about, providing the actual deal gives us what we want, not what you want." The new USMCA deal (a.k.a. NAFTA v2.0) is an example of this.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumpka praised the deal when it was announced earlier this week, as it gives greater protection to American workers (a Democratic constituency) and also strengthens environmental protections (a bread-and-butter Democratic issue). Pelosi even told her caucus: "We ate their lunch." However, none of the Democratic presidential candidates are on board with the deal. They are fretting that giving Trump bragging rights is too great a price to pay, even if the actual content of the agreement is good for Democratic voters.

How did Republicans react to the deal? Mitch McConnell had this to say: "From my perspective, it's not as good as I had hoped." This is McConnellese for "it sucks." Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) said the negotiations "seemed to be, you know, just a one-way direction in the direction of the Democrats." Majority Whip John Thune (R-SD) said that the concessions to the Democrats may cost Trump Republican votes. Nevertheless, this arrangement could lead to more bipartisanship: Trump makes deals with the Democrats that give them whatever they want and then he tells his base what a huge victory he just scored. (V)

I Am Not a Crook: A Look at History's Most Scandalous Scandals, Part VII

There's been so much news that we've gone a whole week without a scandal. If we were the Trump administration, that would be a new record. Anyhow, if you wish to read any of the previous entries in this series:

Today, it's the scandal that gave scandals a bad name. Get comfortable, because there's no quick and easy way to tell this particular story.

  1. Watergate, 1971-74 ("Ukrainegate"): "A military man whose ambition, megalomania, and inability to trust those around him turned him into a tyrant." That's actually a description of Macbeth, but it also works pretty well for Richard Nixon, too. Indeed, the whole Watergate fiasco bears more than a passing resemblance to a Shakespearean tragedy. And so, we're going to start this item in the same manner, with a list of dramatis personae. A useful reference, if you are having trouble keeping the many players in this little drama separate:

           Richard Milhous Nixon, the 37th President of the United States
    Charles Colson, a Knave
    G. Gordon Liddy, a Knave
    H.R. "Bob" Haldeman, a Knave
    Robert Bork, a Knave
    Ron Ziegler, a Knave
    John Dean, a Turncoat
    Alexander Butterfield, a Turncoat
    Rose Mary Woods, a Contortionist
    Daniel Ellsberg, the Town Crier
    George McGovern, the 1972 Democratic Presidential Nominee
    Edmund Muskie, a Ratfu**ing victim
    Frank Wills, the Guard
    Ben Bradlee, the Editor
    Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the Reporters
    Deep Throat, the Tattle-tale
    Archibald Cox, the Prosecutor
    Elliot Richardson, a Victim of a Massacre
    William Ruckelshaus, a Victim of a Massacre
    Sens. Howard Baker Jr., Barry Goldwater, Hugh Scott, et al., the Grave-diggers
    Gerald Ford, the 38th President of the United States

    In the last entry in this series, we wrote about the Pentagon Papers (see above link). That scandal was the prologue to Watergate. Recall that the public release of the Papers, which laid bare the lies that the U.S. government had been telling about the Vietnam War for close to 20 years, was a huge setback for Richard Nixon's administration. Although the revelations covered only the years prior to Nixon's inauguration in 1969, anything that made the federal government look bad necessarily made its leader look bad. Further, the President correctly guessed that the Papers would inspire people to take a much closer look at his own Vietnam policy, which might (and did) result in the discovery of some very unpleasant things (like, say, the illegal bombing of Cambodia).

    At this point, it's probably worth pausing the narrative to talk a little bit about Nixon, and his underlying psychology. He had, first of all, psychopathic tendencies. Now, that is not necessarily a bad thing in a president. As the Oxford psychologist Kevin Dutton has demonstrated, most U.S. presidents (at least 80%) had psychopathy as part of their personality profile. However, Nixon departed from most of his presidential brethren in that he was also prone to paranoia and was extremely insecure. This is a very bad combination for a president, one we've only seen twice in American history (LBJ was this way, too). Well, actually, the total is probably now up to three.

    Anyhow, Nixon's personality gave rise to three particularly notable recurring themes throughout his political career. First, he was Machiavellian. He believed that when it came to "winning," however that might be conceptualized, the ends always justified the means. After all, "fair is foul, and foul is fair," as they say. Nixon most certainly earned the nickname "Tricky Dick," as every campaign he ever ran made use of dirty tricks (e.g., falsely accusing opponents of being communists) and other forms of dishonesty. Thanks to his overt bad behavior, Nixon almost managed to self-destruct in 1952, but he made a speech about his dog, and saved his career so that he could ruin it another day.

    In addition, Nixon saw things in very black and white terms. If you were with him, fine. If you were against him, however, you were an enemy out to destroy him. And the only way to cope with an enemy like that is to destroy them first. It's hard to say who he despised more: the media or liberal political activists, but he definitely hated them both, and both were well-represented on his infamous enemies list. Nixon's much more expansive political opponents list gives a more fine-grained picture of the folks he particularly disliked: liberal members of Congress, black members of Congress, civil rights activists, progressive activists, students, professors, Jews, labor leaders, artists and performers who dared criticize him, business leaders who dared criticize him, and pretty much every prominent newspaper and reporter in the country.

    Finally, Nixon could never leave "well enough" alone. As a byproduct of his insecurity, he could never accept when a fight was won, when an election was in the bag, or when a problem had been sufficiently addressed. And so, he was prone to pile on, even when doing so was no longer necessary or productive. That is an approach to life that can sometimes backfire, something that Nixon—though possessing genius-level intellect—never seemed to figure out.

    Anyhow, back to the Pentagon Papers. There are many people who might have been blamed for that fiasco, but Team Nixon, which was blessed with an overabundance of tunnel vision, decided to blame the messenger, Daniel Ellsberg. Although Ellsberg was a decorated military veteran who spoke up only out of a sense of duty, Nixon's allies did everything they could to besmirch him, and to call into question his service record and his motivations. Yes, we know. It's hard to imagine Republican politicians launching a full-out assault on someone who is a veteran and a dedicated public servant with a spotless record, just to cover for the bad behavior of a Republican president. But it happened!

    Besmirching Ellsberg like that was pretty bad, but it wasn't illegal. However, per one of the recurring themes of his career, Nixon couldn't just leave it at that. So, he put together (with some assistance) a team of underlings to "take care" of the problem. Officially, they were the "Special Investigations Unit," led by lawyer and former FBI agent G. Gordon Liddy. However, one member of the team went home and told his grandmother that he was "helping the president to stop some leaks," and granny replied "Oh, you're a plumber!" Thereafter, the group referred to itself as "The Plumbers." Liddy even put up a nice sign in his office, until someone pointed out to him that covert operatives generally shouldn't have signs announcing themselves.

    The Plumbers were unconcerned with breaking the law, in part because they didn't think they would get caught, and in part because they presumed that a pardon would be conveyed if it became necessary. We know, it's hard to imagine a president implying that pardons will be given to anyone who breaks the law on his behalf. But it happened! The Plumbers' first job was a raid on the office of Ellsberg's psychiatrist, in search of dirt that might be used against Ellsberg. The Plumbers later claimed that they could not find Ellsberg's file, although the psychiatrist said that he found it open on the floor the next day, and could tell it had been read through. Whatever the case may be, it does not appear that any dirt from that fishing expedition was utilized by Team Nixon. The Plumbers also engaged in other operations, including—and here comes another scandal we've already covered—looking into Chappaquiddick to see if they could come up with anything to use against Senator (and enemy) Ted Kennedy.

    The Plumbers did not maintain total group cohesion over time; some folks who were loosely affiliated with them faded away, while some new folks became involved in various ways. In any event, the important thing is that by the time Nixon's reelection campaign rolled around, there were people in his orbit (with offices in the White House) whose speciality was helping Nixon to "win" by any means necessary. These folks became an integral part of the Committee to Re-Elect the President, which was properly known as CRP, but is forever known to history as CREEP.

    The Plumbers working for CREEP (the creepy Plumbers?) were not the first political operatives to engage in dirty tricks on behalf of a candidate. However, they were certainly more brazen about it than most of their predecessors, and they do deserve credit for inspiring the term ratfu**ing. Some of their tricks were college frat-level stuff, like placing orders for 100 pizzas in the name of a rival campaign's headquarters. Others were more creative...and venal. Famously, they laid hands on some of the letterhead used by Edmund Muskie's campaign, and began sending letters in the Maine Senator's name to various politicians and newspapers. Particularly damaging was the letter that an alleged Muskie campaign worker sent to the Manchester Union Leader, in which the author explained that although Maine did not have a large black population, the Senator felt he understood the issues facing black people, because Maine is full of lazy Canucks. This became known as the Canuck letter, and it made Muskie look like an out-of-touch bigot. He was trounced in the New Hampshire primary shortly thereafter, which ended his presidential campaign.

    One could argue that fake pizza orders and phony letters are not exactly crimes. Maybe so, but there was also plenty of outright criminal activity going on, including laundering of donations from foreign powers, and the creation and maintenance of off-the-books slush funds. We know, you wouldn't think a president and his underlings would so brazenly trample on campaign finance laws. But it happened! In any event, by mid-1972, it was clear that the Democrats' candidate would be Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota. Naturally, he was working closely with the Democratic National Committee, whose headquarters were located at a newly constructed hotel and office complex called...The Watergate. Nixon did not need to say a word—and, crucially, never did give a direct order. Nonetheless, the Plumbers knew beyond any doubt that they were expected to burglarize the DNC headquarters, in search of material to be used for ratfu**ing. This included planting bugs, so they could collect new dirt and information on a regular basis.

    The actual break-in at the Watergate took place on the evening of June 16-17, 1972, with five Nixon underlings taking part. These five fellows were professional political operatives, not professional thieves, and it showed. Frank Wills, the security guard on duty that night, may not have realized that something wicked this way comes, but he wasn't stupid, either. The first time he found a back door being kept open with duct tape, he didn't think too much of it, and just removed the tape. When he found the same door taped open again, half an hour later, he knew something was up and called the police. Here is his log entry for the crucial minutes, which is now on display in the National Archives:

    Wills had really bad handwriting, but what it 
says is that he found a back door taped for a second time, and decided to call the police, who conducted an inspection

    As Wills begins to recount here (and finishes explaining on the next page), the building was secured (locked doors, elevators shut down) and every office was searched until the five culprits were discovered and arrested.

    Let us again pause for a moment, and note that none of this was necessary, or even particularly useful. Nixon's first term was very successful; he was winding down the war in Vietnam (admittedly, after escalating it), normalized relations with China, established the EPA, and otherwise made voters pretty happy. His approval rating on the day of the Watergate break-in, according to Gallup, was 60%. It was obvious that he was going to cruise to reelection (which he did). A less insecure president would have taken his foot off the gas, and would not have taken needless risks (or allowed others to take them on his behalf).

    That said, even once the deed was done at Watergate, Nixon probably could have avoided any serious consequences. It's true that it did not take long to connect the burglars back to the President, specifically through Charles Colson, who was their contact person and his fixer/lawyer. But recall that Nixon did not actually order the break-in. He tacitly encouraged it, but he never said the actual words, which gave him plausible deniability. He could have (truthfully) denied knowledge of the whole affair, thrown a few people under the bus as necessary, and escaped unscathed. That was not Tricky Dick's style, however, so instead he ordered the FBI to cover the whole thing up. At that very moment, he joined the Watergate burglars as a fellow felon. Also added to the felonious list were presidential lawyer John Dean and White House Chief of Staff H.R. "Bob" Haldeman, who were tasked with managing the coverup.

    It took a fair while for the fire to burn and the cauldron to bubble, such that for many months, Watergate was a relatively minor news story. Famously, The New York Times, to their longstanding embarrassment, buried their original story on the matter on page 30:

    The story, headlined '5 charged with
burglary at Democratic headquarters,' isn't even the top story on Page 30; an item about possible violence at the parties'
national conventions in Miami Beach is placed higher

    In fairness to the Times, they did run a front-page story the next day. Still, coverage of the scandal did not have much impact in the early going, such that Nixon was reelected on November 7, 1972, with 60.7% of the popular vote and 520 electoral votes to McGovern's anemic 17. The Democrat won only one state (Massachusetts), as well as Washington, DC.

    But while Nixon was busy campaigning, and then enjoying his victory (although, in truth, he wasn't able to properly enjoy anything all that much), some folks at the Washington Post were convinced that the Watergate break-in was just the tip of a very large and very corrupt iceberg. Nixon probably hated the Post more than any other outlet, and the feeling was mutual. So editor Ben Bradlee assigned two up-and-coming reporters on his staff, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, to look into the matter. That kind of long-term investigative journalism doesn't happen quite as much these days, even when a paper is backed by Jeff Bezos' money, but it was still pretty common in the 1970s.

    Woodward and Bernstein were smart fellows, and they knew that the way to unravel something like this is to follow the money trail. So that is what they did, and it slowly but surely led them to CREEP, the illegal slush funds, the involvement of the FBI and the CIA, the ratfu**ing, the enemies lists, and most of the shady stuff that had been going on. That said, a reporter has to be very certain about printing stories like this, since reputations (and possible libel lawsuits) are on the line. There were some portions of the story that Woodward and Bernstein didn't know, or that they just weren't ironclad certain about.

    It was right around that time that the duo received some manna from heaven in the form of a Nixon administration insider who was willing to spill his guts. However, this insider's official position complicated things; if he was at all identifiable, he would be out of a job and Woodward and Bernstein would be without a source. They could use him only for deep background, basically helping to fill in the gaps in their reporting. No quotes at all, as those might have outed him. They also had to grant him the concession, much rarer back then than it is today, of total anonymity. In place of his real name, they famously used the moniker...Deep Throat. That was the title of a popular movie of that era. Perhaps you know about the movie, but even if you do not, you should still be able to guess pretty easily what kind of movie it is.

    On one hand, it is easy to overstate the importance of Deep Throat. Most of the information that Woodward and Bernstein had, they got from other sources, through good, old-fashioned, pound-the-sidewalks reporting. He just helped them connect some things, and to confirm some others, and he also steered them in the right direction when they ran into a wall. On the other hand, it would also be easy to understate the importance of Deep Throat. The cloak-and-dagger elements of the whole thing, along with the fact that a highly placed Nixon insider had turned against him, gave an aura of mystery and suspense to the Watergate affair that was undoubtedly irresistible to many Americans. It also led to endless debate and speculation about who Deep Throat really was. The filmmaker (and ex-wife of Carl Bernstein) Nora Ephron was the first to point the finger at him, but she was largely ignored (due to her gender, in her view). It was 30 years before the two reporters, with permission, confirmed that the informant was indeed former Associate Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation W. Mark Felt. Felt's motivations remain a subject of debate, and may have been about score-settling and his resentment over not being promoted, as much as doing his civic duty.

    Anyhow, after Nixon's second inauguration, Woodward and Bernstein began to publish their stories (ultimately winning a Pulitzer for them), and the Watergate scandal really began to heat up. They were denounced by White House Press Secretary Ron Ziegler, who insisted that everything in their stories was a bogus tissue of lies. Yes, we know it's hard to imagine a White House Press Secretary knowingly lying through their teeth to obscure the president's shady behavior. But it happened! Ziegler's lies (which he later apologized for) also didn't work. By May of 1973, the Senate was conducting hearings into the matter, the Watergate burglars were being tried and convicted, and the heat directed in Richard Nixon's direction had grown white-hot. The President knew, by this time, that his administration was in trouble, and that he was personally implicated. He also knew that if he wanted to save himself, he had to project total innocence to the American people. After all, false face must hide what the false heart doth know. So, Nixon appointed special prosecutor Archibald Cox to look into the matter. The President was hoping that Americans would make the following assumption: "A guilty man would never appoint a special prosecutor, so Nixon must therefore be innocent."

    Maybe appointing Cox blocked Nixon from scrutiny for a month or so, but by June of 1973 things were falling apart. In brief, as the Senate, the special prosecutor, and the courts all amped up the pressure on Nixon's underlings, including the ones he fired and tried to scapegoat, nearly everyone turned on everyone else. Most important were John Dean, who knew most everything and told the senators that he and Nixon had discussed the Watergate break-in 35 times, and former presidential appointments secretary Alexander Butterfield, who dropped the key bombshell: Nixon taped all of the conversations that took place in the White House.

    Naturally, everyone wanted to hear the tapes, with particular emphasis on the morning after the break-in. So, the administration quickly received subpoenas from Cox and from the Senate. Nixon spent many months in summer and fall of 1973 trying to keep the tapes secret. Of course, innocent people do not try to keep exculpatory evidence hidden, so this made Nixon look pretty guilty. "What did Nixon know, and when did he know it?," first asked by Sen. Howard Baker Jr. (R-TN), became a common question. The President tried to work out a compromise, famously offering to let Sen. John C. Stennis (D-MS) listen to everything. He knew that Stennis was hard of hearing, and couldn't hear anything. Unfortunately for Nixon, everyone else in Washington knew that, too, so the compromise didn't fly.

    On October 20, 1973, Nixon tried another tack to dig himself out of the hole he had created, ordering Archibald Cox to withdraw his subpoena. When Cox refused, Nixon ordered AG Elliot Richardson to fire Cox. Richardson refused, and resigned. So, Nixon told Deputy AG William Ruckelshaus to send Cox packing. Ruckelshaus also resigned. Finally, the President made Robert Bork (then the solicitor general) the acting attorney general, and ordered him to get rid of Cox. Bork, to his everlasting infamy, complied. Thus did Nixon burn through two attorneys general and one special prosecutor in a single evening, an incident known forever after as the Saturday Night Massacre.

    Yes, we know, it's difficult to imagine the attorney general acting as a hatchet man for the president. But it happened! In any event, innocent people do not fire three high-ranking members of the Justice Dept. in one night in an effort to kill a subpoena, so the Saturday Night Massacre just made things worse for Nixon. At that point, there was too much blood on his hands for him to wash it all away. Not that he didn't try, though. Just less than a month later, he went to Disney World, of all places, and held perhaps the most notorious press conference in U.S. history:

    We all know now that Nixon definitely was a crook. But did he do a good job, in the moment, of selling the American people on the idea that he wasn't? You can watch the footage and judge for yourself, but we don't think so. Actually, given the location of the press conference, he's kinda lucky his nose didn't grow an extra foot.

    Once Nixon was done wishing upon a star that he'd never ordered a coverup, he celebrated what was undoubtedly a lively holiday season at the White House. Then, the dominoes really began to fall, thanks to the federal judiciary. In March of 1974, seven high-ranking officials of the Nixon administration were indicted by a federal grand jury. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court signaled that it was prepared to order the President to abide by the subpoenas he'd gotten, and to release the tapes. In May of 1974, trying to avoid a direct order from SCOTUS, Nixon released some of the tapes.

    Game over, right? Not quite, because Tricky Dick had at least one more trick up his sleeve. When the interested parties played the key tape, namely the one from the morning of June 18, 1972, they discovered that a critical segment—18 minutes in length—had been erased. "Oops!" admitted presidential secretary Rose Mary Woods. "I accidentally erased it!" When asked how that was possible, she said that while transcribing the tape, she had answered the phone at her desk, and she must have accidentally rested her heel on the "erase" pedal of the foot-operated tape player she was using. Helpfully, Woods demonstrated the position that made this possible:

    Woods, with left foot extended
far in one direction, and right hand far in the other direction, in a pose that would be hard to hold for 15 seconds, much 
less 18 minutes

    She would have only needed to hold that position, inadvertently, for 18 minutes. You're not buying it? Well, neither did the White House press corps, which began calling her Rose Mary Stretch behind her back. Later analysis, conducted by computers not available in 1974, revealed that the missing segment had been erased and re-erased at least 20 times. Maybe, Woods got 20 straight 18-minute phone calls.

    By this point, it was clear to the majority of the House, and to about 60% of Americans, that Nixon was guilty of something nefarious, very probably ordering the coverup of the Watergate break-in. On July 24, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that Nixon had to turn over all the tapes, not just some of them. At the same time, House Democrats were hard at work on articles of impeachment, and between July 27 and 30, the House Judiciary Committee voted to impeach the President on charges of abuse of power, obstruction of justice, and contempt of Congress. On August 5, the Nixon administration complied with the order of the Supreme Court, and released all of the remaining tapes. One of them contained a conversation between the President and H.R. Haldeman from June 23, 1972, in which they discussed the Watergate break-in and cover-up. That was the "smoking gun" that everyone had been looking for.

    Now game over? Maybe, but it's not clear Nixon knew that for certain. He was erratic and drinking heavily, and there was credible talk that he might do whatever was necessary to stay in power. On August 6, however, he got a visit from Sens. Barry Goldwater (R-AZ), Hugh Scott (R-PA), and several of their colleagues. Those clamorous harbingers of blood and death went to the White House to tell the President that impeachment was imminent, conviction was certain, and that with removal from office, he would lose all the perks of being an ex-president. Since Nixon was not independently wealthy, the loss of the presidential pension would have been particularly problematic.

    The next day, August 7, Nixon summoned Vice President Gerald Ford to the White House. Ford was Nixon's second VP, the first one—Spiro Agnew—was yet another crook, and had been forced to resign in 1973. At that meeting, Nixon told Ford that he planned to resign the presidency. What else they discussed, and what kind of deals they made then (or at a previous date), will always remain a matter of conjecture. About 18 hours later, on August 8, Nixon broke the news to the American people:

    It turns out that in that speech, at least for once, Nixon was telling the truth. And so, as promised, he resigned the presidency at noon the next day, and bid farewell:

    Nixon smiles and makes a double
victory sign, with both hands, while standing on the steps of a Marine Corps helicopter

    That's the "victory" sign; it's a little unclear how quitting in disgrace represents a victory, but maybe Nixon knew something we don't. Or maybe the liquor hadn't quite worn off, yet.

    The aftermath of Watergate is pretty well known. Ford pardoned Nixon a month later, having assumed office with the promise: "My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over." There may well have been an overt quid pro quo: "You give me a pardon, I'll give you the presidency." However, it is more likely that Ford, whose honesty was the yin to Nixon's dishonest yang, legitimately believed that it was best for the country and for the office of president not to have Nixon go on trial, spend time in prison, etc. It's also likely that Nixon had some insight into Ford's thinking, and knew that an explicit deal was not necessary. After leaving Washington, Nixon was paid a lot of money for a series of interviews with television journalist David Frost, and then settled into a comfortable retirement in California, writing books and partially rehabilitating his image.

    Meanwhile, a lot of other fellows who were expecting pardons didn't get them, and spent 1-3 years cooling their heels at various federal penitentiaries. That includes Liddy, Dean, Haldeman, and all of the Watergate burglars, among others. That said, all went on to have solid careers, and Liddy—in particular—became a right-wing talk radio star. Woodward, Bernstein, and Bradlee became the preeminent journalists of their generation, producing books (including the Watergate-centered All the President's Men) and many other investigative pieces for the Post and for other outlets. There is some irony, perhaps, in the fact that the only person whose career was destroyed by the scandal was...Frank Wills. Depending on who you believe, The Watergate either offered him a trifling raise in salary, or no raise at all, so he left their employ. Because of his fame, he struggled to find another job as a security guard, since "lots of people coming around" is not so compatible with "keep things secure." He spent the last two decades of his life dirt poor before dying of brain cancer in 2000.

    The presidents who came after Nixon, for their part, learned a very valuable lesson from Watergate: whatever you do in the White House, make damn sure it's not recorded. The American people learned a lesson (which they had already begun to grasp during the Vietnam War): presidents can't always be trusted. Meanwhile, the media, and politicians of all stripes, learned something, too: scandal sells. If you want to motivate voters, sell newspapers, attract eyeballs to television sets, or (later) generate clicks, a juicy scandal will do that more effectively than a boring old policy discussion. This, coupled with the advent of cable TV and political talk radio over the course of the next decade, meant that America (and the world) have gotten a steady supply of -gates ever since. Even if many of them prove to be tales, Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing. (Z)

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
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