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Did Nixon really order the Watergate break-in?

On the 40th anniversary of Nixon's resignation, we still don't know whether the president himself ordered the Watergate break-in.
Richard Nixon gives the 'V' for victory sign after receiving the presidential nomination at the Republican National Convention, August 1968, in Miami, Fla.
Richard Nixon gives the 'V' for victory sign after receiving the presidential nomination at the Republican National Convention, August 1968, in Miami, Fla.

Did Richard Nixon, who resigned 40 years ago today, order the burglary of the Democratic National Committee’s offices in June 1972?

Amid the tapestry of scandal surrounding Watergate, we still don’t know who dreamed up the tawdry crime at its center. The evidence that forced Nixon to resign -- the famous “smoking gun” conversation (transcript, audio) -- proved he’d tried to prevent the FBI from investigating the matter by lying about it. He’d also approved giving hush money to Watergate conspirators. That’s obstruction of justice. But how high White House involvement went in planning the break-in was never established. Watergate is a juicy, sprawling story with the richness of a great novel or a great TV serial like “The Sopranos.” But as with “The Sopranos,” you have to supply your own final resolution to the story.

"Though hardly definitive, the evidence suggesting Nixon ordered the break-in is substantial."'

Me, I think Tony, Carmela, and A.J. got plugged in the diner while Meadow Soprano escaped with her life. In a similar vein, I’ve also always assumed Nixon ordered the break-in. In both instances, the story wouldn’t make much sense otherwise. And in Nixon’s case, we’ve been left with a lot more than a few ambiguous frames of film to parse. Though hardly definitive, the evidence suggesting Nixon ordered the break-in is substantial.

Let’s start by reviewing the agreed-upon facts.

On June 17, 1972, five people with cameras and wiretap equipment broke into the Democratic National Committee’s offices. A security guard detected them and called the police, and the burglars were arrested. It was quickly established that they had ties to the Nixon White House. One of them, James McCord, was employed by the Republican National Committee. Another had a check from the bank account of E. Howard Hunt, a former CIA operative who more recently had been a member of a White House special investigations unit informally known as “the Plumbers.”

The Plumbers had been created the year before in response to military analyst Daniel Ellsberg slipping The New York Times a Pentagon-commissioned and highly damning secret history of the Vietnam war, known as the Pentagon Papers. Tasked to plug future leaks (hence “Plumbers”) and to dig up dirt on Ellsberg, the Plumbers also performed assorted dirty campaign tricks -- of dubious legality at best -- to aid Nixon’s reelection.

The Watergate burglars were a sort of successor group to the Plumbers working under Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy, a former Plumber who’d become general counsel to the Nixon re-election campaign’s finance committee. To what end? Obviously they were trying to get some sort of information out of the DNC; the June 17 break-in turned out to be the second of two, the first of which, the month before, had gone undetected. (The second break-in was to fix faulty wiretaps.)

But conflicting stories have been given over the years about precisely what that desired information actually was. Hunt said the break-in occurred to establish that the Castro regime in Cuba was bankrolling Democratic campaigns -- but that sounds like a cover story to recruit four burglars who were anti-Castro activists. (Hunt knew them from his participation in the failed Bay of Pigs invasion). Liddy, who for years refused to discuss it, eventually said it was to retrieve compromising photographs of White House counsel John Dean’s wife, whom Liddy said was thought to be part of a call-girl ring. That wild allegation had no apparent basis in fact and was clearly motivated by Liddy’s profound hatred of Dean for cooperating with prosecutors. (Dean filed a $5.1 million defamation lawsuit against Liddy over the allegation, in the course of which Liddy testified, “I wouldn’t consider [Dean] worth the quarter it would cost to buy the cartridge that would propel the bullet to kill him with.” The case ended in a mistrial.)

The most plausible explanation is that the burglars were looking for compromising information about the DNC and its chairman, Lawrence O’Brien. In his new book, "The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It," Dean draws on transcripts he made of Nixon’s secret White House audiotapes, many of which had either not been transcribed before or had been transcribed incompletely. In the book, Dean observes that the tapes showed Nixon’s chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, repeatedly telling Nixon that the break-in “related to Larry O’Brien and the Democratic convention.”

Who ordered it? “There is no evidence,” Dean writes, “in all the Nixon-Watergate-related conversations that anyone in the White House had advance knowledge that Liddy was going into the Watergate.” By “evidence” Dean must mean “definitive evidence,” because he quotes Haldeman saying that setting up the espionage team for Nixon’s re-election had been the idea of campaign chief and former attorney general John Mitchell. “Mitchell,” Haldeman told Nixon several months later, “was pushing” for “[s]ecret papers, and financial data that O’Brien had, that he was going to get.” That, too, is straight out of Dean’s book.

(In the Watergate tapes, Nixon repeatedly asks why and how the break-in occurred, but of course he alone knew that future generations were listening in. It’s also possible he couldn’t remember whether he’d ordered the break-in or not. Dean thinks Nixon was haunted by the possibility that he might have and then forgotten about it. Nixon was, after all, already in the break-ins business, having previously ordered the firebombing of the liberal Brookings Institution to steal some files -- a yarn too rococo to detail here. Happily, that order was never carried out.)

"Dean thinks Nixon was haunted by the possibility that he might have [ordered the Watergate break-in] and then forgotten about it."'

The information sought regarding the forthcoming Democratic convention is a little hard to identify. Dean quotes White House officials saying at one point that it involved planned disruptions of the Nixon campaign and at another point that it was to verify a rumor that Democratic Florida Gov. Reubin Askew was financing the convention illegally. But the information sought regarding O’Brien pretty clearly involved O’Brien’s lobbying for the reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes.

O’Brien’s Hughes connection worried not only Mitchell but Nixon himself, because Nixon had previously engaged in some questionable financial dealings with Hughes, including accepting a gift of $100,000. Nixon didn’t want that to become public. Indeed, Nixon believed that an earlier Hughes loan of $205,000 to his brother Donald, which became pubic during the 1960 presidential campaign, had cost him that election. (If Nixon believed that, why did he subsequently accept $100,000 from Hughes? Search me.)

Did O’Brien know about Hughes’s gift to Nixon? The Watergate tapes show Nixon repeatedly asking about O’Brien. The late journalist J. Anthony Lukas, who wrote a book about Watergate, was convinced that the Watergate burglary took place in order to find out what O’Brien knew about Nixon’s Hughes connection. So is the journalist Ron Rosenbaum, who covered Watergate at the time for the Village Voice. So is Terry Lenzner, who was chief investigator for the Senate Watergate committee. Haldeman thought the break-in had occurred “to get the goods on O’Brien’s connection with Hughes,” and Dean himself, though he found no corroboration for this, writes that he finds that motive plausible, and that, more broadly, “Nixon’s demands for information were clearly the catalyst that resulted in seeking information at the DNC offices.”

But the most important believer in the Hughes motive is Jeb Stuart Magruder. Magruder, who died this past May, was Mitchell’s deputy at Nixon’s re-election campaign. Magruder didn’t merely speculate that the Hughes transactions were the reason for the break-in; he affirmatively stated it. His source, assuming he was speaking truthfully, was impeccable. In a 2003 interview Magruder said for the first time that he’d heard Nixon tell Mitchell, “John, we we need to get the information on Larry O'Brien, and the only way we can do that is through Liddy's plan. And you need to do that.” Previously, Magruder had never identified anyone higher than Mitchell to have known about the break-in in advance. Now he was saying that Nixon ordered it.

To be sure, Magruder did jail time for committing perjury with respect to his own role in Watergate. And in a 1974 memoir Magruder wrote, “I know nothing to indicate that Nixon was aware in advance of the plan to break into the Democratic headquarters.” But Nixon was still president when Magruder wrote that -- the book came out seven months before Nixon’s resignation -- and it’s easy to imagine that Magruder feared tangling with him. By 2003 Nixon was nine years in the grave and Magruder had no obvious reason to lie about Nixon’s role.

A final consideration is this. Put yourself in the shoes of Mitchell and Magruder. Would you give Liddy a green light on burgling the DNC if you didn’t know for sure that your ultimate boss wanted it done? On the Watergate tapes, Nixon never admits knowing how the break-in came about, and he questions its wisdom. But he never expresses the slightest shock that anybody in his employ would commit such a crime.