With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

How Richard Nixon Alienated Allies after Watergate (and Lessons for Trump)

The building drama over documents that left the White House with President Trump provides fresh proof that the ghosts of old scandals never die – or at least not in Washington.

Watergate happened half a century ago, but its name and spirit are still with us, thanks in large measure to former President Donald Trump. He has not been charged and may never be charged, but memories of President Richard Nixon have been revived repeatedly by two impeachment proceedings and countless other scrapes and potential scandals. Trump has found himself at odds with Congress, federal courts and legal authorities in at least two states.

And yet it is the document dispute, which has been public since the FBI searched and seized documents at Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida on Aug. 8, that brings the specter of Watergate to the fore with renewed force.

Operatives hired with money from Nixon's 1972 re-election campaign were caught burglarizing and bugging the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate office complex. Fearful of the fallout, Nixon ordered aides to cover up the connection and directed the payment of hush money to the burglars. Discussions of all this at the White House were caught on Nixon's own taping system, and two years later those recordings would force him to resign on the brink of impeachment and removal from office.

But along the way, when it mattered most, Nixon and his crew found that people who might have been political allies in the past were not especially sympathetic to his case.

"Be careful what you wish for..."

When Nixon fired Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor who had been pursuing him in the fall of 1973, the White House recruited a replacement who seemed likely to be more tractable. Leon Jaworski was a well-respected Texas prosecutor who had supported Nixon for president twice (and would later join a Texas-based group called "Democrats for Reagan"), Surely he would not be as dogged in seeking the White House tape recordings as Cox had been – or so people thought in the fall of 1973.

Wrong call. Jaworski proved a relentless pit bull as special prosecutor. He led a grand jury to indict nearly a score of White House personnel and name Nixon himself "an unindicted co-conspirator."

The Nixon team had also thought they might find a relatively friendly courtroom when Federal Judge John J. Sirica took over handling the Watergate cases and trials. A former congressional staffer for Republicans, Sirica had been active in the GOP and rewarded with a federal judgeship in 1957 by Republican Dwight Eisenhower, while Nixon was vice president.

By 1972, Sirica was the senior judge on the District of Columbia circuit and could assign cases as he pleased. He assigned Watergate to himself. But from there on, nothing went quite as Nixon's team might have hoped. Sirica sentenced the president's chief of staff and his top domestic adviser to prison terms, along with Nixon's first attorney general and his former White House counsel and others.

Read entire article at NPR