So now the Nixon circle is complete. President Trump tweeted on the morning of May 12 the following: “James Comey better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!”
Secret tapes of conversations. Let’s review how that played out for the 37th POTUS.
On March 23, 1973, one of the burglars who had been convicted in the Watergate trial in January 1973, James McCord, wrote a letter to Judge John Sirica claiming that he had been a pawn in the scheme and that “political pressure” had been applied “to the defendants to plead guilty and remain silent.” He also stated that “perjury occurred during the trial,” and that “others involved in the Watergate operation were not identified during the trial.”
Just two days earlier, White House Counsel, John W. Dean, with whom I teach a continuing legal education course on Watergate to lawyers, warned President Nixon that there was a cancer growing on his presidency and if the cover-up did not stop, it would destroy his presidency.
The McCord letter was the bombshell Dean feared. Nixon sent Dean to Camp David to write “the Dean Report,” which was intended to whitewash the cover-up and explain it all away. Dean had a moment of revelation on that mountain. He could not carry through with the lie.
John Dean hire Charlie Shaffer, a savvy former federal prosecutor, to help him. With Shaffer’s assistance, Dean began to cooperate with Department of Justice lawyers. Dean told his bosses, chief of staff H. R. Haldeman and top domestic adviser John Ehrlichman, that he was talking to prosecutors. The word got back to Nixon.
On Sunday evening, April 15, 1973, Dean met with the president in his large Executive Office Building office. The conversation lasted about half an hour.
The president had been drinking and he asked Dean to join him but Dean declined. Nixon then went through a series of leading questions, written on his ever-present lawyer’s yellow pad. “You know when I told you we could get a million dollars [to continue the hush money] I was only kidding,” Nixon queried. “No, Mr. President, I didn’t take it that way, but if you say so,” Dean replied.
Then bizarrely, Nixon got up and walked to the corner of the office and whispered: “I was foolish to offer clemency to [Watergate mastermind] Howard Hunt, wasn’t I?”
“Yes,” Dean replied, “that would be an obstruction of justice.”
And it hit Dean at the moment: he is taping me—why else is he walking away from his desk and whispering.
To be clear: very few knew about the voice-activated taping system that Nixon had installed in the White House (the Oval Office, the EOB office, certain phones, the Cabinet room, and Camp David). It was one of the most closely guarded secrets in the White House.
The day after meeting with Dean Nixon was infuriated. He met with Henry Petersen, who was the Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Criminal Division. Like Rod Rosenstein, the Deputy Attorney General (“DAG”), Petersen had inherited the Watergate investigation because his boss, Attorney General Richard Kleindienst, had recused himself once it became clear that his predecessor, John Mitchell, was likely to be indicted.
As John Dean wrote in his recent book, The Nixon Defenses, What He Knew and When He Knew It, Nixon would “shamelessly attempt to manipulate [Petersen], using insider prosecutorial information from Petersen to protect Haldeman, Ehrlichman and himself.”
When talking to Petersen about his meeting with John Dean, Nixon said that Dean had claimed he had been granted immunity by the prosecutors. This was not the case. Nevertheless, when Petersen denied the DOJ had granted Dean immunity, Nixon said he had a tape-recording that proved that Dean had made the statement.
The comparison to Trump’s ham-handed tweet that he taped Comey is striking, almost breathtaking.
The revelation outside Nixon’s tight circle that a tape might exist was a death blow for Nixon.
Petersen reported the claim to Dean’s lawyer, Charlie Shaffer—who asked for the tape.
The news eventually made it to the Special Prosecutor, Archibald Cox, who likewise asked for the tape.
This activity caused a flurry of activity at the White House and eventually Nixon’s press secretary had to clarify that there was no tape, just Nixon’s dictation of his meeting with Dean into a dictabelt. He refused to produce it claiming Executive Privilege.
There things would have stood had not John Dean testified in June 1973 that he thought he had been taped at the April meeting in the EOB. He didn’t know there was a tape, but if there was one and it hadn’t been tampered with, he asked the Senate to call for its production, as it would support his testimony.
This led Senate investigators to ask Alexander Butterfield, one of the White House aides who handled the taping system, if a taping system existed. Butterfield, to his everlasting credit, admitted it, knowing it was the end of his career in Washington to so admit.
On July 16, 1973, Butterfield appeared before the Watergate Committee and Fred Thompson asked the question. Butterfield responded truthfully and the race was on to get the tapes.
The fight for the tapes resulted in the firing of Archibald Cox, the Special Prosecutor.
The furor following the “Saturday Night Massacre” resulted in calls for impeachment.
Nixon resigned ten months later after the United States Supreme Court ruled the tapes had to be turned over.
One wonders, given this history, what President Trump was thinking when he suggested that he may have taped Director Comey?
James D. Robenalt, author of January 1973, Watergate, Roe v Wade, Vietnam and the Month That Changed America Forever. www.january1973.com. Mr. Robenalt lectures nationally with John W. Dean on Watergate and legal ethics.