United States v. Nixon Thesis

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Watergate Break-In

The Political Significance of United States v. Nixon

The most significant political event in the United States during the 20th century may have been the Watergate scandal. The Watergate scandal began with allegations that Nixon's presidential re-election campaign engaged in extremely unethical behavior to gain an advantage. Such allegations, in and of themselves, would have caused a minor scandal. However, what made the Watergate scandal so significant was its aftermath; a sitting President was subjected to a prosecutorial subpoena. That legal precedent paved the way for the investigation into the Iran-Contra controversy and the Clinton debacle in the very last part of the 20th century. Moreover, Watergate revealed some significant problems with the American justice system. It demonstrated that soft money and shortened prison sentences could entice people to break the law, and also to turn informants. In short, the Watergate scandal changed the way that Americans felt about both politics and the presidency. While it would be naive to suggest that Americans trusted their politicians prior to the Watergate scandal, it would be fair to assert that they felt less cynical about their elected officials.

For such a seemingly complex event, the actual details of the Watergate scandal are relatively simple. Some people who wanted Nixon re-elected as president helped participate in a break-in at the Watergate Hotel. The Watergate Hotel was the location of the Democratic National Committee's headquarters. To this date, no one really knows the purpose of the break-in, whether it was to find specific information or simply a fact-finding mission. (Greenberg). The burglary subsequently came to light, through revelations known by an informant referred to by the codename "Deep Throat," whose identity was not revealed until decades after the scandal. The revelation about the break-ins brought about an investigation of the burglary.

Some White House staff members and Nixon political supporters were indicted for violating federal statutes, based on their role in the break-in. To obtain more information, the Special Prosecutor filed a motion under Fed. R. Crim. Proc. 17- for a subpoena duces tecum, seeking the production of both tapes and documents relating to the conversations between President Nixon and his alleged co-conspirators. Nixon refused to obey the subpoena. Instead, he claimed that executive privilege protected the material from being subpoenaed. The District Court agreed that such material might be presumptively privileged, but determined that the Special Prosecutor had rebutted the presumption of privilege, thereby satisfying the requirements of Fed. R. Civ. Proc. 17-. The District Court issued an order for an in camera review of the selected material, and the President appealed that order. Both the Special Prosecutor and the President filed writs of certiorari in the Supreme Court, seeking a determination of whether the District Court should be able to review that material. The Court, after examining the material in question, determined that the District Court should be able to review the material.

To come to this decision, the Court had to make several significant legal determinations. First, it concluded that the District Court's order was appealable as a final order under 28 U.S.C.S. 1291, which meant that the Court of Appeals had jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C.S. 1254. Although the District Court's order for in camera review normally would not have been considered an appealable final order, however denying immediate review would have meant denying Nixon of any meaningful review. More importantly, the Court determined that it had jurisdiction over the dispute, by determining that the dispute was a justiciable controversy, and that the President's mere assertion that it was an intra-branch dispute was insufficient to defeat jurisdiction. (418 U.S. 683, 693). Furthermore, the Court determined that the President could not assert executive immunity. On the contrary, because the Attorney General gave the Special Prosecutor the explicit power to contest the President's invocation of executive privilege, the Special Prosecutor had the ability to do so since he was acting within the scope of his express authority. (418 U.S. 683, 694-697). Separation of powers and executive confidentiality could not establish absolute presidential immunity, without a claim that such immunity was required to protect national secrets. (418 U.S. 683, 703-705). The Court determined that the needs of a specific criminal trial would be more important than the President's blanket assertion of privilege. (418 U.S. 683, 710). However, the Court still believed that the president was due substantial deference and respect, so it determined that any material subject to in camera review was not to be released to anyone before being released to the Special Prosecutor. (418 U.S. 683, 716). In essence, the Court's decision that the tapes be made available for in camera review affirmed the idea of checks and balances, in which each of the three branches of the U.S. government are able to prevent the other branches from overreaching.

However, the in camera review proved insufficient, because a large segment of the taped conversation, approximately 18 1/2 minutes, was inaudible. "Audio experts concluded that someone had erased the segment." (Greenberg). At the time, Nixon's secretary, Rosemary Woods, claimed that she had accidentally erased the tape while answering the telephone, but her assertions seemed implausible. The general consensus is that the segment was deliberately erased, either by Nixon or by Woods. (Greenberg). To date, no one really knows what was contained in the missing taped segment, and, after failed attempts to restore the segment, the National Archives decided not to pursue a restoration of the audio, to prevent the possible destruction of the tape. (Clymer). However, it should have been the recording of a conversation between Nixon and H.R. Haldeman, his Chief of Staff. Though Haldeman gave varying reports, he believed that the taped conversation may have included Nixon ordering the collection of information on Howard Hughes and Democratic Chair Lawrence F. O'Brien or possibly directing him to thwart the F.B.I.'s investigation of the Watergate burglary.

While Nixon's role in the Watergate break-in has never been conclusively determined, it is clear that he engaged in unethical behavior. In fact, some of Nixon's admissions in the White House Transcripts reveal that he may have been consulted about the burglary, but did not think it was a good idea. (Nixon). However, those statements are ambiguous. Regardless of Nixon's official position on the Watergate burglary, he became known for political corruption, and it appears that reputation was well-deserved. For example, he ordered White House staff to tap people's phone lines for personal and political reasons. (Congressional Quarterly, inc., p.15). White House Counsel John Dean was particularly involved in the corruption. He pled guilty to obstruction of justice, admitted paying hush money to the Watergate burglars, and was the first person to give those outside of the White House staff information about Nixon's enemies list. (Dean, p. 208). He began to cooperate with the Special Prosecutor and provided very damning evidence against the other Watergate co-conspirators; in return he received a reduced sentence.

Of course, the President did not face any punishment for his role in the Watergate scandal. When he resigned, his Vice President, Gerald Ford, stepped into the presidency. Ford's first significant act as president, approximately one month into his presidency, was to pardon Nixon for his role in the Watergate scandal. Though some may view Ford's actions as controversial, he apparently did not feel the same way; he believed that his decision to pardon Nixon was in the best interests of the country and he was also very good friends with Nixon and did not want his friend tainted by that stigma. History seems to have proven him right. "Over the last three decades, as emotions have cooled, many who were initially critical of the pardon have come to share Mr. Ford's judgment that it was the best way to stanch the open wound of Watergate." (Scott). However, critics of the time, and there were many, viewed Ford's decision to pardon Nixon in a very different light. "The critics' fundamental point was that a nation in which the law applies equally to rich and poor, the meek and the powerful, cannot exempt anyone, least of all a president, from the requirements of justice." ("Editorial: Gerald R. Ford").

In addition, the President's machinations resulted in much of the underlying Watergate events being hidden from public view. E. Howard Hunt was a former CIA operative who worked in Nixon's White House. Along with G. Gordon Liddy, Hunt was considered a "plumber" one of the men in Nixon's White House who was charged with fixing leaks. After the Watergate scandal came to light and the conspirators were indicted, Hunt was the person who actively prevented many of the burglars from coming to trial. According to the men, Hunt came to them with offers of bribes if they would plead guilty, rather than face a trial. Though the guilty plea would have been an acknowledgment of some wrongdoing on the part of the Nixon administration, it would also have prevented the publication of damning evidence proving the extent of Nixon's actual participation in the wrongdoing.

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