Watergate at 50: System worked in ousting Nixon, but lack of reform led to Trump

Watergate at 50: System worked in ousting Nixon, but lack of reform led to Trump
The Watergate Hotel and office complex is seen in the Foggy Bottom section of Washngton, D.C., on Wednesday. On June 17, 1972, five men were arrested for breaking into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee at the complex, setting off a scandal that would result in the resignation of President Richard Nixon. Photo by Ken Cedeno/UPI | License Photo

June 16 (UPI) -- Fifty years ago Friday, police arrested five men at the Watergate office building, uncovering a political scandal the likes of which haven't been seen until the fallout of the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

While the two events stemmed from a sitting president's desire to remain in power, the outcomes couldn't have been much more different. In 1972, the Watergate arrests spawned multiple congressional and FBI investigations and led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon.


In 2021, then-President Donald Trump was impeached -- for the second time -- but was acquitted and has toyed with making another run for the White House in 2024.

This month's public hearings by the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 riots have drawn comparisons to broadcasts of the Watergate hearings.

A video of former President Donald Trump is shown as the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack holds a public hearing to discuss its findings of a yearlong investigation on Tuesday. Pool Photo by Jabin Botsford/UPI

Melissa Graves, author of Nixon's FBI: Hoover, Watergate, and a Bureau in Crisis, told UPI that the investigations into whether Trump and his team bear responsibility for inciting the Jan. 6 insurrection are testing whether "the system" in place to preserve democracy in the United States and ensure a peaceful transfer of power really works.

Last week, Graves co-organized a two-day virtual conference titled "The Watergate Break-in: 50 Years Later." During a panel discussion on the investigations into the break-in, lead Watergate prosecutor Earl Silbert said the system worked when it came to Nixon. Those involved lost their jobs or went to prison and Nixon left the White House rather than face impeachment.

The corruption was rooted out and a new administration was put in place with the swearing-in of Gerald Ford in 1974.

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"We all just took for granted that the system worked," Graves said. "We had a president engaged in wrongdoing and now he's no longer president."

But because Nixon "in a lot of ways gave up," no reforms were put in place in the 1970s to ensure another Watergate didn't happen -- or how to handle it if one did -- she added.

After resigning office in August 1974, President Richard M. Nixon prepares to leave the White House. File Photo by Ron Bennett/UPI

"Because he stepped down, we didn't have to challenge any assumptions that we had about the presidency. Really, at the end of the day we don't have a whole lot of legal precedent for what the president is allowed to do and not allowed to do.

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"A lot of the presidency is based on customs and norms."

Those norms were shaken in 1972 when police arrested five men who broke into the Democratic National Committee's headquarters in Washington.

Nixon initially brushed off the incident as a "third-rate burglary attempt" and said he had nothing to do with it. Investigators later found out that the Committee for the Re-Election of the President hired Virgilio Gonzalez, Bernard Barker, James McCord, Eugenio Martinez and Frank Sturgis to repair wiretapping that had been placed inside the offices a month earlier.

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Reports surfaced that money donated to the re-election campaign directly funded the DNC break-in and that those involved had ties to the Nixon White House. The scandal prompted a special investigation and a probe of presidential audio tapes, notes, memoranda and other items.

Nixon sought to keep his records out of the hands of Watergate prosecutors and fired special prosecutor Archibald Cox and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus for refusing to comply with orders not to push for the items. Attorney General Elliot Richardson resigned in response to Cox's and Ruckelshaus' firings in what came to be known in the media as the "Saturday Night Massacre."

President Richard Nixon congratulates Elliot Richardson after he is sworn in as attorney general at the White House on May 25, 1973. His wife, Anne Richardson, looks on. File Photo by Byron Schumaker/White House

Nixon's tapes ultimately showed that less than a week after the break-in, he ordered the FBI to quash its investigation, proving he tried to cover up the scandal.

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The five burglars pleaded guilty to burglary, conspiracy and federal wiretapping laws, and two Nixon associates, G. Gordon Liddy and McCord, were ultimately found guilty on the same charges.

The House Judiciary Committee voted in favor of impeaching Nixon for obstruction of justice, abuse of power, cover-up and violating the Constitution in 1974. To avoid being impeached by the full chamber, however, Nixon resigned Aug. 8, 1974.

Trump, meanwhile, was impeached by the House twice and acquitted in Senate trials both times.

Graves said Nixon sought to avoid a potential impeachment and Senate trial because of his long career as a statesman.

"Nixon wanted to preserve institutions that he had existed alongside and contributed to throughout his career," she said.

"He respected the institutions that made up the government and I think Trump has a very different approach. Trump campaigned on the idea of 'out with the old, in with the new.'"

Pro-Trump rioters breach the security perimeter and penetrate the U.S. Capitol to try to disrupt the Electoral College vote count on January 6, 2021. File Photo by Ken Cedeno/UPI

Graves said that while it's unclear what will result from the Jan. 6 select committee hearings, the attack on the Capitol is ultimately a very different affair than Watergate.

"I almost feel like focusing on Watergate is a distraction to the current moment," she said. "We're at a moment where, whether we want to or not, whether we act or not, we are defining the presidency and what we'll allow."

She said Americans "took a false sense of comfort" in the aftermath of Watergate, assuming that going forward, scandals within the presidency will be resolved as they should.

"But that thinking kept us from reforming, that led to the breakdown and we're grappling with that today.

"That makes it a really critical time in American history."

Donald Trump supporters breach Capitol, riot over election results

Supporters of President Donald Trump riot against the Electoral College vote count on January 6, 2021, in protest of Trump's loss to President-elect Joe Biden, prompting a lockdown of the Capitol Building. Photo by Leigh Vogel/UPI | License Photo

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