Watergate scandal: A look back at crisis that changed US politics

Behind the biggest break-in of the 1970s
Behind the biggest break-in of the 1970s

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Behind the biggest break-in of the 1970s 01:13

Story highlights

  • President Richard Nixon fired Watergate special prosecutor in 1973
  • Watergate scandal led to only resignation of a US president

(CNN)More than four decades ago, five men broke into Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington, setting off a series of actions that brought down Republican President Richard Nixon.

What became known as the Watergate scandal uncovered an intricate trail of wrongdoing, one that went all the way to the White House.
The burglary and ensuing scandal led to the only resignation of a US president, changed American politics forever and became a synonym for government corruption.

The break-in

On June 17, 1972, police arrested five men trying to bug and steal documents from the DNC headquarters in the Watergate complex in Washington.
One of those men, James McCord Jr., was the security chief of the Committee to Re-elect the President.
The suspects were found with a series of items, including lock picks, $100 bills with the serial numbers in sequence and a shortwave receiver that could pick up police calls, The Washington Post reported at the time.
The White House distanced itself from the burglars, and initially the scandal did not ensnare Nixon. He was re-elected that November over his Democratic rival, Sen. George McGovern.
But months after his inauguration, journalists and congressional investigations began to piece together details of the scandal, pointing to White House involvement.

'Deep Throat'

Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward jumped on the story after the break-in.
With the help of a source known as "Deep Throat," later identified as FBI official Mark Felt, they wrote a series of groundbreaking articles on the Watergate scandal.
"It was not about a break-in, a single break-in," Bernstein told CNN in 2003. "It was about a pattern of illegal activities involving beating up members of the political opposition physically, stealing their memos, wiretapping political opponents, breaking into offices of psychiatrists, firebombing think tanks."
Months after the break-in, some of the burglars pleaded guilty and were convicted of conspiracy and other charges.

The letter

But a handful of journalists, along with the Judge John Sirica, who presided over the burglars' trials, sensed there was more to the story.
In March 1973, the judge released a letter written by McCord in which he said White House officials had pressured the defendants to plead guilty.
As the scandal blew up, Nixon and his aides were suspected of obstruction of justice by planning to use the CIA to stop the FBI's investigation.
Some Nixon administration officials later were convicted of charges relating to Watergate. They included John Mitchell, Nixon's onetime campaign chairman and attorney general; former White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman; John Dean, the White House counsel; and John Ehrlichman, his domestic policy adviser.

'Saturday Night Massacre'

Though the burglary trial had ended, the fallout over the scandal was just beginning.
The Senate voted to create a special investigative committee to look into Watergate. On July 13, 1973, a White House aide told Senate committee members that Nixon had taped all his Oval Office conversations.
A battle ensued over the release of tapes recorded after the break-in.
Archibald Cox, who was appointed Watergate special prosecutor, subpoenaed the tapes. Nixon refused to turn them over.
In what became known as the "Saturday Night Massacre," Solicitor General Robert Bork fired Cox at Nixon's order.
Bork did so after Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus quit rather than obey Nixon's order to dismiss the special prosecutor.

Resignation

After the firings, calls for Nixon to be impeached grew louder.
The White House later agreed to release some of the subpoenaed tapes, but one included a mysterious 18-minute gap.
In April 1974, the White House released more than 1,200 pages of edited transcripts of the Oval Office tapes. But it still refused to turn over the actual tapes, citing executive privilege.
On July 24, 1974, the US Supreme Court ordered the White House to hand over tape recordings of White House conversations.
Nixon released the tapes, including the so-called smoking gun, which showed he tried to use the CIA to block the FBI investigation of the burglary.
The tape connected Nixon directly to the burglary, a fact he had long denied. His support in Congress vanished, and the House Judiciary Committee approved three articles of impeachment against him.
On August 9, Nixon resigned without admitting any guilt.
"Always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don't win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself," he said in his farewell address to the White House staff.

The pardon

Vice President Gerald Ford was sworn in immediately after Nixon's departure.
"Our long national nightmare is over," he told the nation.
A month later, the new President pardoned Nixon, who expressed "regret and pain at the anguish my mistakes over Watergate" have caused the nation and the presidency.
"One thing I can see clearly now is that I was wrong in not acting more decisively and more forthrightly in dealing with Watergate, particularly when it reached the stage of judicial proceedings and grew from a political scandal into a national tragedy," Nixon said in accepting the pardon.