NEW: Nixon called U.S. diplomats "a bunch of eunuchs"
NEW: The ex-president dodged questions about investigating opponents
The transcripts are among nearly 50,000 pages of documents released Thursday
Nixon says he "practically blew my stack" when he learned of tape gap
Pardoned but hardly chastened, ex-President Richard Nixon defended his administration’s secrecy and wiretaps in combative testimony before a Watergate grand jury following his resignation, newly released documents reveal.
Archivists released nearly 50,000 pages of records and about 45 minutes of audio recordings Thursday, including hundreds of pages of transcripts of Nixon’s June 1975 testimony. Special prosecutors were still trying to document the breadth of the scandal that had driven him from power nearly a year earlier, while Nixon did his best to defend his presidency.
“I mean it is your job, and I want the jury and the special prosecutors to kick the hell out of us for wiretapping and for the Plumbers and the rest, because obviously you may have concluded it is wrong,” Nixon is quoted in one of the 300-plus pages of transcripts.
“But I want to say this: That if as a result of the secret negotiations that we have had we have changed the world, which we have; if as a result, we have saved American lives, which we did in Vietnam by shortening a war – the secret Cambodian bombings saved at least 10,000 lives, as I have told you; if as a result, we’ll have made some progress in reducing the threat of nuclear destruction by arms limitation with the Russians; and if the other choice is to have what we call total openness, with no security whatever, then the United States is finished as a great power. Maybe a lot of people don’t care, but I care a great deal. I think all of you care a great deal.”
Timothy Naftali, the director of Nixon’s presidential library, said the ousted president gave up “very little information” to prosecutors. And some of his testimony doesn’t gibe with records from his scandal-plagued administration, Naftali said.
“The president was asked whether or not he had ordered the creation of an enemies list that was designed to target certain people for audits by the IRS, and he either said he did not recall or flatly denied having issued that order,” he said. “But that order exists, and discussions about using the IRS in a way that one would describe as a use of power can be listened to by anybody on the openly released White House tapes.”
Nixon left office August 9, 1974, as Congress considered whether to impeach him over the Watergate scandal. He remains the only U.S. president forced from office.
The debacle began with a bungled burglary of the Democratic National Committee offices by Nixon campaign operatives before the 1972 election.
The investigations that followed led to the exposure of a wide-ranging White House plan to sabotage political opponents, efforts to stop leaks by a White House squad known as the “Plumbers” and Nixon’s orders to cover up the effort.
His successor, Gerald Ford, issued him a blanket pardon about a month after the resignation, sparing him the prospect of the kind of prison terms many of his closest aides served.
The trove of papers released Thursday includes Nixon’s recollection of one of the most unusual moments of his presidency – a pre-dawn meeting at the Lincoln Memorial with student demonstrators outraged by his 1970 invasion of Cambodia.
“I have never seen the Secret Service quite so petrified with apprehension,” he recounts on tape.
Nixon agreed to sit for questions from the Watergage special prosecutor’s office about some of the issues that came to light during the scandal, including the bugging of National Security Council aides and the use of the Internal Revenue Service to harass opponents.
He defended his appointment of several major campaign contributors to ambassadorships, calling the career Foreign Service officers who held many of those posts “a bunch of eunuchs” who didn’t support “the American free enterprise system.”
But overall, Nixon spent more time “engaged in a jousting match with prosecutors” than shedding light on what happened in his White House, Naftali said.
“The president often counseled his advisers – we know this from the tapes – that when a difficult question came up, just to say ‘I do not recall,’ ” Naftali said. “And there are an awful lot of ‘I do not recalls’ in this.”
Prosecutors at one point showed Nixon a meeting note to “Check McGovern IRS files.” Sen. George McGovern was Nixon’s Democratic opponent in the 1972 race.
Nixon responded, “I should point out that I can never recall suggesting Mr. McGovern, Senator McGovern’s files be checked. What I do recall is only a suggestion that the McGovern contributors might be checked.” And another notes that suggests the IRS target Democratic Party chairman Larry O’Brien, whose office was the target of the Watergate break-in.
Nixon’s finances had been the subject of controversy since his days as Dwight Eisenhower’s vice president in the 1950s, and he complained that he had been targeted by the IRS and his private tax returns had been released to reporters during previous campaigns.
He said he was told that O’Brien had been the subject of an IRS investigation, but that the result was a “dry hole.” And he questioned whether allegations of violations by the McGovern campaign were being pursued as vigorously as those that drove him from office.
“I mean, you gentlemen are making history, too,” he said. “I have made mine; now you are making yours, and the question in the future will be do you have a single standard or did you have a double standard. And at the present time – you want me to be candid – at the present time there are many who believe that you do have a double standard.”
Nixon dodged questions about the mysterious 18½-minute gap in his Oval Office tapes that has fascinated historians for nearly four decades, telling prosecutors that he “practically blew my stack” when he learned of it. He suggested it happened while his secretary, Rose Mary Woods, was transcribing the tape, but characterized it as an accident.
He mocked others in the White House who suggested other causes as “amateurs” and “clowns.” He recounted ordering then-White House Chief of Staff Alexander Haig to “find out how this damn thing happened,” then apologized to the grand jurors for swearing.
“I am sorry, I wasn’t supposed to use profanity,” he said. “You have enough on the tapes.”
CNN’s Mike M. Ahlers, Carol Cratty and Bill Mears contributed to this report.