The National Archives released a central set of documents from the Watergate scandal on Wednesday, including a would-be indictment against President Richard Nixon, following a lawsuit pointing to its relevance in the current era.
The documents, known as the Watergate Road Map, as released Wednesday contained redactions and never-before-seen remnants of the investigation into Nixon but largely contained information previously made public, according to the Archives.
The group that petitioned for Wednesday’s release had said in a September post that should special counsel Robert Mueller decide to issue a report to Congress, the Road Map would be one example to follow.
“If Mueller decides to send a report to Congress, perhaps through (Deputy Attorney General Rod) Rosenstein, the Road Map would be a vital touchstone for the public and Congress to assess his actions,” the group wrote.
One document released Wednesday showed a series of charges drawn up against Nixon, who was never formally charged for crimes in the Watergate scandal and was pardoned by President Gerald Ford after he resigned.
The document is a draft, as noted in handwriting in the upper right-hand corner of the first page, dated February 1, 1974, a month before Nixon’s co-conspirators were indicted.
The draft indictment showed that a grand jury planned to charge Nixon with bribery, conspiracy, obstruction of justice and obstruction of a criminal investigation. A month later, seven of Nixon’s aides were charged with conspiracy and six were charged with obstruction of justice, but none were charged with bribery.
In September of this year, Jack Goldsmith and Benjamin Wittes – a pair of writers for the prominent legal blog Lawfare – and Stephen Bates, who worked for independent counsel Ken Starr, announced they were petitioning for the documents that Watergate special prosecutor Leon Jaworski sent to Congress as Nixon faced impeachment.
The group noted at Lawfare that while the Starr report during President Bill Clinton’s tenure was made public, the analogous document during the Nixon administration had remained confidential for decades.
Protect Democracy, the legal group that brought the suit on the trio’s behalf, said in a statement Wednesday that the Road Map “is a critical historical precedent for ensuring that the facts uncovered in special counsel Mueller’s investigation become public and serve as the basis for whatever accountability is necessary.”
Mueller is tasked with investigating potential coordination between Russia and President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign along with other relevant information that arises from the investigation. The former FBI director has rarely telegraphed his intentions, and it is unclear what form his final conclusions might take. Moreover, if there are any potentially criminal findings on Trump himself, Mueller may believe he is unable to indict the sitting President and would instead defer to Congress, which could initiate impeachment proceedings.
Wednesday’s release highlighted the issue the legal system faced in the case of Nixon, where ultimately investigators were able to submit their grand jury’s report through a judge to Congress.
Wittes, Goldsmith and Bates noted in October, when a judge called on the Archives to release the document, that “Geoffrey Shepard, a California lawyer who worked for Nixon, sought the Road Map’s release some time back” as well.
As the Archives noted in a statement Wednesday morning, much of the information in the release was already in the public domain. But some of the documents themselves had not been in the public eye.
During the trial of Nixon’s aides, the hush money and offer of pardons were treated as instances of obstruction of justice, according to Ken Hughes, a historian at the University of Virginia Miller Center who studies the White House tapes and Watergate.
Hughes said that while it was public knowledge that the grand jury wanted to indict Nixon, the charges themselves were never made public.
“The grand jury was able to discern that Nixon himself was a criminal, and the only reason that they did not indict him is because there was a question of whether or not a sitting President could be indicted,” Hughes said.
The question that prevented the grand jury from issuing this indictment remains unanswered. A pair of opinions by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel in 1973 and 2000 concluded against indicting a sitting President.
CNN’s Em Steck contributed to this report.