Forty-five years ago yesterday, five men were arrested after being caught breaking into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate Hotel. An investigation into their actions, and their connections to the White House and then-president Richard Nixon, would end with Nixon resigning in disgrace.
Initial press coverage didn’t suggest such an outcome was on the horizon, although reporters were clearly baffled.
“There was no immediate explanation as to why the five suspects would want to bug the Democratic National Committee offices or whether or not they were working for any other individuals or organizations,” the Washington Post noted drily. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were not yet on the story, but the two reporters would become legendary for linking the crime to the president’s men.
Newspaper reports noted the men’s connections to the US Central Intelligence Agency and Cuban guerrilla warfare.
“[Burglar Frank Fiorini] was described by the Miami sources as an adventurer who had at one time transported arms to the Sierra Maestra when Fidel Castro was there fighting President Fulgencio Batista,” the New York Times reported.
Dogged reporting eventually found that the men were operatives working for Nixon’s presidential re-election committee, and that their surveillance scheme had been approved and funded by Nixon’s own Attorney General, John Mitchell. Attempts to cover-up the connection between the burglars and Nixon ended in an obstruction of justice investigation.
As his aides were indicted, a tape of Nixon’s Oval office conversations was released, revealing the extent of his knowledge of the break-in and cover-up. After meeting with Congressional leaders who told him impeachment was imminent, Nixon resigned on August 8, 1974.
The historical rhymes of Watergate are in our ears again, as president Donald Trump reportedly faces an independent investigation for obstruction of justice, this time for allegedly working against an investigation into his presidential campaign’s relationship with Russia and other foreign interests during the 2016 election. Call it Russ-a-Lago, after Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Florida residence.
Just as Nixon did during his infamous “Saturday night massacre” in October 1973, Trump is reportedly considering firing the independent counsel, Robert Mueller, a former FBI director, and any Department of Justice officials that stand in his way.
But it’s worth remembering the timeline from the seventies in this case, as well: Even after the firings, which prompted Nixon’s famous—and apparently false—claim that “I am not a crook,” the investigation proceeded for another ten months before evidence mounted to force the disgraced president’s resignation.
Correction: An earlier version of this post confused the date of the Watergate break-in with the date of the news stories reporting on it; the break-in and arrests occurred on June 17, 1972.