A Cautionary Tale: We Never Learned the Full Extent of Nixon’s Crimes

I recently decided that, given current events, it would be interesting to re-watch the movie All the President’s Men, which is based on the book written by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein about their pursuit of the Watergate story.

One of the most memorable scenes is when Woodward, played by Robert Redford, meets with Deep Throat, who counsels him to “follow the money.” But I had forgotten about the scene in which those two had a subsequent meeting.

In that scene, Deep Throat is frustrated that Woodward and Bernstein went after Bob Haldeman and missed. He says that, “In a conspiracy like this, you build from the outer edges and you go step by step. If you shoot too high, everybody feels more secure.”

After Woodward gets angry with Deep Throat for simply providing hints, his informant paints the big picture of what happened. The real story is that the cover-up had little to do with Watergate, but was mainly to protect covert operations that began with Attorney General John Mitchell, were eventually coordinated by Haldeman, and implicated the CIA, the FBI, and the Justice Department.

Lest anyone is tempted to assume that was simply a dramatization, here is what Woodward wrote in a review of John Dean’s book, The Nixon Defense.

The book contains no new blockbusters, but the new tapes suggest that the full story of the Nixon administration’s secret operations may forever remain buried along with their now-deceased perpetrators. For example, on Oct. 10, 1972, Carl Bernstein and I wrote in The Washington Post that Watergate was not an isolated operation but only part of a massive campaign of political espionage and sabotage run by the Nixon reelection committee and the White House. Dean writes that the story “reframed Watergate as more than a mere bungled burglary at the DNC.”

The broad extent of the malfeasance was evident in a conversation that Charles W. Colson had with the president the same day, according to the book. Colson, Nixon’s shadowy operative and special counsel, told him almost gleefully that “nothing in that article this morning has anything to do with my office. The things that I have done that could be explosive in the newspaper will never come out, because nobody knows about them. I don’t trust anybody in my office.”…

Three months later, after the president won reelection, Colson bragged to his boss: “I did a hell of a lot of things on the outside, and you never read about it. The things you read about were the things I didn’t do, Watergate” and the sabotage and espionage operations against the Democrats run by California lawyer Donald Segretti…“I’ll go to my grave before I ever disclose it,” Colson continued. “But we did a hell of a lot of things and never got caught.”

Colson kept that promise about taking his secrets to his grave and died in 2012. So despite investigative reporting, independent prosecutors, and congressional hearings leading to Nixon’s resignation, we never got the full story about the Nixon presidency.

I think about that when I hear Trump and his enablers—specifically Attorney General William Barr—say things like this about the Mueller investigation.

So that is the bottom line. After nearly two years of investigation, thousands of subpoenas, and hundreds of warrants and witness interviews, the Special Counsel confirmed that the Russian government sponsored efforts to illegally interfere with the 2016 presidential election but did not find that the Trump campaign or other Americans colluded in those schemes.

I would note what the special counsel wrote in his report after naming all of the ways their efforts were limited (emphasis mine).

Accordingly, while this report embodies factual and legal determinations that the Office believes to be accurate and complete to the greatest extent possible, given these identified gaps, the Office cannot rule out the possibility that the unavailable information would shed additional light on (or cast in a new light) the events described in the report.

I don’t write this to spark conspiracy theories. But both history and the special counsel tell us that we don’t have the full story yet. As we saw with Nixon, the obstruction of justice by Trump and his enablers might be the crime that undoes his presidency, while the criminal activities that sparked those efforts are never fully known.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.