As our nation is possibly facing the criminal indictment of Former U.S. President Donald for crimes against the state, it may be fruitful to remember, that we were once in a similar position. The question is how did the then-sitting U.S. President Ford handle it.
In this light, on October 17, 1974, President Gerald Ford explained to Congress why he had chosen to pardon his predecessor, Richard Nixon, rather than allow Congress to pursue legal action against the former president.
Congress had accused Nixon of obstruction of justice during the investigation of the Watergate scandal, which began in 1972. White House tape recordings revealed that Nixon knew about and possibly authorized the bugging of the Democratic National Committee offices, located in the Watergate complex in Washington D.C. Rather than be impeached and removed from office, Nixon chose to resign on August 8, 1974.
When he assumed office on August 9, 1974, Ford, referring to the Watergate scandal, announced that America’s “long national nightmare” was over. There were no historical or legal precedents to guide Ford in the matter of Nixon’s pending indictment, but after much thought, he decided to give Nixon a full pardon for all offenses against the United States in order to put the tragic and disruptive scandal behind all concerned.
Ford justified this decision by claiming that a long, drawn-out trial would only have further polarized the public. Ford’s decision to pardon Nixon was condemned by many and is thought to have contributed to Ford’s failure to win the presidential election of 1976.
From his home in California, Nixon responded to Ford’s pardon, saying he had gained a different perspective on the Watergate affair since his resignation. He admitted that he 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.”
The Watergate Scandal: A Timeline
Trace the milestones of a scandal that rocked the nation.
Richard Nixon is inaugurated as the 37 President of the United States.
Richard Nixon orders the installation of a secret taping system that records all conversations in the Oval Office, his Executive Office Building office, and his Camp David office and on selected telephones in these locations.
June 13, 1971
The New York Times begins publishing the Pentagon Papers, the Defense Department’s secret history of the Vietnam War. The Washington Post will begin publishing the papers later in the week.
Nixon and his staff recruit a team of ex-FBI and CIA operatives, later referred to as “the Plumbers” to investigate the leaked publication of the Pentagon Papers. On September 9, the “plumbers” break into the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, in an unsuccessful attempt to steal psychiatric records to smear Daniel Ellsberg, the defense analyst who leaked the Pentagon Papers to the press.
One of the “plumbers,” G. Gordon Liddy, is transferred to the Committee to Re-Elect the President (CREEP), where he obtains approval from Attorney General John Mitchell for a wide-ranging plan of espionage against the Democratic Party.
May 28, 1972
Liddy’s team breaks into the Democratic National Committee Headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C. for the first time, bugging the telephones of staffers.
June 17, 1972
Five men are arrested after breaking into the Democratic National Committee Headquarters. Among the items found in their possession were bugging devices, thousands of dollars in cash, and rolls of film. Days later, the White House denied involvement in the break-in.
June 17, 1972
A young Washington Post crime reporter, Bob Woodward, is sent to the arraignment of the burglars. Another young Post reporter, Carl Bernstein, volunteers to make some phone calls to learn more about the burglary.
June 20, 1972
Bob Woodward has his first of several meetings with the source and informant known as “Deep Throat,” whose identity, W. Mark Felt, the associate director of the FBI, was only revealed three decades later.
August 1, 1972
An article in The Washington Post reports that a check for $25,000 earmarked for Nixon’s 1972 re-election campaign was deposited into the bank account of one of the men arrested for the Watergate break-in. Over the course of nearly two years, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein continue to file stories about the Watergate scandal, relying on many sources.
Bob Woodward (left) and Carl Bernstein in the Washington Post newsroom, 1973.
Ken Feil/The Washington Post/Getty Images
August 30, 1972
Nixon announces that John Dean has completed an internal investigation into the Watergate break-in, and had found no evidence of White House involvement.
September 29, 1972
The Washington Post reports that while serving as Attorney General, John Mitchell had controlled a secret fund to finance intelligence gathering against Democrats. When Carl Bernstein calls Mitchell for comment, Mitchell threatens both Bernstein and Katharine Graham, the publisher of the Post. The Post prints the threat.
October 10, 1972
Woodward and Bernstein report that the FBI had made connections between Nixon aides and the Watergate break-in.
Articles by Woodward and Bernstein describe the existence of a major “dirty tricks” campaign conducted against Democratic Presidential candidate Edmund Muskie, orchestrated by Donald Segretti and others paid by CREEP and Nixon’s private attorney.
November 7, 1972
Nixon is elected to a second term in office after defeating Democratic candidate George McGovern.
January 8, 1973
The Watergate break-in trial begins.
January 30, 1973
Former Nixon aide and FBI agent G. Gordon Liddy and James McCord, an ex-CIA agent and former security director of the Committee to Re-elect the President (CREEP), are convicted for their roles in the break-in at the Watergate complex. They are found guilty of conspiracy, bugging DNC headquarters, and burglary. Four others, including E. Howard Hunt had already pleaded guilty. Judge John J. Sirica threatens the convicted burglars with long prison sentences unless they talk.
March 21, 1973
In a White House meeting, White House Counsel John Dean tells Nixon, “We have a cancer—within—close to the Presidency, that’s growing.” He and Nixon discuss how to pay the Watergate bribers as much as $1 million in cash to continue the cover-up.
March 23, 1973
Watergate burglar James McCord’s letter confessing the existence of a wider conspiracy is read in open court by Judge Sirica. The Watergate cover-up starts to unravel.
April 6, 1973
Dean begins cooperating with Watergate prosecutors.
John Dean testified for the second day before the Senate Watergate Committee, saying he was sure that President Nixon not only knew about the Watergate cover-up as early as last fall but also helped try to keep the scandal quiet.
April 9, 1973
The New York Times reports that McCord told the Senate Watergate Committee that a Republican group, the Committee to Re-elect the President (CREEP) had made cash payoffs to the Watergate burglars.
April 27, 1973
Acting FBI director L. Patrick Gray resigns after admitting that he destroyed documents given to him by John Dean days after the Watergate break-in.
April 30, 1973
The Watergate scandal intensifies as Nixon announces that White House aides John Ehrlichman and H.R. Haldeman have resigned. White House counsel John Dean is fired. (In October of that year, Dean would plead guilty to obstruction of justice.) Attorney General Richard Kleindienst resigns. Later that night, Nixon delivers his first primetime address to the nation on Watergate, stressing his innocence.
May 17, 1973
Senator Sam Ervin opens the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities into the Watergate incident.
May 18, 1973
The first nationally televised hearings of the Senate Select Committee begin. Attorney General-designate Elliot Richardson appoints law professor and former U.S. Solicitor General Archibald Cox as special prosecutor in the Watergate investigation.
June 3, 1973
The Washington Post reports that Dean told Watergate prosecutors that he discussed the cover-up with Nixon at least 35 times. On June 25, Dean testifies before the Senate Select Committee about Nixon’s involvement.
Pieces of police evidence around the Watergate scandal. To the left are arrest photo enlargements of the 4 Cubans from Miami who committed the crime: Valdez Martinez, Virgilio Gonzalez, Bernard Barker, and Frank Sturgis.
June 13, 1973
Prosecutors discover a memo to John Ehrlichman regarding plans for the Plumbers’ break-in of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist.
July 13, 1973
Alexander Butterfield, former presidential appointments secretary, meets with Senate investigators, where he reveals the existence of an extensive, secret taping system in the White House. On July 16, he testifies before the Senate Committee in a live broadcast, revealing that since 1971 Nixon had recorded all conversations and telephone calls in his offices.
July 18, 1973
Nixon reportedly orders the White House taping system disconnected.
July to October 1973
President Nixon refuses to turn over recordings of his White House conversations to the Senate investigation and to Cox. The tapes are believed to include evidence that Nixon and his aides had attempted to cover up their involvement in the Watergate break-in and other illegal activities. Nixon files appeals in response to various subpoenas ordering him to turn over the tapes.
August 15, 1973
The same day the Senate Select Committee wraps up its hearings, Nixon delivers a second primetime address to the nation on Watergate, saying “It has become clear that both the hearings themselves and some of the commentaries on them have become increasingly absorbed in an effort to implicate the President personally in the illegal activities that took place.” He reminded the American people that he had already taken “full responsibility” for the “abuses that occurred during my administration.”
October 10, 1973
Vice President Spiro Agnew resigns, amidst bribery and income-tax evasion charges, unrelated to the Watergate break-in. Two days later, Nixon nominates Michigan Congressman Gerald Ford as vice president. Ford is sworn in in December.
October 19, 1973
Nixon attempts a legal maneuver to avoid handing over the tapes to Cox by suggesting U.S. Sen. John Stennis to summarize the tapes for investigators. Cox will refuse the offer the next day.
October 20, 1973
Nixon orders the firing of special prosecutor Archibald Cox in what becomes known as the “Saturday Night Massacre.” Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus resign rather than carry out these orders. Solicitor General Robert Bork fires Cox. Several days later, Leon Jaworski is appointed as the second special prosecutor.
November 17, 1973
During a televised press conference in Florida, Nixon famously declares, “I’m not a crook,” and continues to profess his innocence.
November 21, 1973
White House Watergate counsel J. Fred Buzhardt reveals the existence of an 18 ½ minute gap on the tape of the Nixon-Haldeman conversation on June 20, 1972. The White House is unable to explain the gap, although Nixon’s secretary Rose Mary Woods, will later claim she accidentally erased the material.
March 1, 1974
Indictments are handed down for the “Watergate Seven,” including John Mitchell, H.R. Haldeman, and John Ehrlichman. The grand jury names Nixon as an “unindicted co-conspirator.”
April 30, 1974
Transcripts of more than 1,200 pages of edited transcripts of the Nixon tapes are released by The White House.
May 9, 1974
House Judiciary Committee starts impeachment proceedings against Nixon.
July 24, 1974
The Supreme Court rules that Nixon must surrender dozens of original tape recordings of conversations to Jaworski.
July 27-30, 1974
Three articles of impeachment are debated and approved by the House Judiciary Committee against Nixon—obstruction of justice, misuse of power and contempt of Congress. The impeachment was sent to the floor of the House for a full vote but the vote was never carried out.
August 5, 1974
Nixon releases transcripts of three conversations with Haldeman on June 23, 1972. Known as the “smoking gun,” the transcripts reveal Nixon’s involvement in the Watergate cover-up.
August 8, 1974
President Nixon resigns. In a nationally televised speech, the president says, “I have never been a quitter. To leave office before my term is completed is abhorrent to every instinct in my body. But as president, I must put the interest of America first…Therefore, I shall resign the presidency effective at noon tomorrow.”
August 9, 1974
Nixon signs his letter of resignation. Vice President Gerald Ford becomes president.
September 8, 1974
Nixon is pardoned by President Gerald Ford for any offenses he might have committed against the United States while president.
Former chief of staff H.R. Haldeman, former domestic policy advisor John Ehrlichman, and former attorney general and Nixon campaign manager John Mitchell are tried and convicted of conspiracy charges arising from Watergate. In total, 41 people will receive criminal convictions related to the Watergate scandal.