THE Watergate affair was a political scandal in the United States involving US President Richard Nixon's administration from 1971 to 1974, ultimately leading to Nixon's resignation.
Here is a brief on the events involved in the political earthquake that rocked America precisely 50 years ago.
What was the Watergate scandal of 1972?
The Watergate scandal refers to a break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington DC and the subsequent chain of events that led to the spectacular resignation of President Richard Nixon.
The scandal began early in the morning of June 17, 1972, when several burglars were arrested in the office of the Democratic National Committee, located in the Watergate complex of buildings in DC.
The arrests were made at around 2.30am local time after the group was caught wiretapping phones and stealing documents.
It was later revealed that they were all connected to President Nixon’s re-election campaign.
One of the men was identified as James McCord Jr – the security chief of the Committee to Re-Elect the President – and it wasn’t his first time in the opposition’s offices.
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The others arrested were later identified as Virgilio Gonzalez, Bernard Barker, Eugenio Martínez, and Frank Sturgis.
The suspects were found with a series of items, including lock picks, $100 bills with the serial numbers in sequence, and a shortwave receiver that could pick up police calls.
Nixon took aggressive steps to cover up the crime, with White House press secretary Ron Ziegler describing the incident as a "third-rate burglary."
In August 1972, Nixon gave a speech in which he swore that White House staffers were not involved in the break-in, winning the public’s confidence and securing him another term in office.
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However, a few months later, journalists and congressional investigations began to piece together details of the scandal – details which pointed directly to White House involvement.
It soon emerged that shortly after the break-in Nixon arranged to provide hundreds of thousands of dollars in “hush money” to the burglars.
He and his aides then hatched a plan to instruct the CIA to impede the FBI’s investigation of the crime.
This was a more serious crime than the break-in as it was a gross abuse of presidential power and a deliberate obstruction of justice.
Around the same time, seven conspirators were indicted on charges related to the Watergate affair, these included the five burglars and former FBI agent G Gordon Liddy and CIA operative and leader of the White House Plumbers, E Howard Hunt.
At the urging of Nixon’s aides, five pleaded guilty to avoid trial; the other two were convicted in January 1973.
Why did Richard Nixon resign as President?
President Nixon ultimately released damning tapes that undeniably confirmed his complicity in the Watergate scandal on August 5, 1974.
To avoid imminent impeachment by Congress, he chose to resign in disgrace on August 8 of the same year and left the White House the following day.
Six weeks later, Vice President Gerald Ford was sworn in as president.
He chose to pardon Nixon for any crimes he had committed while in office.
Nixon himself never admitted to any criminal wrongdoing, although he did acknowledge using poor judgment.
Richard Nixon died in 1994, aged 81.
What happened next in the Watergate scandal?
In early 1973, a handful of Nixon’s aides, including White House counsel John Dean, were called to testify before a grand jury about the president’s crimes.
During their court appearances, they claimed that Nixon secretly taped every conversation that took place in the Oval Office.
Prosecutors knew that the President’s guilt could only be proven with those tapes.
However hard he tried, Nixon struggled to protect the tapes during the summer and autumn of 1973.
His lawyers argued that the president’s executive privilege allowed him to keep the tapes to himself, but Judge Sirica, the Senate committee, and an independent special prosecutor named Archibald Cox were all determined to obtain them.
When Cox refused to back down with his demands, Nixon ordered him to be fired – several Justice Department officials resigned in protest.
The mass resignations took place on October 20, 1973, and became known as the “Saturday Night Massacre."
This forced Nixon into handing over some – but not all – of the tapes.
Within months, his stories began unraveling and the Watergate scandal had reached its peak.
Seven of his former aides – John N Mitchell, HR Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, Charles Colson, Gordon C Strachan, Robert Mardian, and Kenneth Parkinson – were indicted on various charges all related to the scandal, but the jury was unsure if they could indict a sitting president.
How were Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein involved?
Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein started suspecting President Nixon’s intentions, around the same time that a Senate investigation was launched.
The work of Woodward and Bernstein during the scandal was described as "maybe the single greatest reporting effort of all time" by longtime journalism figure Gene Roberts.
Woodward continued to work for The Washington Post after his reporting on Watergate and is now the paper’s associate editor.
Since Watergate, he has since written 18 books on American politics, 12 of which topped best-seller lists.
Bernstein's career since Watergate has continued to focus on the theme of the use and abuse of power in politics.
He is also an author and a regular political commentator for CNN.
They began to refer to him as an “unindicted co-conspirator."
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Nixon was then ordered by the Supreme Court to hand over the original tapes of more than 64 conversations.
While he tried to drag the process out longer, a vote was underway in the House of Representatives to impeach him.
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