May 17

This Day in History

General Interest

May 17, 1973:

Televised Watergate hearings begin

In Washington, D.C., the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, headed by Senator Sam Ervin of North Carolina, begins televised hearings on the escalating Watergate affair. One week later, Harvard law professor Archibald Cox was sworn in as special Watergate prosecutor.

On June 17, 1972, five men were arrested for breaking into and illegally wiretapping the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C. One of the suspects, James W. McCord Jr., was revealed to be the salaried security coordinator for President Richard Nixon's reelection committee. Two other men with White House ties were later implicated in the break-in: E. Howard Hunt, Jr., a former White House aide, and G. Gordon Liddy, finance counsel for the Committee for the Re-election of the President. Journalists and the Select Committee discovered a higher-echelon conspiracy surrounding the incident, and a political scandal of unprecedented magnitude erupted.

In May 1973, the special Senate committee began televised proceedings on the Watergate affair. During the Senate hearings, former White House legal counsel John Dean testified that the Watergate break-in had been approved by former Attorney General John Mitchell with the knowledge of chief White House advisers John Ehrlichman and H.R. Haldeman, and that President Nixon had been aware of the cover-up. Meanwhile, Watergate prosecutor Cox and his staff began to uncover widespread evidence of political espionage by the Nixon reelection committee, illegal wiretapping of thousands of citizens by the administration, and contributions to the Republican Party in return for political favors.

In July, the existence of what were to be called the Watergate tapes--official recordings of White House conversations between Nixon and his staff--was revealed during the Senate hearings. Cox subpoenaed these tapes, and after three months of delay President Nixon agreed to send summaries of the recordings. Cox rejected the summaries, and Nixon fired him. His successor as special prosecutor, Leon Jaworski, leveled indictments against several high-ranking administration officials, including Mitchell and Dean, who were duly convicted.

Public confidence in the president rapidly waned, and by the end of July 1974 the House Judiciary Committee had adopted three articles of impeachment against President Nixon: obstruction of justice, abuse of presidential powers, and hindrance of the impeachment process. On July 30, under coercion from the Supreme Court, Nixon finally released the Watergate tapes. On August 5, transcripts of the recordings were released, including a segment in which the president was heard instructing Haldeman to order the FBI to halt the Watergate investigation. Four days later, Nixon became the first president in U.S. history to resign. On September 8, his successor, President Gerald Ford, pardoned him from any criminal charges.

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