In the early morning of June 17, 1972, five men are arrested for breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate, an office-hotel-apartment complex in Washington, D.C. In their possession were burglary tools, cameras and film, and three pen-size tear gas guns. At the scene of the crime, and in rooms the men rented at the Watergate, sophisticated electronic bugging equipment was found. Three of the men were Cuban exiles, one was a Cuban American, and the fifth was James W. McCord, Jr., a former CIA agent. That day, the suspects, who said they were “anti-communists,” were charged with felonious burglary and possession of implements of crime.
On June 18, however, it was revealed that James McCord was the salaried security coordinator for President Richard Nixon’s reelection committee. The next day, E. Howard Hunt, Jr., a former White House aide, was linked to the five suspects. In July, G. Gordon Liddy, finance counsel for the Committee for the Re-election of the President, was also implicated as an accomplice. In August, President Nixon announced that a White House investigation of the Watergate break-in had concluded that administration officials were not involved. In September, Liddy, Hunt, McCord, and the four Cubans were indicted by a federal grand jury on eight counts of breaking into and illegally bugging the Democratic National Committee headquarters.
In September and October, reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward of The Washington Post uncovered evidence of illegal political espionage carried out by the White House and the Committee for the Re-election of the President, including the existence of a secret fund kept for the purpose and the existence of political spies hired by the committee. Despite these reports, and a growing call for a Watergate investigation on Capitol Hill, Richard Nixon was reelected president in November 1972 in a landslide victory.
In January 1973, five of the Watergate burglars pleaded guilty, and two others, Liddy and McCord, were convicted. At their sentencing on March 23, U.S. District Court Judge John J. Sirica read a letter from McCord charging that the White House had conducted an extensive “cover-up” to conceal its connection with the break-in. In April, Attorney General Richard Kleindienst and two top White House advisers, H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, resigned, and White House counsel John Dean was fired.
On May 17, 1973, the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, headed by Senator Sam Ervin of North Carolina, began televised proceedings on the rapidly escalating Watergate affair. One week later, Harvard Law professor Archibald Cox was sworn in as special Watergate prosecutor. 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 White House advisers Ehrlichman and 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 re-election 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.