Republicans and Impeachment: Nixon and Now

A Republican Senator is in his office, thinking about material he’s just seen regarding the sitting President from his own party. He’s troubled, because the evidence indicates a clear violation of US law and an abuse of Presidential power. The problem is that the rest of the Senator’s party is staunchly behind the President, is dismissive of the charges against him, and is lambasting the Democrats as partisan hacks on a witch-hunt. This Republican Senator fears that he will be ostracised by his party if he comes out in favor of impeaching the President, yet he is more troubled by whether he’ll be able to face the judgment of future generations if he doesn’t hold the President accountable for his behavior.

Naturally, Buzzkillers, you think I’m talking about Mitt Romney, the current junior senator from Utah, and a serious and respected leader in the pre-Trump Republican party. Romney’s solemn reaction to the report of the July 2019 phone call between President Trump and the president of Ukraine (in which Trump appears to pressure the Ukranian President to investigate Democratic presidential candidate, Joe Biden, in return for official American funding for Ukraine’s military) seem to give the indicate a senator putting American law and Constitutional rights and wrongs above loyalty to party.

But I’m not talking about Mitt Romney. I’m talking about Edward Brooke, the Republican senator from Massachusetts in 1973, who was thinking about the evidence slowly piling up about President Nixon and the Watergate scandal. Brooke became the first Republican to call for Nixon’s resignation and, more or less, started what is often referred to as “the bi-partisan” examination of the Watergate scandal in 1973 and 1974.

Over and over again, during this Trump impeachment, we hear from media talking heads and the chattering classes that “the real heroes of Watergate were those Republicans who put country over party and convinced Nixon to resign.” Heroes like Senator Brooke, Senator Howard Baker, and Senator Barry Goldwater. It was a more sober and sensible time of bipartisanship and a trust in basic civics and American government

Well, Buzzkillers, not really. It’s kind of a myth that Republicans broke ranks with Nixon and brought bi-partisan pressure on the President to do the right thing — to resign and let the country begin to heal politically. Almost all of what we’re seeing during this Trump impeachment crisis (calling it a “witch hunt,” extreme partisan language, denigrating high-level civil servants, whistleblowers and Justice department officials, and blaming the media) happened during the Nixon impeachment years.

Senator Brooke was the exception, at the very least in timing. Republicans in the Senate and House of Representatives only came to the conclusion very late in the process that President Nixon was guilty and should be impeached — in fact, they came to that conclusion only at the last minute.

As is so often the case, careful attention to chronology helps us strip away myths and misconceptions and, as we’ll eventually find out in this episode, the mistaken impressions given to us by the compressed sound-bytes of political history that seem to be all we get nowadays. Details matter. Fortunately, these details of how Watergate and the Nixon Impeachment process happened are not dry-as-dust, and only of interest to political scientists. They’re thrilling, in their own way, and they teach us a lot about how Washington worked and how it still works.

Here’s what happened.

On June 17th, 1972, Political operatives working (as we later found out) for President Nixon’s re-election campaign broke into the offices of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate office and apartment complex in Washington DC. They were caught snooping around and burgling the Democratic offices. They went on trial in January 1973, and were found guilty, but not before a few of them confessed to being involved with the Committee to Re-Elect the President, and a scandal started brewing.

The US Senate then set up, in February 1973, an investigative committee to look into what was already being called “the Watergate matter.” This is one of the crucial differences between the Nixon impeachment story and the Trump impeachment story. In early ‘73, the Senate started the investigations, quickly joined by the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives (which was charged with looking into the possibility of presidential involvement in the Watergate break-in and subsequent cover-up). Both Houses of Congress were involved from more or less the beginning, and both started hearings that would last over a year.

OK, I’ve already been talking for a while, without mentioning much about Nixon himself or the state of the Nixon Presidency in 1972-73. To put it succinctly, Nixon was hugely popular after his landslide re-election in November, 1972. He carried 49 states in the electoral college and, roughly, 61 percent of the popular vote. And according to, one of the very best political stats operations around these days, Nixon had a roughly 60 percent approval rating at the start of his second term (January 1973). These are big, big numbers.

And I think it’s fair to say that the Watergate break-in, and initial news as it came out, was not very scandalous (at least in terms of public reaction and public opinion). It was an odd story, and most people seemed to regard it as a strange event that didn’t make sense. Why would Nixon bother trying to skew the 1972 election when it was obvious that he was going to win big?

So Congressional and public support for Nixon was strong in early 1973, as the Senate and House Committees started looking into Watergate and started calling witnesses to testify. Republican Representatives and Senators were solidly behind their President. House Republican leader, Michigan Representative, Gerald Ford (who would eventually become Nixon’s VP after Spiro Agnew resigned in October, 1973 — a long story for another time, Buzzkillers), called the investigation a “political witch hunt.” (“Witch hunt” was repeated by Senator Ted Stevens from Alaska a little later.)

Kansas Senator Robert Dole said that the Watergate mess was simply Democrats throwing out, “a barrage of unfounded and unsubstantiated allegations,” aided by their “partner in mud-slinging, The Washington Post.” And Edward Gurney, Senator from Florida, said that the Watergate scandal was “one of those political wing-dings that happen every year.”

In fact, Republican support was strong enough that Howard Baker (a Republican Senator from Tennessee) started meeting secretly with President Nixon in late winter/early spring 1973 to discuss Republican strategies for handling the investigations. Baker was careful to keep these meetings out of the press, of course, but his staff leaked Senate Investigative Committee information to the White House for much of 1973.

Evidence about White House involvement in a Watergate cover-up started to come out in the early summer of 1973, as witnesses in the Senate investigation disclosed the details about Nixon’s knowledge of the break-in. Still, Republicans were staunchly behind the President. The existence of White House tapes first became known in July 1973, but Congressman Gerald Ford argued that taping White House conversations was part of executive privilege, and Republican Senator John Tower of Texas called the Watergate investigations “hysteria.”

But the evidence kept mounting, and it was then, on July 28, 1973, that Senator Howard Baker (who, as I’ve said, firmly believed the President was innocent and was, in fact, helping Nixon work on the White House’s response to the Watergate investigations) asked statement: “what did the President know and when did he know it.”

I think it’s fair and accurate to say that Baker’s “what did the President know” question has been portrayed in subsequent years as an indication that Republicans like Baker suspected Nixon of complicity in the Watergate break-in and cover-up, and were trying to nail down when the President became guilty. History documentaries and news channel summaries of the Watergate crisis show Baker asking this question, then they cut quickly to White House counsel John Dean’s famous “there’s a cancer on the presidency” statement, and then they show Nixon’s resignation speech, as if they all happened one right after another. But that’s not the case, and the standard compression of these events give us the wrong idea about the Republicans and Watergate.

In the first place, I hope you’ve noticed that I’ve been referring to Baker’s “what did the President know” occurring at roughly the same time (early- to mid-July 1973) as Baker’s secret meetings with Nixon and White House staff about defending the President against the Watergate accusations. I emphasize this because all the evidence tells us that Baker asked “what did the President know and when did he know it” early in the whole Watergate investigation, and that he (that is, Baker) was trying to establish that the President did _not_ have prior knowledge of the Watergate burglary and the ham-handed attempts to cover it up after the burglars were caught and it all became public. Baker was trying, essentially, to establish a chronological firewall around the President, which would prove that he was innocent of the wrongdoing of some of his mis-guided supporters.

Baker was trying to build this firewall in July 1973 because he sincerely believed the President was not guilty of the Watergate skullduggery and, more importantly, that he believed Nixon when he assured the country, and Republican Congressmen especially, that he had no knowledge of it. This was the overwhelming attitude of the majority of Republicans for over a year. At most, they believed, Nixon had some highly misguided zealots working far beyond any the purview that the Committee to Re-elect the President had given them.

And, for the most part, public opinion agreed with this sentiment during the spring of 1973. But, during the summer, as the guilt of the Watergate conspirators oozed out and up through the Nixon Re-election Committee and White House staff, public opinion started to move away from Nixon. The President’s approval rating dropped significantly, to around 40% by August

Things got worse as the summer ended. The sheer weight of testimony from those involved in the Watergate break-in and cover-up, especially Nixon’s White House counsel John Dean, eroded the President’s public support.

But public opinion is often a fickle thing and not usually based on actual evidence. Even by the end of September 1973, support for Nixon among Republicans in Congress was solid. The Republicans on the Senate Watergate Committee and the House Judiciary Committee were highly skeptical of the idea that the break-in was sanctioned by Nixon, much less the cover-up. In addition to believing Nixon when he had told those Republicans personally that he was not guilty, they thought that no President could have been so stupid as to risk exposure of these crimes. There should, at the very least, have been many levels of “buffers” (to borrow a term from Godfather Part II) that kept the President from knowing or approving of the Watergate break-in and cover-up.

The public was getting worn out by Watergate. Both Houses of Congress were investigating it. It seemed that the drip-drip-drip of revelations about potential wrong-doing were too small or too technical to require ousting an elected president.

Some of you who may know the basics of Watergate chronology know that I’m getting close to “the Saturday Night Massacre” of October 20th, 1973. Nixon’s secret recordings of White House meetings had become known in May of 1973, and the courts were trying to force him to hand over the tapes. Nixon refused, and the whole controversy over executive privilege versus the public’s right to know raged throughout the summer.

Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox, who had been appointed by Attorney General Elliot Richardson to head a Justice Department investigation of Watergate, pushed for a court order to have the tapes released. Nixon resisted in several ways. To make a long story short, the White House offered to release edited transcripts of the tapes. Cox rejected this idea by the end of the summer. Nixon then ordered Cox to stop any legal proceedings to obtain the tapes and other internal White House communications. (Remember, even though he was investigating Watergate and the question of whether Nixon was involved, Cox worked for Nixon, as part of the Justice Department.)

Cox then announced that he would continue to press the courts to get the tapes from the White House, even if this meant that Nixon would have to be held in contempt if he did not do so. This was then a standoff between Nixon and his own Justice Department.

Nixon ordered his Attorney General, Elliot Richardson, to fire Cox. Richardson refused and resigned. Nixon then ordered the Assistant Attorney General, William Ruckelshaus, to do it. Ruckelshaus also refused and resigned. Finally, Nixon ordered Solicitor General, Robert Bork, to fire Cox and he did so.

You might think that the Saturday Night Massacre was the final straw that broke the back of Republican political support for Nixon. It certainly looked as if the White House was extremely paranoid and corrupt.

Well, yes, and no.

The Saturday Night Massacre was enough for the Democrat-controlled House Judiciary Committee to propose impeachment resolutions. It led to a party-line vote — 21-17, and All Republicans voted “no.”

Throughout the winter of 1973-1974, however, Republican Senators and Representatives started to brace for what might be, at the very least, charges of obstruction against Nixon because he was on the verge of refusing court orders. These Republicans began to get somewhat suspicious, but, for the most part, they consoled themselves that, technically, Nixon was solely protecting executive privilege — that is, broadly speaking, that private conversations about administrative policy had to remain secret for all sorts of reasons, including national security.

And public opinion started to change, or at least started to solidify behind the idea of impeachment proceedings. In early November, 1973, several major newspapers called for Nixon to resign, and any remaining wavering Democrats in Congress were more or less becoming convinced that impeachment was the only way to get at the truth of Watergate and decide to do about it. Nixon even went on television on November 17th to claim that the investigations must continue because, as he said, insisting that he was “not a crook.”

In early February 1974, the Judiciary Committee in the House of Representatives was empowered by the full House to start a formal impeachment inquiry. Republican politicians still believed that Nixon was not guilty, But, by early 1974, they were starting to think that letting the impeachment investigation take its course was the only way to show that. And so, on May 9, 1974, formal impeachment hearings began.

The Nixon White House released edited transcripts of the Watergate tapes in April and May, but the House Judiciary Committee determined that the edited transcripts were not enough. Wrangling over the release of the tapes and other confidential material dominated the proceedings. Nixon’s supporters stressed that a president could only be impeached if he had committed “great offenses,” and was not just guilty of “maladministration.”

The hearings of the House Judiciary Committee just kept turning up more evidence of wrong-doing. Finally, they decided that Nixon’s edited transcripts of the tapes did not present the full picture about what had gone on inside the White House in 1972 and early 1973. They demanded the full tapes. But the Nixon White House stalled and worked tried various legal maneuvers to keep the original tapes secret.

Throughout all this, Republican committee members toed the party line. They cited executive privilege, argued that Nixon’s staff was at fault, and that nothing the President did about Watergate rose to the level of an impeachable offense. The committee hearings, partisan bickering, and ceaseless media coverage of the proceedings plagued the American political scene in June of 1974. But a crucial element in the eventual bipartisan aspect in bringing forward articles of impeachment was gearing up behind the scenes. And things started moving very quickly.

Led by Walter Flowers from Alabama, a small group of conservative, mostly southern, Democrats on the House judiciary committee informally agreed to meet with a group of moderate Republicans on the same committee led by Thomas Railsback from Illinois, to discuss what to do about the mounting evidence. Support and opposition to impeachment still divided mostly on partisan lines in Congress, but these particular Representatives were especially troubled by the evidence that Nixon had been trying to use the FBI and the CIA (sometimes against each other) to cover-up his involvement in Watergate. This Flowers-Railsback group from the Judiciary Committee met on the crucial day of July 23rd and hammered out a compromise that they thought would appeal to a sufficient number of Judiciary Committee members to recommend articles of impeachment to the full House of Representatives. They agreed to stress abuse of power and obstruction of justice, and went back to meet with their respective parties to gauge support for impeachment.

They didn’t have to wait long. Republican Congressman Lawrence Hogan of Maryland had finally seen enough evidence of Nixon’s offenses that he was ready to go public. And he was the first Republican member of the House to do so. On July 23rd, the same day that the informal group of Judiciary Committee members agreed on their focus of attention for impeachment, Hogan made announced on television that he would vote for the impeachment of President Nixon. Here’s the essential part of his statement:

“I want with all my heart to be able to say to you now that the president of the United States is innocent of wrongdoing, that he has not committed an impeachable offense, but I cannot say that. Richard M. Nixon has, beyond a reasonable doubt, committed impeachable offenses.

The evidence convinces me that my President has lied repeatedly, deceiving public officials and the American people. Instead of cooperating with prosecutors and investigators, as he said publicly, he concealed and covered up evidence, and coached witnesses so that their testimony would show things that really were not true… he praised and rewarded those who he knew had committed perjury. He actively participated in an extended and extensive conspiracy to obstruct justice.”

Hogan was a conservative Republican, and it would seem that his coming out so strongly in favor of impeachment and removal could open the floodgates for other Republicans (including those in the Senate) to announce their support for impeachment. But it didn’t.

Republicans on the Judiciary Committee remained divided between those pushing for impeachment on abuse of power and obstruction of justice grounds, and those who argued that the evidence was not yet strong enough. The informal Flowers-Railsback group I mentioned earlier had hammered out five proposed articles of impeachment to set before the Judiciary Committee, and they had drafted those proposals in moderate language, hoping to get as much bi-partisan support as possible.

Still, those impeachment articles were not unanimously supported by the Committee. Three were approved:

Article I (obstruction of justice). Democrats voting yes 21-0, and Republicans 6 yes and 11 no.

Article II (abuse of power). Democrats voting yes 21-0, and Republicans 7 yes and 10 no.

Article III (contempt of Congress). Democrats voting 19 yes and 2 no, and Republicans 2 yes and 15 no.

These three articles passed without the support of most of the Republicans on the Judiciary Committee.

Two articles — Article IV (usurping the power of Congress about secret bombing of Cambodia), and Article V (tax fraud) were rejected by the Committee as a whole.

After the Judiciary Committee approved three articles of impeachment, the full House of Representatives started to get ready for a full vote on them. Since they were likely to pass the full House because of the Democratic majority there, the Senate also started getting ready for the eventual trial of President Nixon. This was all happening during the last days of July, and the first days in August, 1974.

Then came the famous “smoking gun” tape. On August 5, 1973, Nixon handed over all of his tapes, as required by the courts. Among other things, they revealed a June 23, 1972 conversation between Nixon and H.R. Haldeman (his chief of staff at the time). This meeting was only a few days after the break-in and arrests at Watergate. In that conversation, Nixon and Haldeman discussed the break-in and arrests, and then went on to talk about what the White House would do about it. They more or less decided that the best way to cover it all up was to coerce the CIA into saying that an investigation of Watergate would be a danger to national security, and to try to convince the FBI that this was the case.

And, of course, they call this the “smoking gun” tape because it showed Nixon not only knowing about the break-in and cover-up, but _planning_ the cover-up with Haldeman. And I hate to belabor the chronology thing, Buzzkillers, but it’s important here. The smoking gun meeting itself happened on June 23, 1972, a full _two years_ before the House Judiciary Committee proposed its Articles of Impeachment.

That meant that Nixon had been lying about Watergate, not only to the public but, more pertinent to the questions raised in this show, to his fellow Republicans. It was then that Republicans faded away. Senator Howard Baker (he of the “what did the President know and when did he know it” statement of 1973) came out in support of impeachment, as did many other Republican senators and Congressmen who had been strong Nixon supporters. Words they used to announce their reaction to the smoking gun tape included, “devastating – impeachable,” being “dumbfounded,” and having “a terrible, let-down feeling.” Edward Hutchinson, the ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee sort of summed it up for those Republicans who felt betrayed by Nixon when he said that he would vote for impeachment, “with a heavy heart.”

This was all happening on August 5th and 6th, 1974. At roughly the same time, Vice-President Gerald Ford told Nixon that he would not defend him over impeachment any longer. (He would remain loyal to Nixon’s policies, but would not answer public questions about impeachment any longer.)

I want to stress that it was the overwhelming mass of evidence against Nixon, the now-obvious fact that he had been in on the planning of the cover-up from the very beginning, and perhaps most of all, the fact that their own President had been lying to them directly (in some cases, face to face) about his involvement in Watergate, that forced the majority of Republicans to support impeachment and removal eventually.

The majority of Republicans, but not all. Senator Carl Curtis from Nebraska worried that, if Nixon resigned or was thrown out of office, the United States would go down the road of a “banana republic,” with constant turnover between warring political parties. Perhaps the strongest rejection of the smoking gun evidence came from Earl Landgrebe, Republican Representative from Indiana who said, “don’t confuse me with the facts. I’ve got a closed mind. I will not vote for impeachment. I’m going to stick with my president even if he and I have to be taken out of this building and shot.”

On August 7th, Senator Barry Goldwater and a couple of Republican Representatives met with Nixon to tell him that he would certainly be impeached, and no longer had even enough votes in the Senate to avoid being convicted and removed from office. The next day, August 8th, Nixon told Gerald Ford, the cabinet, and congressional leaders that he would resign; and his televised resignation speech to the nation aired that night. His resignation became official at 11:35 the next day after he left the White House and returned to California.

So what can the behavior of the Republicans during the Nixon impeachment crisis tell us about current Republicans and the Trump impeachment crisis? In addition to the usual caveats about no two historic events being the same, or even developing in the same way, we should keep the following in mind.

Watergate was different because the Democrats controlled both the Senate and the House of Representatives. That’s one of the reasons why both houses of Congress could start investigations into Watergate and call witnesses right away. Even though impeachment articles have to come from the House of Representatives in accordance with the Constitution, in Nixon’s case, it was the Senate investigations that provided the most damaging testimony, especially from former Nixon aides.

Watergate was also different because the evidence of the crime (and Nixon’s complicity in it) only became clear after two years of investigation (1972-74) and, ultimately, the revelations in the smoking gun tape coming out in the beginning of August 1974. Remember the chronology here, the House Judiciary Committee approved Articles of Impeachment on July 30, 1974; the smoking gun tape appeared on August 5th; and Nixon had resigned and was on the plane back to California the morning of August 9th. That was only an 11 day span, Buzzkillers.

Sure, two years of investigation led up to those 11 days, but Republicans stayed loyal to Nixon until the very end.

Senators Mitt Romney and Lisa Murkowski during the Trump impeachment _might_ be filling the role that Senator Edward Brooke played in 1973, when he was the first Repubican to suspect Nixon of wrong-doing and suggest impeachment. And a handful of other Senators seem to be silent about removing Trump, at least until they see more evidence during a Senate trial. But there are also a great many Senators, like Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham, and Representatives like Jim Jordan, Louis Gohmert, and Matt Gaetz, who seem to echo the Nixon-supporting Earl Landgrebe in 1974, who said he’d be willing to be taken out and shot along with his President.

But that’s where the parallels end. And they’re fairly tenuous parallels at that. We’ll have to see what happens, as President Trump says so often. Maybe there’s another smoking gun. Maybe there are other crimes. Only a full trial has a chance of letting us know.

So what do I think about the story of “the Republicans who pushed Nixon out” being “the real heroes” of Watergate? Well, yes, most Republicans eventually realized that President Nixon had committed crimes and attempted to obstruct justice. But we have a tendency to compress and condense time and causation when we make easy historical judgments like this.

It took a very long time, and a ton of evidence for people like Howard Baker and Barry Goldwater to reach their conclusions. After the smoking gun tape was revealed and analyzed, abandoning Nixon became a slam dunk. But at least most Republicans did it. All the historical evidence points to the fact that those Republicans who turned on Nixon eventually did not do so because public opinion had become strongly pro-impeachment by mid-1974. They did so because the facts proved Nixon’s guilt overwhelmingly.

But, also, by 1974, they were _not_ afraid of their political “base” of support back in their constituencies. In fact, a good many Republican House members faced primary challenges in the 1974 and 1976 elections and lost, partly because they turned on Nixon. So these “impeachment” Republicans didn’t bow to public opinion on either side — the strongly pro-Nixon, anti-impeachment side, and the increasing pro-impeachment of general public opinion through 1974. There is absolutely no evidence of any of these Senators or Representatives quaking in their boots over what public opinion would think of them. And all the available evidence points overwhelmingly to them voting their conscience when it came time to do so.

Most importantly, however, Buzzkillers. You know that I rebel against the ahistorical tendency to find a handful of heroes in any historical situation or victory. In the same way, I complained about the Washington Post’s Woodward and Bernstein being held up, practically, as the saviors of the Republic during the Watergate scandal, in one of our prior episodes.

Lots of people were heroic in bringing about the best resolution of the Watergate scandal, and the vast majority of them are almost completely forgotten by history. Lots of different news outlets, federal agencies, and congressional committees were responsible for “breaking” elements of the Watergate story, and bringing the evidence to light: the local Washington DC police, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Justice Department, special prosecutors, investigators in the House of Representatives and the Senate, the Supreme Court, and other federal judges. Complicated things require complex and sophisticated analysis. Something as serious and as widespread as the Watergate scandal required hundreds of heroes.

In the same way, I’ve relied on the work of dozens of historians and journalists for the material presented in this episode. You’ll find many of them listed at the end of the blog post about this episode, as well as on the Buzzkill Bookshelf.

So please be sure to go to, click on the Patreon button to support the show, and do all the other things you can do at the website.

Talk to you next week.

Some sources:

Jon Marshall, Watergate’s Legacy and the Press: The Investigative Impulse, 2011.

Jon Meacham, Timothy Naftali, Peter Baker, and Jeffrey Engel, Impeachment: An American History, 2018.

Laurence Tribe and Joshua Matz, To End a Presidency: the Power of Impeachment, 2018.

Michael Conway and Jon Marshall, “The Myth of Watergate Bipartisanship,” New York Times, Aug 13, 2018.

Michael Luo, “What Republicans Can Learn from the Bipartisan Effort to Impeach Nixon,” The New Yorker, Nov 7, 2019.

Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux, “It Took A Long Time For Republicans To Abandon Nixon,” Five Thirty Eight, Oct 9, 2019.

Buzzkill Bookshelf:

Stanley I. Kutler, The Wars of Watergate: The Last Crisis of Richard Nixon

The first truly comprehensive history of the political explosion that shook America in the 1970s, and whose aftereffects are still being felt in public life today. Drawing on contemporary documents, personal interviews, memoirs, and a vast quantity of new material, Stanley Kutler shows how President Nixon’s obstruction of justice from the White House capped a pattern of abuse that marked his entire tenure in office.

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