Nixon Debated Paying Blackmail, Clemency: ‘Keep Cap on Bottle’

President Nixon, during a lengthy meeting in the Oval Office on March 21, 1973, told White House counsel John W. Dean III that “you have no choice but to come up with the $120,000” demanded as blackmail payment by one of the Watergate burglars, according to an edited transcript of the meeting.

The transcript reveals that Mr. Nixon, on his own initiative, discussed accommodating blackmail demands on at least a half-dozen occasions during the meeting without once suggesting that paying the men for their silence would be wrong.

Instead, the transcript reveals, Mr. Nixon repeatedly discussed different methods by which as much as $1 million could be paid to the burglars without the payments being traced to the White House. The purpose of such payments, in the President’s own words, would be “to keep the cap on the bottle,” to “buy time,” to “tough it through.”

“How much money do you need?” the President asked Dean early in the March 21 conversation, according to the transcript.

“I would say these people are going to cost a million dollars over the next two years,” Dean replied.

“We could get that,” the President continued. “On the money, if you need the money you could get that. You could get a million dollars. You could get it in cash. I know where it could be gotten. It is not easy, but it could be done. But the question is who the hell would handle it? Any ideas on that?”

In the ensuing discussion, the President went on to suggest that his personal attorney. Herbert W. Kalmbach, could be relied on to raise the money, that payments to the burglars could be made under the cover of a Cuban defense committee and that the facts could be concealed from a grand jury.

The transcript of the March 21, 1973, meeting is part of 1,254 pages of edited transcripts of 46 presidential conversations about the Watergate affair released yesterday by the White House. Mr. Nixon repeatedly has said that he first learned of the Watergate cover-up and hush money payments at the March 21, 1973, meeting and that he believed payment of hush money would be wrong.

Throughout the conversation as recorded, however, the President returned repeatedly to the joint theme of avoiding “criminal liability” to members of the White House staff at all costs: the desirability of meeting the blackmail demands immediately and the necessity of expediting another meeting at which his top aides -- Dean, John Mitchell, John Ehrlichman and H.R. Haldeman -- could “get a decision on it.”

Within 12 hours of the Oval office discussion, Watergate conspirator E. Howard Hunt Jr. received $75,000 cash -- a key element in the conspiracy to obstruct justice indictment returned against seven of the president’s men on March 1, 1974.

What transpired at the morning March 21, 1973, meeting of Dean, the president and Haldeman is considered crucial by both Mr. Nixon and his critics to answering whether Mr. Nixon himself was a participant in the alleged conspiracy.

The White House released transcript of the March 21 meeting reveals that the President considered the following basic options for dealing with a deteriorating situation described by Dean as a growing cancer on the presidency:

“ Granting executive clemency to Howard Hunt -- “You don’t do it politically until after the ‘74 elections, that’s for sure,” Mr. Nixon told Dean. When Dean suggested that “it may further involve you in a way you should not be involved in this,” the President replied: “No -- it is wrong, that’s for sure.”

“ Granting parole to Hunt, an alternative first suggested by the President. “The only thing we could do with him would be to parole him like the (unintelligible) situation. But you couldn’t buy clemency,” the President told Dean and Haldeman. Mr. Nixon added: “Parole, in appearance, etc., is something I think in Hunt’s case, you could do Hunt, but you couldn’t do the others (the other burglars). You understand.”

“ Convening a new grand jury, which could be controlled by the White House, an alternative first suggested by Dean. During several discussions of the idea, Mr. Nixon noted that such a procedure would offer the protection of the Fifth Amendment for White House witnesses and that “you can say ‘I can’t recall. I can’t give any answer to that that I can recall.’ “

“ Co-opting Assistant Attorney General Henry E. Peterson, by having him appointed as a special Watergate prosecutor or, alternatively, as Mr. Nixon said: “Why couldn’t the President call him in as special counsel to the White House for the purpose of conducting an investigation . . . having him the special counsel to represent us before the Grand Jury?”

“ Using a national security argument to prevent any testimony before a grand jury regarding the White House sponsored break-in at the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist. The object, as described in the meeting with Dean, would be to prevent a grand jury from learning that White House aide Egil (Bud) Krogh had perjured himself earlier when he falsely testified that he had not known the Cuban-Americans who broke into the Watergate (and the psychiatrist’s office).

“ At no point in the 103-minute meeting in the Oval Office did Mr. Nixon suggest that his aides simply testify fully before the then existing Federal Watergate grand jury, tell the whole truth and accept the consequences.

Instead, he returned to the theme of avoiding “criminal liability” and -- far more often than any other alternative to achieving that objective -- meeting the Watergate burglars’ blackmail demands.

“Now let me tell you,” the President told Dean and Haldeman at one such juncture. “We could get the money. There is no problem in that. We can’t provide the clemency. Money could be provided. Mitchell could provide the way to deliver it. That could be done. See what I mean?”

At another point in the discussion the President asked Dean:

“What do you think” You don’t need a million right away, but you need a million? Is that right?”

Dean: “That is right.”

The President: “You need it in cash don’t you? I am just thinking out loud here for a moment. Would you put that through the Cuban Committee (through which payments to the Watergate conspirators had been funneled for months).

Dean: “No.”

The President: “It is going to be checks, cash money, etc. How if that ever comes out, are you going to handle it? Is the Cuban Committee an obstruction of justice, if they want to help?”

Dean: “Well they have priests in it.”

The President: “Would that give a little bit of cover?”

The edited transcript shows the following interchange near the end of the meeting:

President: “That’s why for your immediate thing you have no choice but to come up with the $120,000, or whatever it is. Right?”

Dean: “That’s right”

President: “Would you agree that that’s the prime thing that you damn well better get done?”

Dean: “Obviously he (Hunt) ought to be given some signal anyway.”

President: “(expletive deleted), get it . . .”

Then the conversation shifted to a discussion about who should talk to Hunt. The President suggested his former special counsel, Charles W. Colson. The transcript makes clear that Colson earlier had discussed clemency for Hunt with Hunt’s attorney, William O. Bittman.

In the discussion of how to raise the cover-up payment, the President asked how the money would be delivered.

“You have to wash the money.” Dean responded. “You can get a $100,000 out of a bank and it all comes in serialized bills.”

“I understand,” the President said.

Dean continued: “And that means you have to go to (Las) Vegas with it or a bookmaker in New York City. I have all these things after the fact. I will be in great shape for the next time around.”

There is next deleted expletive of Haldeman’s. The President then said that Kalmbach must have some money which could be used but he was told by Dean that “Kalmbach doesn’t have a cent.”

A special $350,000 cash White House fund then was discussed and Haldeman observed that, “We are so (adjective deleted) square that we get caught at everything.” This is an apparent reference to the discovery by the press of secret cash funds controlled by Haldeman and others.

The president then started to make a suggestion and Haldeman said, “Be careful . . . “

According to testimony later given at the Senate Watergate committee, the President and Haldeman were aware that the Oval Office meeting was being recorded. Dean, however, was not aware of the taping system.

The edited transcript of the meeting helps explain Dean’s sworn testimony before the Senate Watergate committee about the President’s suggestion that the Cabinet be briefed about Watergate. During his Senate testimony Dean expressed surprise at the President’s proposal.

The transcript of the March 21 meeting indicates that the President did not want Dean to tell the Cabinet the truth.

“Still consider my scheme of having you brief the Cabinet,” the President said, “just in very general terms and the (congressional) leaders in very general terms and maybe some very general statement with regard to my investigation. Answer questions, basically on the basis of what they (the witnesses) told you, not what you know.”

During the last portion of the meeting, the President voiced concern about former Attorney General John N. Mitchell and proposed that Mitchell be praised for containing the Watergate probe.

The President specifically proposed telling Mitchell the following: “No doubt about the right plan before the election. You handled it just right. You contained it. And now after the election we have to have another plan. Because we can’t for four years have this thing eating away.”

While discussing the proposed meeting with Mitchell on the matter of the cover-up, the President said that “Mitchell has to be there because he is seriously involved and we are trying to keep him with us.”

Haldeman then noted that the Watergate case may touch the President. “The erosion here now is going to you, and that is the thing that we have to turn off at whatever cost. We have to turn it off at the lowest cost we can, but at whatever cost it takes.”

“That’s what we have to do,” Dean responded.

The President then said: “Well, the erosion is inevitably going to come here, apart from anything and all the people saying well the Watergate isn’t the major issue. It isn’t. But it will be. It’s bound to (unintelligible) has to go out. Delaying is the great danger to the White House area. We don’t, I say that the White House can’t do it. Right?”

“”Yes, sir,” Dean responded and the meeting apparently ended at that point.

The unintelligible part of the conversation may be crucial. If, for example, the President said that the truth “has to go out,” then it would be highly favorable to his defense. On the other hand, if he said that the money or the $120,000 “has to go out,” it would be extremely damaging.

At one point in the conversation, the President asked Dean, “What would you go to jail for?”

“The obstruction of justice,” Dean answered.

The President seemed puzzled: “The obstruction of justice?”

Even after learning that the Watergate defendants had been paid for their silence and that Hunt was blackmailing the White House, the President said that the obstruction of justice “could be cut off at the pass.”

In the discussion of granting clemency to Hunt, the following interchange took place:

Dean: “I am not sure that you will ever be able to deliver on the clemency. It may be just too hot.”

President: “You can’t do it politically until after the ‘74 elections, that’s for sure. Your point is that even then you couldn’t do it.”

Dean: “That’s right. It may further involve you in a way you should not be involved in this.”

President: “No -- it is wrong that’s for sure.”

The President has used that statement in his defense, though the edited transcript indicates that the statement was made in the context of the political ramifications of the 1974 elections, rather than the moral or legal “wrong.”

The President then suggested that White House aide Richard A. Moore and Colson not sit in on any such meeting. Mr. Nixon gave no reason to exclude Moore, but said that Colson “talks too much” and is “a namedropper.”

The President also said that he did not worry about the unfavorable publicity that might follow disclosure of the cover-up.

“The point is,” the President said, “that I don’t want any criminal liabilities. That is the thing that I am concerned about for members of the White House staff, and I would trust for members of the (re-election) committee.”

To avoid those criminal liabilities,” the President said that it “means keeping it off” Dean, Kalmbach, Haldeman, Mitchell, and former White House aides Dwight Chapin and Gordon Strachan.

The President then proposed looking at the course of action “to try to cut our losses . . . First it is going to require approximately a million dollars to take care of the jackasses who are in jail. That can be arranged. But you realize that after we are gone (presumably in 1977, when Mr. Nixon’s term expires) and assuming we can expend this money they are going to crack and it would be an unseemly story . . . People won’t care, but people are going to be talking about it, there is no question.”

The President also proposed that the White House put out the story that the initial payments to the Watergate defendants before the election came from some Cuban defense committee.

“Well, yeah.” Dean answered. “we can put it together. That isn’t of course quite the way it happened, but -- “

“I know,” the President said, “but that’s the way it is going to have to happen.”

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