The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Like Trump, Nixon was obsessed with leaks. It led to Watergate — and ruin.

President Nixon tells a White House news conference March 15, 1973, that he will not allow his legal counsel, John Dean, to testify on Capitol Hill in the Watergate investigation and challenged the Senate to test him in the Supreme Court. (AP)
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This post has been updated to reflect President Trump’s latest tweets.

After this newspaper reported that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III was investigating President Trump for possible obstruction of justice, the president’s defenders had a predictable response.

“The FBI leak of information regarding the president is outrageous, inexcusable and illegal,” said a spokesman for Trump’s personal attorney.

The statement at the time was the latest lyric in what has become the administration’s anthem: It’s all about the leaks.

On Saturday morning, through his Twitter account, Trump decried “illegal leaks” in the The Washington Post’s coverage of his campaign’s contacts with Russian officials.

“A new INTELLIGENCE LEAK from the Amazon Washington Post,this time against A.G. Jeff Sessions.These illegal leaks, like Comey’s, must stop!” he wrote at 6:33 a.m.

Then an hour later: “While all agree the U. S. President has the complete power to pardon, why think of that when only crime so far is LEAKS against us.FAKE NEWS.”

Trump began worrying about leaks before he took office, telling reporters in January: “Ya know, I have a lot of respect for the intelligence but [there are] a lot of leaks, a lot of fake news coming out, a lot of fake news.”

Within days of his inauguration, his concern over leaks had turned into a call for an investigation.

“Those are criminal leaks,” he said in a news conference on Feb. 16, two days after a story by The Washington Post — citing an anonymous government official — led to the resignation of  national security adviser Michael Flynn. “This whole Russia scam that you guys are building you don’t talk about the real subject which is illegal leaks.”

“Find the leakers,” Trump tweeted in April.

History suggests, however, that Trump would be wise to rein in his rage over leaks.

Though Trump’s presidency has inspired numerous comparisons to Richard Nixon and Watergate — this year is the 45th anniversary of the break-in — one similarity has gone largely unnoticed.


They infuriated Nixon. He didn’t shout his anger 140-characters at a time, but he did retaliate.

And that led to his downfall.

‘We’ve got to get this son of a bitch’

On June 13, 1971, the New York Times began publishing excerpts of the Pentagon Papers, which reporters had received from Daniel Ellsberg, a former defense analyst.

Initially, Nixon wasn’t too bothered by the revelations, which centered on previous administrations. But Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s national security adviser, told the president that the leak made him look like a “weakling.”

Ellsberg was arrested for allegedly violating the Espionage Act, but Nixon wasn’t appeased. He wanted to make an example of Ellsberg and put an end to the leaks.

“We’ve got to get this son of a bitch,” he told Attorney General John Mitchell the day after Ellsberg’s arrest. “We can’t be in a position of — of ever allowing — just because some guy is going to be martyr, of allowing the fellow to get away with this kind of wholesale thievery, or otherwise it’s going to happen all over the government.”

The next day, Nixon summoned Kissinger, Mitchell, Charles Colson and Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman into his office. (Mitchell, Colson and Haldeman would eventually go to prison for their involvement in Watergate or the coverup.)

“Don’t worry about his trial,” the president said of Ellsberg. “Just get everything out. Try him in the press, try him in the press … leak it out.”

Nixon went so far as to order the burglary of the Brookings Institution, which he thought might have information that could prove embarrassing to the administration.

“I want the break-in,” he told Haldeman. “You’re to break into the place, rifles the files and bring them in.”

Nixon’s top aides responded by creating a special team to go after leakers, especially Ellsberg.

The operation had several code names — ODESSA, the Special Investigations Unit, the Room 16 Project r its small office in the White House basement) — but it was another name that stuck.

One team member, David Young, had a relative who read in the newspaper that he was working on leaks.

“Your grandfather would be proud of you,” she told him, “he was a plumber.”

Young sarcastically put a sign on his office door reading: “Mr. Young — Plumber.”

Read Woodward and Bernstein’s Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of the Watergate scandal

Per Nixon’s orders, the Plumbers did much more than try to stop leaks. They also tried to find incriminating information on opponents. For what purpose?

To leak.

At first, they tried to dig up dirt on Ellsberg by interviewing his ex-wife and by feeding false stories about his lawyer to newspapers.

In September 1971, the Plumbers went much further.

Ellsberg’s FBI file revealed that he saw a psychiatrist in Los Angeles. The Plumbers plotted to break in, photograph Ellsberg’s file and leak embarrassing information to the press.

The team was led by a pair of the most colorful characters in American political history.

E. Howard Hunt was a Brown University graduate who worked as a Life magazine correspondent before serving on a U.S. Navy destroyer during World War II. After the war, he worked as a screenwriter before joining the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the CIA.

From a base in Mexico City, the pipe-smoking spymaster helped overthrow the Guatemalan president and oversaw a group of Cuban exiles in the Bay of Pigs fiasco. He might have even been involved in the assassination of John F. Kennedy, one of his sons later claimed.

Even as he orchestrated coups, Hunt held down a second, secret career as a novelist. By the time he joined the Plumbers, he had authored scores of spy thrillers, often featuring hash-smoking hippies and a Washington-dwelling Brown University graduate as “the secret agent with the taste and the talent for fine living.”

Some of Hunt’s ideas for the Plumbers seemed ripped straight from his novels. While trying to dig up dirt on Ted Kennedy — what Nixon biographer Rick Perlstein called the “Ted Kennedy floozy watch” — Hunt wore a red wig and used a voice modulator. In response to Nixon’s order to break into the Brookings Institution, Hunt suggested firebombing the think tank and posing as firemen to steal the files (the idea was rejected because renting a firetruck was too expensive).

His primary partner on the Plumbers was someone even more outlandish than Hunt; someone with the nicknames “wild man” and “superklutz.”

As an assistant prosecutor in Duchess County, N.Y., G. Gordon Liddy was known for wearing a pistol into the courtroom. During one trial, he reportedly fired a gun at the ceiling.

“It went off, pow!” the presiding judge, Raymond C. Baratta, later told the New York Times. “I nearly fell off my chair.”

“Liddy was prosecuting re the defense had claimed the revolver was inoperable,” explained his then boss, John R. Heilman. “If Clarence Darrow or Melvin Belli proceeded to put a couple of blanks in the gun and fire it and it did in fact work, well, that’s the stuff legends are made of.”

Liddy had always been grandiose. In his biography, “Will,” he recalled idolizing Adolf Hitler as his German nanny listened to die fuhrer on the radio. Later, he practiced holding his hands over open flames to hone his self-discipline. To overcome an intense fear of vermin, he once roasted a dead rat and ate it.

For Liddy, joining the Plumbers was a chance for the failed prosecutor to find purpose again.

The White House “wanted to destroy Ellsberg’s status as a hero of the left-liberal establishment because his continuation in that role might lead others to emulate him,” Liddy wrote in his autobiography. “I was more concerned with his possible link to the KGB.”

(Spoiler alert: There was no link between Ellsberg and the KGB.)

Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, Lewis Fielding, had refused to hand over his file to the FBI. So Hunt and Liddy flew out to Beverly Hills and cased the joint. They wore wigs and “gait-altering devices,” and pretended to take tourist photos while planning out potential escape routes. Hunt used his Spanish from his days as a spook to convince a cleaning lady to let them into the office waiting room, where Liddy used a camera hidden inside a tobacco pouch to take pictures.

But when they returned on Sept. 3, 1971, with a team of Cubans that Hunt had directed during the Bay of Pigs, the break-in turned up nothing.

Back in Washington, Liddy met with Egil Krogh, deputy assistant to Nixon and another Plumber. Krogh was “relieved” that the team hadn’t been caught in California, Liddy wrote, but showed no signs of shutting down the operation.

“Hang on to those tools and things,” he told Liddy, according to Liddy’s memoir. “We may need them again later on.”


In the early hours of June 17, 1972, the same team of Plumbers — plus a few more members — would, indeed, use those tools once again.

This time, the target was the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters, housed in the Watergate complex in Washington.

In the 10 months since the Fielding break-in, Nixon’s “dirty tricks” had spiraled out of control. The White House had sabotaged Maine Sen. Edmund Muskie, at the time the front-runner for the Democratic nomination for president, with the “Canuck letter” and infiltrated other Democratic campaigns.

Liddy and Hunt had debated lacing Ellsberg’s soup with LSD before a speech. They had also considered smearing a columnist’s steering wheel with the same drug, or putting poison in his aspirin bottle — something Liddy referred to as “Aspirin Roulette.” Once, Liddy outlined to Attorney General John Mitchell a plan to kidnap protesters and secretly hold them in Mexico.

What had started as an effort to snuff out leaks had become full-blown lawlessness, Krogh later admitted.

“With the Fielding break-in, some of us in the Nixon White House crossed the Rubicon into the realm of lawbreakers,” he wrote in a 2007 op-ed.

When the five burglars were famously apprehended while trying to replace a faulty wiretap inside the DNC office at the Watergate, Liddy and Hunt were in a hotel room in the same building that they had been using as a listening post.

Though the two men escaped, police — and Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward — would connect a phone number found on one of the burglars to Hunt. Eventually, the whole conspiracy would come to light, resulting in Nixon’s resignation in 1974.

As the investigation unfurled, Hunt reportedly tried to blackmail the White House. Liddy kept quiet, earning himself yet another nickname: The Sphinx of Watergate.

Hunt served almost three years in prison. Until his death in 2007, he never stopped writing spy novels.

Ex-Spy Crafted Watergate, Other Schemes

For his silence, Liddy received the heaviest sentence of any Watergate conspirator: 20 years. President Jimmy Carter commuted the sentence to eight years, however, and Liddy was paroled after serving 52 months.

Perlstein, the Nixon biographer, said Watergate should stand as a warning to Trump not to overreach in trying to stop the leaks that have dogged his administration’s first few months.

As the run up to Watergate shows, there can be unintended consequences.

“Even Sean Spicer’s meeting on leaks was leaked,” he said. “This is a whole different ballgame.”

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