The secret payoffs made by President Trump’s longtime personal attorney Michael Cohen to silence two women alleging affairs with Trump before the 2016 election recall the secret payoffs made by President Richard M. Nixon’s personal attorney, Herbert Kalmbach, to buy the silence of the Watergate burglars and insulate the White House from investigation.
In both cases, the hush-money payments violated campaign finance laws. But there are crucial differences: While Nixon didn’t know about the Kalmbach payments, Cohen claims Trump approved a payment of $130,000 to adult-film actress Stormy Daniels a few days before the 2016 election and subsequently reimbursed him.
Cohen submitted two of 11 reimbursement checks to the House Oversight Committee, one of which was a personal check signed by Trump in August 2017, while he was president. Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) called the check an “explosive smoking gun document.” Cohen also suggested these payments are currently under criminal investigation.
Time will tell what implications these checks will have for Trump’s presidency. But in the case of Nixon, the secret payoffs that kept the administration’s coverup quiet until after the 1972 election led first to the burglars blackmailing the Nixon White House, and then to the coverup’s exposure when one of the burglars finally talked.
The best analogue to Cohen in the Nixon White House was John Dean, Nixon’s White House counsel. Dean directed the initial payments of hush money to the Watergate burglars, then went from architect of the coverup to whistleblower whose Senate Watergate testimony captivated the nation.
In the early days of the coverup, Dean first turned to the CIA to fund payments to the burglars, as four of the break-in team had agency connections, including Howard Hunt and James McCord, both retired CIA officers.
On the famous “smoking gun” tape recorded six days after the Watergate arrests, Nixon and his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, discussed blocking the FBI investigation of checks laundered through Mexico, which bankrolled the break-in, by getting the CIA to claim it would trespass on one of their operations.
Dean also asked the agency to “provide bail money and salary for the CIA suspects using covert funds,” as some of the arrested men were “wobbling.” Gen. Vernon Walters, deputy director of Central Intelligence, rejected both requests and expressed concern that Dean was “exploring the option” of blaming the CIA for the operation and “covering something up.”
After the CIA refused to play ball, Dean asked Kalmbach, Nixon’s personal attorney, to arrange clandestine payments to the burglars. Kalmbach believed there was a “moral obligation” to cover the burglars’ legal expenses and support their families, and he later claimed he was shocked to discover the money was being used to buy their silence.
But whatever Kalmbach's intent, during July and August 1972, $187,500 was disbursed to the burglars through “dead drops” in phone booths and airport lockers. At first, Kalmbach did not think the payments “illegal or improper.” But in late August, as press interest in Watergate intensified, Kalmbach told Dean he was out.
As the Watergate trial approached, Dean and the Nixon White House continued to promote the theory that the break-in was a CIA operation. This alarmed James McCord, the ex-CIA officer who, as head of security for the Nixon campaign, had planted bugs in two phones at Democratic Party headquarters.
Dean’s strategy to deflect blame onto the CIA underestimated McCord’s loyalty to the agency, which he was willing to protect at all costs. McCord knew that campaign chief John Mitchell and his deputy Jeb Magruder had approved the Watergate break-in and sent a blunt warning to Nixon’s security chief: "if the Watergate operation is laid at CIA’s feat [sic], where it does not belong, every tree in the forest will fall…It will be a scorched desert. The whole matter is at the precipice right now. Just pass the message that if they want it to blow, they are on exactly the right course."
McCord felt the Watergate prosecution was “fixed” to insulate the higher-ups at the White House and limit indictments to the five burglars and the men who managed the break-in team, G. Gordon Liddy and Howard Hunt. Dean and the Nixon White House offered executive clemency to the burglars in exchange for their silence, and Hunt and four of the five burglars pleaded guilty. But McCord rebuffed their approaches, while also refusing plea offers from prosecutors.
Three days before his sentencing on March 20, 1973, facing a stiff jail term, McCord gave Judge John Sirica a letter, which insisted Watergate was not a CIA operation and exposed the coverup for the first time.
“There was political pressure applied to the defendants to plead guilty and stay silent,” he wrote. “Perjury occurred during the trial in matters highly material to … the government’s case, and to the motivation and intent of the defendants. Others involved in the Watergate operation were not identified during the trial, when they could have been by those testifying.”
As Sirica read the letter, he thought, “This is it, this is the break I’ve been waiting for.”
The next day, in the face of a fresh blackmail ultimatum from Hunt to keep the remaining burglars quiet, Dean warned Nixon of “a cancer ... close to the presidency … growing daily.” Magruder had perjured himself at trial, and key Nixon aides were “going to start perjuring themselves” as the investigation ramped up after McCord’s revelations.
During the taped conversation, Dean said he could see himself going to jail for obstruction of justice and estimated the blackmail could cost a million dollars over the next two years. Nixon said, “That could be arranged.” Hunt was playing “hard ball” but Nixon thought they had “no choice” but to pay him to buy time. That evening, Hunt’s attorney received a final payment of $75,000.
This tape was the first evidence of Nixon’s personal involvement in the coverup and was later critical to the articles of impeachment against him. It prompted the special prosecutor to consider indicting the president before naming him as an unindicted co-conspirator.
On March 23, Judge Sirica read McCord’s letter aloud in open court and the dominoes started to fall: Magruder agreed to a plea bargain and shared his story with prosecutors. Little over a month later, on April 30, Nixon accepted the resignations of senior aide John Ehrlichman, Haldeman, Dean and Attorney General Richard Kleindienst. As he sought a deal with prosecutors, Dean began to implicate Nixon himself in the coverup for the first time.
For a year, Nixon fought the release of incriminating White House tapes until finally, on Aug. 5, 1974, the “smoking gun” tape exposing the president’s attempts to use the CIA to block the FBI investigation in Mexico was finally made public. Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee who had resisted calls for impeachment could no longer support the president, and three days later, he announced his resignation.
One lesson of the cooperation of Dean, McCord, Kalmbach and Magruder is that if Cohen has real evidence that President Trump and members of his inner circle committed crimes, it may lead to a reduction in his prison time. Cohen faces three years in prison for tax evasion, making false statements to obtain a home-equity loan, campaign finance violations and lying to Congress. After the Watergate coverup trial, Sirica significantly reduced the sentences of these key Watergate players in exchange for their cooperation. None served more than seven months.
If Cohen told the truth last week — a big question given previous false statements — his testimony pulls back the curtain on the inner workings of the Trump campaign. The secret payoffs to hide alleged extramarital affairs from voters in 2016 suggest a modus operandi to silence witnesses and suborn false testimony reminiscent of Watergate.
Cohen’s admission of false testimony about the Trump Tower Moscow project and his subsequent revelations about the president’s advance knowledge of the WikiLeaks dump of Democratic National Committee emails suggest the coverup may go wider. Whether federal prosecutors have evidence of impeachable crimes will become clear shortly.