On October 19, 1972, four months after the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters that set off the Watergate scandal, Richard Nixon’s chief of staff, H.R. “Bob” Haldeman, gave the president some shocking news on the source of a series of damaging stories in The Washington Post that had begun to tie the bungled break-in to the White House. “We know what’s leaked and we know who leaked it,” Haldeman told Nixon as the Oval Office tapes whirred in the background.
“Is it somebody in the FBI?” Nixon asked.
“Yes, sir,” Haldeman reported. “Very high up.”
Nearly half a century later, as another American president finds himself engulfed in scandal over claims of election misconduct, his staff may well want to start reading up on the Watergate scandal. Thanks in large part to the bestselling book All the President’s Men, the source for the classic film starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, Watergate is understood in the popular imagination as the story of a newspaper investigation. In this version of the tale, two hotshot reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, fueled by righteous indignation and a burning desire to get the story, nearly single-handedly brought down the leader of the Western world.
But this slant on Watergate is, in many ways, an accident of history. Because Woodward and Bernstein didn’t reveal their prime source, famously nicknamed Deep Throat, until 2005, it has taken historians decades to piece together an accurate account of how the scandal unfolded. In fact, as Tim Weiner details in his recent history of the Nixon presidency, One Man Against the World, one of the principal architects of the president’s downfall was Mark Felt, the second-in-command at the FBI who, as a deep background source to Woodward and Bernstein, leaked incriminating information from the FBI files that he knew would probably never see the light of day in any other way.
Felt held a personal grudge against Nixon. A 30-year veteran of the FBI, Felt believed he was the rightful heir to the job of FBI director after J. Edgar Hoover died in May 1972, a month before the Watergate break-in. When Nixon passed him over for L. Patrick Gray, Felt was hurt — and smelled a cover-up. But Felt was experienced enough in the ways of Washington to understand that a mere FBI agent, even the deputy director, could not take on a president alone. So he used the best tool at hand, a young, ambitious reporter he happened to know at The Washington Post.
In other words, while the Watergate scandal was the product of shoe-leather investigations by a pair of dogged reporters, and later by an equally dogged pair of special prosecutors, Richard Nixon was also very much the target of a palace coup.
This is the essence of the news Haldeman delivered to Nixon in October 1972. The recording of their conversation is now available on YouTube, and it is worth a listen for anyone interested in speculating on the kinds of conversations Donald Trump may be having with his aides as he combats the recent spate of damaging leaks from intelligence operatives and his own staff.
Felt, Haldeman explains in that October 19 conversation, is the source of the press leaks, but there isn’t much the president can do about it. “If we move on him, then he’ll go out and unload everything,” Haldeman tells Nixon. “He knows everything that’s to be known in the FBI. He has access to absolutely everything.”
“What would you do to Felt?” Nixon asks.
“I asked (White House Counsel John] Dean,” Haldeman says. “He says you can’t prosecute him.”
“Oh, no?” Nixon says.
“He hasn’t committed any crime,” Haldeman reminds him.
Trump, of course, faces no such constraint in his own skirmishes over press leaks. Since much of the material being leaked about alleged connections between Trump’s campaign team and the Russian government during the election involves classified national security matters, Trump can plausibly threaten to prosecute the leakers. And, unlike Nixon, Trump has a stalwart Republican majority in both houses of Congress as well as a popular distrust of the media almost unimaginable in the early 1970s.
Still, if there is any truth to leaked claims that Trump’s aides had contact with Russian intelligence officials involved in hacking into the Clinton campaign’s email servers during the 2016 election, Trump and his team would do well to heed the hard lessons of Nixon’s discovery of the Watergate leaker, Mark Felt. On the October 19 tape, Haldeman, grasping at straws, suggests transferring Felt to “Ottumwa, Iowa,” to which Nixon replies: “Christ! You’d know what I’d do with him? Ambassador.” (“He’d like that, you know,” Haldeman says.)
But in the end they did nothing. According to Weiner, FBI director Patrick Gray was ordered to fire Felt five times, but he never pulled the trigger. Eventually, Gray himself was ousted, and Felt retired from the FBI in 1973 after Nixon again passed him over the top job. He eventually moved to Santa Rosa, Calif., where he lived in relative obscurity until Woodward outed him as Deep Throat in his 2005 book The Secret Man.
Felt died, a hero to many, in 2008.