I remember the day I first realized that Richard Nixon was doomed and one way or another would be removed from office. It was deep in the winter of 1974, I had been working for months on my own little corner of the Watergate story, and I was on Capitol Hill to meet one of the deputy counsels on the Senate Watergate Committee. I had been given an address on Capitol Hill for their offices, and when I arrived there I found myself standing outside an old movie theater. I was confused. This was supposed to be the office of the Senate Watergate Committee! I stopped somebody on the street and showed them my notebook where I had written down the address and asked them if I was in the right place. Yes, the passerby said. You’re at the right place. They’re right in there.
I entered through the theater’s front door and found no one in the lobby, so I wandered further inside. The theater wasn’t a theater anymore. It had been transformed into a makeshift office space. Fluorescent lamps hung down from the theater’s high ceiling illuminating a rabbit warren of cubicles packed with file cabinets and office storage boxes and desks buried beneath piles of paper. Phone lines and electrical wires were rigged into overhead conduits and dropped into the cubicles. Phones rang constantly, answered in a cacophony of voices by dozens of lawyers and investigators and researchers and staff assistants and research assistants and interns.
On my way over to Capitol Hill, I had stopped off to see a friend at the Washington Post. Its newsroom was a seething pit of activity. Woodward and Bernstein were there, of course, surrounded by dozens of other reporters working the phones, rifling through files, rushing off to interview sources. Elsewhere on Capitol Hill the House Judiciary Committee was staffing up with lawyers and investigators and researchers, getting ready for impeachment hearings. Only a few blocks away were the offices of Watergate Special Prosecutor Leon Jaworski, who had been appointed by Congress after Nixon had fired the first special prosecutor, Archibald Cox, in the infamous “Saturday Night Massacre.”
Jaworski’s offices were packed with prosecutors and staff assistants and researchers and experts in constitutional law, and they were interviewing witnesses and preparing subpoenas and scheduling testimony before the grand jury and filing indictments and announcing that this White House aide, or that campaign official, had pleaded guilty to one crime or another and was cooperating with the investigation. Already, Nixon campaign aide Herbert Porter had pleaded guilty to perjury, and Nixon’s personal lawyer, Herbert Kalmbach, had pleaded guilty to two charges of illegal campaign activities. The indictments of seven more of Nixon’s men were on the way: John Mitchell, H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, Charles Colson, Gordon C. Strachan, Robert Mardian and Kenneth Parkinson. Now the special prosecutor was getting ready to subpoena the White House tapes. The end game had begun.
The corner of the Watergate story I had been working on was the Bebe Rebozo corner. He was Nixon’s best — and maybe only — friend. He lived next door to Nixon’s “Winter White House” on Key Biscayne, Fla., and his name had come up the previous summer in connection with money laundering and other shenanigans during the hearings of the Senate Watergate Committee. He was connected to the infamous check for $89,000 that turned up in the bank account of Watergate burglar Bernard Barker, and to the equally infamous $100,000 cash contribution made to Nixon by reclusive millionaire Howard Hughes. While he wasn’t a primary focus of the Watergate investigation, Rebozo’s name popped up frequently enough that I began wondering what other role he had played in the life of Richard Nixon. He turned out to be a fascinating character.
I wrote a series of articles for the Village Voice, the first of which was published on Aug. 9, 1973: “Covering up the cover-up?” Seeking to track down the money that was used to fund the Watergate break-in, the Senate Watergate Committee had subpoenaed records from a bank Rebozo owned on Key Biscayne, the Key Biscayne Bank. Rebozo was resisting the subpoenas, and I had an idea why, because I had been to his bank on Key Biscayne.
It was unlike any bank I had ever seen. Located in a strip mall on the main drag through the island, the Key Biscayne Bank was in a narrow storefront, the kind of place that ordinarily might have housed a dry cleaner or a sandwich shop. It had a single counter across the end of the narrow room, and if you stopped in and asked to open an account, as I did, the lone teller on duty looked at you like you were out of your mind and answered, “We don’t have checking accounts at this bank.” How about a savings account? “We don’t have savings accounts, either.” What kind of bank didn’t have either checking or savings accounts?
By early 1974, the Senate Watergate Committee was still working on its investigation, although no longer holding hearings. More than 20 members of the Nixon administration had either been fired in connection with Watergate or been indicted, including former Attorney General John Mitchell and former Commerce Secretary Maurice Stans. The broad outlines of the Watergate scandal were understood, and the cover-up was unraveling. But the connection of Rebozo to Watergate was an outstanding question the committee was still pursuing.
I had been on the story for almost nine months. I had gone through court files and real estate records in Miami and interviewed everyone I could find who had any knowledge of Rebozo’s business activities in Florida, and I had amassed quite a collection of files. One night I got a call from one of the lawyers on the staff of the Watergate Committee. He and the other Watergate lawyers and investigators were flummoxed. They had bits and scraps of information about Rebozo, but they couldn’t figure out how he fit into the overall Watergate picture. I told him I had a whole bunch of stuff on him. He asked if he could have a look at what I had. He offered access to what they had in return. I said yes.
The makeshift office of the deputy counsel to the Watergate Committee was up on the stage of the movie theater behind the curtain. He saw me coming and hung up the phone. A broad grin played across his face. They had recently sent one of their investigators down to Key Biscayne to have a look into Rebozo’s bank. He decided to have a look at the bank on the way from the airport to his hotel. As he pulled into the parking lot, he saw a man leaving the bank, locking the door behind him. The man was carrying a suitcase. The Watergate Committee investigator produced a subpoena and demanded to see what was in the suitcase. It was filled with more than $100,000 in cash. The man had an airplane ticket to the Bahamas in his pocket. It turned out he ran a souvenir shop at the Paradise Island Casino. He was taking the suitcase full of money from Bebe Rebozo’s bank to the casino.
That was the day I knew that Nixon was finished. Not because of the suitcase filled with cash from Bebe Rebozo’s bank headed for a casino in the Bahamas. Not because of the firings, resignations and indictments of figures from the Nixon reelection committee and White House. Not because it was inevitable that Nixon would have to give up the tapes, and the tapes would probably hang him.
As I stood there at the rear of the theater on Capitol Hill watching the staff of the Senate Watergate Committee at work, I realized that I was witnessing Washington’s immune system, and it had detected an infection. The offices of the Senate Watergate Committee, and the special prosecutor, and the Judiciary Committee, and the Washington Post, and the New York Times and the AP and UPI and the networks — all of them were flooding the bloodstream of the nation’s capital with antibodies focused on one thing: ridding the place of Richard Nixon.
Nixon had been in office for more than four years when on June 17, 1972, the so-called Plumbers working for the Nixon reelection committee, at the direction of the White House, were arrested at the Watergate office building in the process of bugging the Democratic National Committee Headquarters. Donald Trump was in office a grand total of four days when his national security adviser, Michael Flynn, committed a crime when he lied to the FBI about his contacts with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the Trump campaign and transition.
Flynn and one other Trump campaign staffer have pleaded guilty to perjury, and two more senior campaign officials have been indicted. So far, more than 20 members of the White House staff have either been fired or resigned from their positions. Every day there is another story about who will be next to go. Will it be Rex Tillerson, who has been quoted calling Trump a “moron”? Sessions, who has lied repeatedly about his contacts with Russians during the campaign and enraged Trump when he recused himself from the Russia investigation? Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, chairman of a bank in Cyprus used in Russian money laundering and photographed on numerous occasions falling asleep at meetings, including state occasions in Saudi Arabia and in the White House itself?
See a pattern here? Resignations. Firings. Indictments. Hearings. Special prosecutor. Leaks. Media hordes. And all over Washington, D.C., offices filled with eager beaver investigators burrowing into every corner of the Trump campaign, the Trump transition, the Trump White House and Trump’s business empire.
Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller has worked his way through the White House staff and the Trump campaign, taking testimony from one witness after another, just like the Watergate special prosecutor worked his way through the Nixon White House and campaign. There is only one witness left to interview: Donald J. Trump.
There is one difference between the two cases. Special Prosecutor Leon Jaworski never questioned Richard Nixon about his role in the Watergate burglary and cover-up. He didn’t have to. On July 24, 1974, the Supreme Court decided in United States v. Nixon that the president had to release the White House tapes. Fifteen days later, the inevitable happened. Facing impeachment and the probability of being prosecuted after leaving office, Nixon made a deal for a pardon and resigned.
Now Washington’s immune system is about to expel yet another infection from the body politic. The end game is here. Even Trump knows it.