LEWISTON — In a Twitter post last month, President Trump taunted the just-fired FBI Director James Comey that he “better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press.” The reference to “tapes” brings back memories of the biggest scandal – to date – in American political history.

Forty-five years ago Saturday, June 17, 1972, five men associated with Richard Nixon’s re-election committee were caught burglarizing the offices of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate office complex. Two other employees of the re-election committee were soon arrested. The arrests did not affect the 1972 presidential election later that year; Nixon was re-elected by a landslide.

But soon after his inauguration, the trial of the burglars and investigations by reporters and a U.S. Senate committee brought forth charges of a cover-up of various illegalities that engulfed Nixon’s presidency.

Forty government officials were eventually indicted or sent to prison, including former Attorney General John Mitchell, White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman and White House legal counsel John Dean. Ultimately, Nixon himself resigned in disgrace facing impeachment and accepted a pardon from his successor that prevented his criminal prosecution.

The original Nixon White House tape recorder. President Trump’s taunt to the fired FBI Director James Comey that he’d “better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations” brings back memories of the Watergate scandal.

What turned Watergate from a suspicious set of events into a full-blown constitutional crisis was a secret taping system known only to Nixon and a few staffers. The stunning truth was that the president had recorded himself and his aides covering up a domestic spying and political dirty tricks operation, run out of the White House and his campaign.

For me, the notion that there could be a taping system in the Trump White House has special resonance. That’s because I had the unique opportunity to work on the staff at the National Archives that processed the Nixon tapes.


For 4½ years, I sat at a tape playing machine essentially eavesdropping on the daily conversations that Richard Nixon had with all those he met in the Oval Office and a couple of other White House locations. In all, I estimate I have listened to about 1,500 hours of the estimated 3,700 hours of conversations in the entire collection.

Most of the staff’s time was spent listening to the conversations, identifying the participants and the dates and times of each conversation, outlining the topics discussed and earmarking those portions that had to be restricted on privacy or national security grounds.

The Nixon tapes collection is of inestimable historical value, in large part because the recordings capture not only what Nixon discussed with other participants, few of whom knew they were being recorded. They also capture the tone and nuances of what was said. And they reveal much about the thinking and the personalities of Nixon and those who dealt with him and their interrelationships.

They cover every conceivable topic Nixon talked about, from the routines of the White House to Nixon’s major and minor preoccupations to weighty issues such as the Vietnam War, U.S. foreign policy in general, the economy and the 1972 presidential election. The Vietnam War and the way it played out at home were of particular interest to me, since I had served in Vietnam.

And of course, starting in June 1972, there was discussion of the Watergate break-in and its implications for the upcoming reelection campaign. Since the Democratic opposition was in disarray at the time, and Nixon believed the plan to cover up any White House involvement was working, there was little discussion after a week or so after the June 17 break-in.

Things changed, however, soon after Nixon’s inauguration for a second term. As the tapes reveal in considerable detail, in March 1973 Nixon had come to realize that the Watergate scandal could destroy his presidency. Once the system was discovered, and incriminating conversations came to light, Nixon’s fate was sealed.

The centrality of the Nixon tapes to the investigation of the Watergate scandal underscores the importance of determining whether President Trump recorded his conversations – something investigators will no doubt look into. The task will not be easy, in part because of major changes in the electronic environment. Back in the early 1970s, a taping system required a set-up of microphones, wiring and recording machines along with a small staff to maintain the system. Today, with smartphones and other small devices, it is much easier to record conversations, and hide or even delete the evidence. No one else besides President Trump would need to know of any recording of conversations he had with James Comey – or anyone else, for that matter.

Does President Trump have recordings of key meetings concerning the Russia investigation? Events of the past make this an important question special counsel Robert Mueller and his team will have to answer.

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