Congressional Democrats are pushing ahead with an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump over his call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, in which Trump pressured his counterpart to investigate his Democratic rival Joe Biden and his son Hunter. Trump is the fourth president in U.S. history to face impeachment proceedings, and the quickly escalating scandal has brought renewed interest to impeachment proceedings against Andrew Johnson, Bill Clinton and, most famously, Richard Nixon.
We revisit an interview with filmmaker Charles Ferguson, whose documentary “Watergate” examines the dramatic events surrounding the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office complex in 1972, which precipitated Nixon’s eventual resignation two years later under threat of impeachment.
Ferguson started working on the film well before Trump was elected in 2016, and intended to “make something of principally historical value.” But during the process, he says he realized he “had to make a quite different film that certainly showed what Watergate was like but that also showed how the system works and doesn’t work when there’s a true constitutional crisis in the United States.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We turn now to a new documentary by the Academy Award-winning director Charles Ferguson. It’s called Watergate, subtitled Or: How We Learned to Stop an Out of Control President. This is the film’s trailer.
PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: The long, dark night for America is about to end.
NEWS ANCHOR: Five people have been arrested and charged with breaking into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.
CARL BERNSTEIN: This break-in was part of a vast campaign to undermine the election itself.
DAN RATHER: How high up in the White House does it go? And is the president himself involved?
PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: I have never obstructed justice. People have got to know whether or not their president is a crook. Well, I’m not a crook.
JOHN DEAN: They want war, I’ll give them war.
LEON JAWORSKI: And the question of whether a president still in office can be indicted in the criminal courts, it is far from settled that that can be done.
ELIZABETH HOLTZMAN: The Constitution says that a person can be impeached for treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors that could threaten the liberties of the American people.
REPORTER: President Nixon has discharged Watergate special prosecutor.
DAN RATHER: The FBI, acting upon orders from the president, sealed off the Special Prosecutor’s Office.
HENRY RUTH: One thinks that in a democracy maybe this would not happen.
DAN RATHER: In terms of the presidency, we’ve got everything on the line.
AMY GOODMAN: That was the trailer for the documentary Watergate — Or: How We Learned to Stop an Out of Control President. The film just premiered on the History Channel. It’s widely available for viewing on that channel.
Well, for more, we are joined by the film’s director, Charles Ferguson, Academy Award-winning director and author. His previous films include A Time to Choose and Inside Job, among others. His film on the war in Iraq, No End in Sight, was nominated for an Academy Award.
Charles Ferguson, it’s great to have you with us.
CHARLES FERGUSON: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: So, How to Stop an Out of Control President — you started this before or after Donald Trump was elected president?
CHARLES FERGUSON: Well before he was elected. And I originally wanted to make something of principally historical value, in part to show younger people, who weren’t around when Watergate occurred, what it was like. But as events progressed, it became clear that I had to make a quite different film, that certainly showed what Watergate was like, but that also showed how the system works, and doesn’t work, when there’s a true constitutional crisis in the United States.
AMY GOODMAN: So, there are many people who watch or listen to this show and in this country who were born, well, long after Richard Nixon. This is ancient history for them. Can you start off by explaining what the Watergate scandal was, and why, in particular, you got interested in this?
CHARLES FERGUSON: Well, the scandal began with the discovery and arrest of five men in business suits carrying a great deal of cash and a lot of electronics in the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee on June 17, 1972. But the investigation, initially, of that burglary and bugging operation turned into an investigation both by law enforcement and, very importantly, by two journalists, two young crime reporters at The Washington Post — turned into an investigation of what became, what was unveiled to be, a far wider effort on the part of the Nixon administration to undermine the Democratic Party and Nixon’s Democratic opponents in the 1972 election.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, let’s talk about this, because that 1972 election, he won by a landslide. This was by no means a squeaker.
CHARLES FERGUSON: That’s absolutely true. And most people agree that, in fact, he didn’t have to do any of this stuff in order to win. But he did it anyway.
AMY GOODMAN: Paranoid.
CHARLES FERGUSON: Yes. He was — Richard Nixon was an angry, troubled man. And he saw enemies everywhere, including where they didn’t really exist.
AMY GOODMAN: So, explain what the Watergate break-in was.
CHARLES FERGUSON: Well, the break-in had been ordered and authorized by the former attorney general of the United States, John Mitchell, who had resigned as attorney general in order to manage Nixon’s re-election campaign.
AMY GOODMAN: Called?
CHARLES FERGUSON: Yes, a very ironic name: the Committee to Re-elect the President, abbreviated as CREEP. Yes, one couldn’t make that up.
AMY GOODMAN: So, he’s CREEP’s chief.
CHARLES FERGUSON: Yes. And he and several other high-level people at the Committee to Re-elect the President, acting under constant pressure from Nixon and his chief aides, started a wide-ranging campaign to investigate and undermine the Democrats. And, in fact, there were multiple operations, some managed through the White House, some managed by personal friends of Nixon, some managed by the re-election campaign, to do many different things.
There were infiltrators who were secretly reporting on what Democratic candidates were doing. Nixon’s strongest potential rival in the election was Maine Senator Edmund Muskie. Muskie’s driver was secretly on the payroll of the Nixon campaign and copied and reported documents, records, plans, etc. And there were dozens of such operations, dozens of them, many of which were eventually revealed after the burglars were caught in June of 1972.
AMY GOODMAN: And how does this relate to the Bay of Pigs?
CHARLES FERGUSON: Well, the burglars were primarily Cuban Americans who had been recruited by a couple of former CIA agents who had worked with them in regard to the Bay of Pigs and other operations against Castro’s Cuba. And the burglars, in fact, were extremely honorable, patriotic men who thought that they were doing something for their country and for their president, and didn’t understand exactly why they had been ordered to do these things.
AMY GOODMAN: Why don’t you set up this first clip for us, which is Bob Haldeman and John Ehrlichman speaking before the Senate Watergate Committee? Explain who they are and at what point in the crisis this is.
CHARLES FERGUSON: Well, starting in March of 1973, the burglars, under pressure from a federal judge, started to talk. And when they started to talk, the Senate formed a special committee to investigate the Watergate affair, and it held public hearings, starting in May of 1973, which were televised live by all three networks and which completely transfixed the United States.
And among those forced to testify were Nixon’s former chief of staff and former domestic policy adviser, who continued to deny all involvement. And when they testified, there wasn’t yet definitive evidence to convict them, but it was already clear that a lot of very unsavory things had occurred. And you’re about to see their cross-examination.
AMY GOODMAN: This is John Ehrlichman and Bob Haldeman appearing before the Senate Watergate Committee.
NARRATOR: The committee forced Ehrlichman and Haldeman to testify after Dean.
JOHN EHRLICHMAN: Let’s be clear: I did not cover up anything to do with Watergate.
NARRATOR: They denied everything, and there was not yet any definitive evidence against them. But they got nailed anyway.
SAMUEL DASH: So there came a time when you were administering an investigative unit.
JOHN EHRLICHMAN: As — yes, and in a — in a literal sense, that’s true.
SAMUEL DASH: In a literal sense?
JOHN EHRLICHMAN: Yes, sir.
SAMUEL DASH: But not in an actual sense.
JOHN EHRLICHMAN: Well, I didn’t — here I am, dueling with a professor on words.
SAMUEL DASH: No, no, I’m not dueling with you. I’m just trying to get a —
JOHN EHRLICHMAN: Professor, if you say “actual,” it’s actual.
UNIDENTIFIED: As soon as Howard Baker realized that much of what was being said about Nixon was true and based in fact, he immediately backed off and became probably the most prominent questioner of witnesses.
SEN. HOWARD BAKER: When did you first learn of the break-in?
JOHN EHRLICHMAN: On the day following the break-in, when I received this telephone call toward dusk, late in the afternoon.
SEN. HOWARD BAKER: Did you talk to the president on the 17th?
JOHN EHRLICHMAN: No, I didn’t. Not that I can recall.
SEN. HOWARD BAKER: Did you talk to Mr. Haldeman on the 17th?
JOHN EHRLICHMAN: I think I talked to him the following day.
SEN. HOWARD BAKER: Were you concerned about it?
JOHN EHRLICHMAN: Not — not particularly.
SEN. HOWARD BAKER: If someone on my staff, even remotely on my staff, were charged with breaking and entering to the Democratic National Committee headquarters, or someone was even associated with in a newspaper column, then I would be determined to find out if that happened. Now, was there this air of urgency in the White House on your part or Haldeman’s part or Dean’s part? It’s not coming through that way. It sounds like a routine staff operation. But this wasn’t a routine staff operation.
JOHN EHRLICHMAN: Uh, point one, he wasn’t on my staff. But that’s beside the point.
REPORTER: Some believe that your questioning was really, for the first time, a very strong and hostile questioning of an administration witness. Now, is that a fair statement?
SEN. HOWARD BAKER: No, I don’t think it is, really. If it is, it’s an unconscious situation, because I’m trying today, as I was trying when these hearings began, to treat everyone the same and to pursue the matter as dispassionately as very passionate circumstances will permit.
SAMUEL DASH: Do you believe in spending political campaign funds to pay for the defense of criminal defendants who could embarrass the president?
H.R. ”BOB” HALDEMAN: I don’t know. I don’t know what — it depends on the circumstances and the situation, I think.
SAMUEL DASH: What about these circumstances and this situation involving the Watergate?
H.R. ”BOB” HALDEMAN: I don’t know that I can make a judgment on that.
SEN. LOWELL WEICKER: I’d like to submit to you a document, “Re: Charlotte, North Carolina–demonstrations. 1. The most recent intelligence that has been received from the Advanceman Bill Henkel and the USSS” — United States Secret Service, I gather—”is that we will have demonstrators in Charlotte tomorrow. The number is running between 100 and 200 ; the Advanceman’s gut reaction is between 150 and 200. They will be violent” — with a penciled underlining of “violent” — “they will have extremely obscene signs” — underlining “obscene,” and next to the word “obscene,” penciled-in writing which, to me, and you’ll have to confirm this, seems to be the same as the writing below your initialing — appears to be yours; if not, I want you to say so — saying “Good.” Is that your writing there, where it says “Good”?
H.R. ”BOB” HALDEMAN: I believe it is. Yes, sir.
SEN. LOWELL WEICKER: Mm-hmm, “as has been indicated by their handbills. It will not only be directed toward the President, but also toward Billy Graham,” underlining — underlining “also toward Billy Graham,” where you penciled in “Great.” My question specifically relates to exactly what mentality it is in the White House that goes ahead and indicates “good” when the word “violence” is mentioned, when obscenity is mentioned, which violence and which obscenity is to be directed against the president of the United States. How, in any way, can that be “good”?
AMY GOODMAN: So, you were just listening to John Ehrlichman and Bob Haldeman. They were being questioned by Lowell Weicker, the Connecticut Republican senator, as well as Sam Dash, the counsel — the Senate committee counsel, and Howard Baker, the ranking Republican on the Senate Watergate Committee. Charles Ferguson, talk about the significance of these men. I mean, we live in such a polarized time. Here we’re talking about the Republicans, the president’s party, taking the most active role here — well, Sam Ervin was the head, and he was certainly fierce — but joining with the Democrats. Howard Baker was not always like that.
CHARLES FERGUSON: No. Howard Baker had started out, at the beginning of the Watergate scandal, in fact, as basically a mole for President Nixon and would secretly go to the White House and report on what the Senate committee was doing. But as evidence came out that, in fact, Nixon had been involved in all of this, very deeply involved in it, Baker began to change. Lowell Weicker was quite different. Lowell Weicker was extremely aggressive from the very beginning and, in fact, while he was on the Senate Watergate Committee, conducted his own separate investigation that revealed a number of additional things that the committee hadn’t previously known. There was, without question, a degree of bipartisanship in that effort that we certainly don’t see these days.
AMY GOODMAN: And this must have been a very unusual experience for you, as you started this film before Donald Trump was elected, and as you’re moving through it, I mean, all the players are now coming forward, like in the second clip we want to play, which is former Watergate special prosecutors George Frampton and Jill Wine-Banks discussing the security of the evidence files. We’re seeing Jill Wine-Banks on TV all the time now, talking about President Trump.
CHARLES FERGUSON: Yes, yes, there are so many parallels between what happened then and what’s happening now. We’re now very concerned about the security of not only the Mueller investigation, but of the documents and the evidence that he has already assembled. We don’t know what’s going to happen to them.
AMY GOODMAN: So what were these evidence files that they were talking about?
CHARLES FERGUSON: These were files and memoranda that they had created that pertained to the potential impeachment and/or prosecution of President Nixon. And as pressure on the special prosecutor mounted, Archibald Cox, the Harvard professor who had been appointed to be the special prosecutor — as pressure on him mounted from the Nixon White House, the junior prosecutors under him became extremely concerned about what might happen to their evidence. And, in fact, those concerns were fully justified. When Cox was fired by President Nixon, Nixon also ordered the FBI to occupy his offices and seize those records.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, first, let’s go to the former Watergate prosecutors George Frampton and Jill Wine-Banks discussing the security of their evidence files.
GEORGE FRAMPTON: As Nixon continued to resist, it was totally unclear how this was going to play out. We knew that a big storm was coming. We just didn’t know from what direction or how bad it was going to be.
JILL WINE-BANKS: When we were planning what’s going to happen — who’s going to serve a subpoena on the White House, how are we going to enforce it, you know, who’s going to go in and to get the tapes, what if the president refuses—and we thought, “Well, maybe we should take some of the key documents and bring them to our homes.”
GEORGE FRAMPTON: I had done a prosecution memo about all the evidence that we had about President Nixon. I took a copy of that and put it in my grandmother’s basement.
NARRATOR: Meanwhile, the special prosecutors had been playing another chess game.
AMY GOODMAN: What’s the other chess game?
CHARLES FERGUSON: The other chess game was, in yet another parallel between then and now, Nixon’s former counsel, John Dean, his former lawyer, had turned and had expressed a willingness to testify about what he had known. He had in fact been managing the cover-up of the Watergate scandal for Nixon. But in return, he demanded immunity. And Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor, didn’t want to give him complete immunity, because he had been so centrally involved in criminal activity. And the bargaining went on for six months.
AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s turn to William Ruckelshaus and Pat Buchanan describing the battle between Nixon and special prosecutor Archibald Cox during the days leading up to the Saturday Night Massacre.
WILLIAM RUCKELSHAUS: The president was obviously desperate to get these tapes back under his control and not have them released. And he was trying to think of every way to do it. We were spending practically the entire day trying to figure out what to do next.
DAN RATHER: Sources close to the negotiations indicated late today that, so far, all efforts to reach a compromise on the tapes case had failed. But Attorney General Elliot Richardson was described as “still trying.”
WILLIAM RUCKELSHAUS: I think Elliot was trying very hard to work out a compromise, because he thought that was his responsibility as attorney general.
PAT BUCHANAN: Al Haig called me and said, “We’re going to give these summaries, and we’re going to tell Cox,” who was balking, “that he’s going to have to accept these. And if he doesn’t, well, he can do what he wants to do, but if he persists, Richardson will fire him.” I said three words: “Is Elliot aboard?” And Al said, “Yes.” I said, “In that case, let’s go ahead.”
NARRATOR: On the evening of Friday, October 19, the White House publicly ordered Cox to stop pursuing the tapes. Cox refused, issued a public statement himself and announced a press conference for the next morning.
JAMES DOYLE: Anybody know you guys’ number? Jim Doyle from Archibald Cox’s office. I have a long statement. Are you ready? In my judgment, the president is refusing to comply with the court decrees.
WILLIAM RUCKELSHAUS: Friday night, the president had sent a letter to Richardson telling him to fire Cox. Richardson called Cox and read the letter to him over the phone but said he was not going to issue the order, because he didn’t think it was appropriate. And finally, on Saturday morning, Cox held his press conference.
AMY GOODMAN: So, it’s Saturday, October 20th, 1973, when U.S. President Richard Nixon orders Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire independent special prosecutor Archibald Cox.
CHARLES FERGUSON: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: And lay out what happens.
CHARLES FERGUSON: Richardson refused, and resigned instead. So, then Nixon had his chief of staff, Al Haig, call the deputy attorney general, who we just saw, Elliot Richardson — pardon me, William Ruckelshaus, and Haig ordered Ruckelshaus to — who was now the acting attorney general, to fire Cox. Ruckelshaus refused. And depending on who you believe and what time of day it is, he either resigned or was immediately fired. He’s proud of both. And then, finally, Robert Bork, the number three at the Justice Department, agreed to fire Cox on Nixon’s orders.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, your remarkable film, Watergate, takes us through this step by step. So let’s go back to Watergate, to William Ruckelshaus remembering how Nixon and Haig called him about the firing of Archibald Cox, and Richard Ben-Veniste explaining how real power in Washington can be wielded.
WILLIAM RUCKELSHAUS: Originally got a call from the White House and said he wanted — the president wanted to see him. He went over to the White House, and the president insisted that he fire Cox. And he wouldn’t do it. My assistant came up and said, “The president wants you on the phone.” Well, it was pretty clear what he wanted. And when I got there, it was actually Haig that was on the phone. It wasn’t the president. And he said, “The president wants you to fire Archibald Cox.” And I said, “Well, I thought about it. I can’t do it. I think it’s fundamentally wrong. What he’s done — Cox has done nothing wrong, except carry out his responsibilities. And I just can’t bring myself to fire a man who’s done what he was hired to do by the president.” And Haig said, “Well, your commander-in-chief has ordered you to fire Cox.” I said, “Ah, come on, Al. I know he’s the commander-in-chief. I don’t have to listen to you to determine that. What is he going to do? Blow me out of my office if I don’t do the right thing?”
RICHARD BEN-VENISTE: We all go home, awaiting further developments. Because it’s Saturday afternoon, I’m taking the evening off. Nothing happens in official Washington on a Saturday night.
REPORTER: What’s the general reaction to the developments of the day?
WILLIAM RUCKELSHAUS: Well, you’ll have — there will be an announcement out of the White House later on. I can’t say a thing.
REPORTER: There will be?
SAM DONALDSON: Does it have to do with the resignation of the attorney general?
WILLIAM RUCKELSHAUS: Well, it might. But you’ll have to get it from them. Excuse me.
REPORTER: Thank you, Bill.
NEWS ANCHOR: Although the deputy attorney general didn’t have much to say to reporters at that moment, it was evident from his appearance that something big was about to happen in Washington tonight.
RICHARD BEN-VENISTE: But, look, I was 30 years old. I was — you know, thought I was so sophisticated, coming from New York and having been a federal prosecutor for five years. I didn’t know squat about real power and how it might be exercised.
NARRATOR: At 8:20 p.m. Saturday evening, all normal television broadcasts were suddenly interrupted.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s a clip from Watergate. All television networks were suddenly interrupted. And what was the special report, Charles Ferguson?
CHARLES FERGUSON: Special report was that President Nixon had ordered Richardson, the attorney general, to fire Cox, and Richardson resigned instead. Then Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus was ordered to fire Cox, and he refused, and he was fired. And then, finally, Archibald Cox himself was fired by Richard Nixon. And all networks interrupted their normal programming to announce this. And the people announcing it, often from the White House lawn, were visibly shaken. It was clear that they were terribly distraught by what had just happened, as was the whole country.
AMY GOODMAN: And Richard Ben-Veniste, that last voice we heard, explain who he was and what happened to him.
CHARLES FERGUSON: He was the deputy — or, one of the deputy special prosecutors working under Archibald Cox. And Nixon, in an oversight, neglected to fire Cox’s staff, just fired Cox, so the staff remained. And five days later, after enormous political and popular resistance, Nixon was forced to appoint a replacement special prosecutor. And Ben-Veniste stayed in his job.
AMY GOODMAN: And he stayed in his job, but a special prosecutor was appointed. He was?
CHARLES FERGUSON: He was Leon Jaworski, was the replacement special prosecutor.
AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s turn to yet another clip from Watergate. I mean, the film itself is over four hours. And the health problem with that is that you almost can’t breathe for the four hours. It is so filled with suspense. In this, Richard Ben-Veniste, George Frampton and Jill Wine-Banks describe the tension for the Special Prosecutor Office after the Saturday Night Massacre. And this is accompanied by archival footage. And explain who Henry Ruth and James Doyle are, who speak to the press immediately after the announcement. Explain that.
CHARLES FERGUSON: Henry Ruth was another deputy special prosecutor. And Jim Doyle was Archibald Cox’s and the Special Prosecutor Office’s spokesman, public spokesman.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to the clip.
RICHARD BEN-VENISTE: Raw force had supplanted law. It was the closest thing to a coup d’état that our country ever experienced.
GEORGE FRAMPTON: I mean, I thought it was possible that some of us would be arrested. I mean, the president had mounted a coup. What happens in a coup? I mean, you arrest people, right?
NARRATOR: Locked out of their own offices, the prosecutors went upstairs to the library.
REPORTER: Are you planning on continuing the investigation?
HENRY RUTH: I must say, I suppose that human emotions take over in this kind of occasion, because one thinks that in a democracy maybe this would not happen.
NARRATOR: But when Richard Nixon fired Archibald Cox, he disastrously misjudged reaction from the public, the courts, the media and Congress, not to mention the special prosecutors themselves, who were not about to roll over and play dead.
RICHARD BEN-VENISTE: We talked about what we were going to do. And some people — very few, actually — said, “But we ought to resign.”
JILL WINE-BANKS: And Archie said, “No, you should not. If you haven’t been fired, you should do everything you can to pursue this case.”
RICHARD BEN-VENISTE: President hadn’t fired us; he had fired Archie. Nobody knew of our existence, really. We were staff. If in an oversight Nixon had forgotten to fire us, then we’re here. Let’s make him fire us.
REPORTER: The White House announced last night that you were abolished. Now, when did you begin to —
JAMES DOYLE: Well —
REPORTER: — get word that you weren’t abolished?
JAMES DOYLE: You know, the White House announced we were abolished, but if they announce the sky is green, and then you look up and the sky is blue… A couple of weeks ago, I got word from the Civil Service that I was a permanent employee of the government and that I had rights. We are going to try like hell. And that’s the message I want to get across today. We are here, and we are going to try. We are a criminal prosecution force. We have reason to believe there’s been some serious crime, and we want to prosecute it.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that is Jim Doyle, still the spokesperson, had not yet been fired — had not been fired, for the Special Prosecutor’s Office, who would become Leon Jaworski.
CHARLES FERGUSON: Yes. Nixon was, under pressure, forced to appoint a replacement special prosecutor, a Texas attorney, Leon Jaworski, five days later. But during that five days, we really didn’t know what the world was going to be like. It was an enormously tense, difficult time, very scary time, closest thing the United States has ever experienced to a coup.
AMY GOODMAN: Elaborate on that.
CHARLES FERGUSON: Well, so, Nixon had fired the attorney general, the deputy attorney general and the special prosecutor. He had ordered the FBI to occupy the Special Prosecutor’s Offices. And he was resisting subpoenas that had been issued for the secret tapes that he had made, which eventually proved his guilt. And it was really very unclear that the rule of law would triumph. And it was in the wake of the Saturday Night Massacre that, for the first time, people in Congress and many people throughout the nation and the media started calling for Nixon’s impeachment.
AMY GOODMAN: Which takes us to our last clip, and then we’re going to talk about the parallels today. The last clip of this remarkable film, Watergate, out now on History Channel, just premiered. This is the venerable Texas Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, who people said had the voice of God, and Elizabeth Holtzman, who was the youngest woman elected to Congress for some 40 years, making statements during the House Judiciary Committee impeachment inquiry.
REP. BARBARA JORDAN: Earlier today, we heard the beginning of the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States: “We the people.” It’s a very eloquent beginning. But when that document was completed on the 17th of September in 1787, I was not included in that “We the people.” I felt, somehow, for many years, that George Washington and Alexander Hamilton just left me out by mistake. But through the process of amendment, interpretation and court decision, I have finally been included in “We the people.” Today I am an inquisitor. And hyperbole would not be fictional and would not overstate the solemness that I feel right now. My faith in the Constitution is whole. It is complete. It is total. And I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution.
REP. JAMES MANN: It isn’t the presidency that is in jeopardy from us. We would strive to strengthen and protect the presidency. But if there be no accountability, another president will feel free to do as he chooses. But the next time, there may be no watchman in the night.
NARRATOR: Republicans David Dennis and Trent Lott gave the strongest speeches opposing impeachment.
REP. DAVID DENNIS: The March 21 payment to Hunt was the last in a long series of such payments, engineered by Mitchell, Haldeman, Dean and Kalmbach, and, later on, LaRue. And all, so far, it appears, without the president’s knowledge or complicity.
REP. TRENT LOTT: We are faced with impeaching the president. The line must be drawn directly to the president, clearly to the president. This has not been done.
NARRATOR: But they hadn’t reckoned with Elizabeth Holtzman.
REP. ELIZABETH HOLTZMAN: The president discussed the matter of paying Hunt 10 separate times in a conversation on March 21st with Dean and Haldeman. And the last time the president discussed it, he said — and I quote — “That’s why, for your immediate thing, you’ve got no choice with Hunt but the 120 or whatever it is, right? Would you agree that that’s a buy-time thing? You better damn well get that done, but fast. Well, for Christ’s sake, get it.” Perhaps some people find ambiguities in that conversation. I don’t.
AMY GOODMAN: That last voice, Elizabeth Holtzman; the first, Congressmember Barbara Jordan. Now, we’ve leaped forward over half a year to the House Judiciary Committee and the impeachment hearings. Why don’t you take us through what happened in October, the Saturday Night Massacre, the president being forced to appoint a new special prosecutor, so then everyone felt he would be covering for President Nixon, Leon Jaworski? And explain what happened next with Archibald Cox’s staff actually still there doing the work.
CHARLES FERGUSON: Well, Leon Jaworski proved to be a quite tough guy and took his job very seriously. And eventually, from a combination of political pressure and legal decisions, Nixon was forced to turn over the first group of his secret tapes, which already demonstrated enormous involvement at least in the Watergate cover-up. And those tapes were then transmitted by the special prosecutor to the House Judiciary Committee, which was considering Nixon’s impeachment. The House Judiciary Committee spent six months conducting its research, hearing from witnesses, reading documents, and then opened public debate. And what we just saw was part of that public debate.
AMY GOODMAN: And explain, especially for young people, who don’t even know what these tapes were about, that Richard Nixon himself secretly ordered the taping of the White House and all the conversations in the Oval Office?
CHARLES FERGUSON: Yes. Nixon secretly taped himself between February of 1971 and July of 1973. And only one person on his staff, his chief of staff, Bob Haldeman, knew about the existence of the taping system. Nobody else knew, including his Cabinet. And those tapes eventually demonstrated Nixon’s direct complicity in the Watergate cover-up and led to his forced resignation.
AMY GOODMAN: And there was also another issue. It was not only the Watergate cover-up, but it was the burglarizing of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office.
CHARLES FERGUSON: Yes. Along with these many efforts to investigate and sabotage the Democrats and Nixon’s Democratic opponents, there was a similar effort conducted by many of the same people to investigate, infiltrate and sabotage the antiwar movement that was opposing the war in Vietnam and Nixon’s policies with regard to the war in Vietnam. And Daniel Ellsberg was one of the targets of those efforts, because Daniel Ellsberg, previously a top adviser to the Pentagon with regard to Vietnam, had leaked to The New York Times and The Washington Post a secret study of American policy in Vietnam, that he had been involved in constructing and which demonstrated that the American government had frequently lied about Vietnam. And Nixon was outraged, as was Henry Kissinger, and Nixon and Kissinger eventually forced an effort to investigate and try to sabotage Daniel Ellsberg. And that involved a burglary of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office.
AMY GOODMAN: And he was going to face the rest of his life in jail, Ellsberg.
CHARLES FERGUSON: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: His trial was going on at this time.
CHARLES FERGUSON: Yes. He was charged with offenses under the Espionage Act, and he was facing a potential total of over a hundred years in prison.
AMY GOODMAN: For releasing the Pentagon Papers.
CHARLES FERGUSON: For leaking, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: And what was the judge’s reaction in his trial when he understood what had taken place?
CHARLES FERGUSON: Well, as a result of the Senate Watergate Committee’s investigations, in the middle of 1973, an enormous number of revelations came out, including those pertaining to Ellsberg and what Nixon had and the administration had done to him. That included not only burglarizing Ellsberg’s psychiatrist but wiretapping various people involved in the antiwar movement, wiretapping various people who were suspected of leaking. John Ehrlichman, the domestic policy adviser, had actually approached the judge in the Pentagon Papers case and offered him the directorship of the FBI, while he was judging the Ellsberg trial. And when all of this came out, the judge dismissed all charges against Ellsberg, because the case had been so prejudiced by the administration’s behavior.
AMY GOODMAN: And so, now we move to the House Judiciary Committee, with Barbara Jordan, with Liz Holtzman. And what did they do? And what did the Republicans on the committee, who had — and how did the party shift? When did Republicans, like Trent Lott, get convinced of Richard Nixon’s guilt?
CHARLES FERGUSON: Well, some Republicans stayed loyal to Nixon until the very end. But most of them, most Republicans, began to shift after the first group of Nixon’s tapes were released and as a result of what the Senate Watergate Committee and then, later, the House Judiciary Committee’s impeachment inquiry had uncovered about Nixon’s behavior. And in late July of 1974, the Judiciary Committee voted on three articles of impeachment, which were approved and which were then going to be referred to the House, which would have almost certainly impeached Nixon. But before then, a second group of tapes were released, just after the impeachment votes, as a result of legal pressure from the special prosecutors and a Supreme Court decision. And those tapes showed Nixon extremely directly ordering the Watergate cover-up and engaging in several abuses of presidential power in order to conceal what his organization had been doing. And at that point, all of Nixon’s remaining Republican support disappeared.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Charles Ferguson, you’ve worked on this film now for years, before the Trump presidency and during it. It’s just been released. What most surprised you in your research? And what’s most important, especially for young people, to understand as we look at what’s happening today?
CHARLES FERGUSON: I think that one thing that surprised me was the degree to which the successful resolution of the Watergate scandal depended on the unbelievable courage and commitment and high ethical standards of a relatively small number of people. I was astounded by what people in the media did, by members of Congress and what they did, by government officials who stood up to President Nixon, refused to obey his orders in some cases. It was quite remarkable to see that, to see the way that the government worked and people in the media worked.
Katharine Graham, the owner of The Washington Post at the time, she had a spinal cord of tempered steel. And the Republicans filed a lawsuit against The Washington Post in an attempt to get access to their sources. And when that happened, the reporters went to the editor, the editors went to Mrs. Graham, and her response was, “The reporters’ notes are not their notes; they’re my notes. And if anybody’s going to go to jail, it’s going to be me.”
It’s difficult to imagine a media executive in a comparable situation saying that now. And I would say the same thing for many government officials, many members of Congress. So, one worrying difference between Watergate and now is, I think that the quality of people in government service and the quality of people in Congress has declined sharply, as has bipartisanship in Congress.
AMY GOODMAN: Charles Ferguson, thanks so much for joining us today, but also for your remarkable documentary. Charles Ferguson is an Academy Award-winning director and author. His new documentary, Watergate — Or: How We Learned to Stop an Out of Control President. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.