47 Years Ago Tonight, 5 Men Were Arrested For Watergate Break-In That Set President Nixon's Downfall In Motion

Jonathan Vankin

On the morning of June 17, 1972, Frank Wills — who was then a 24-year-old security guard at the Watergate hotel and office complex in Washington D.C. — made a curious discovery. He noticed a piece of duct tape that had been placed over a latch on a basement door in the complex, preventing the door from locking behind whoever had placed the tape there. As The Philadelphia Tribune recounted in a story published Sunday, Wills' discovery led to what, in the pre-Donald Trump era, was the greatest scandal in American political history.

The scandal took the name of the complex where Wills was employed — Watergate — and culminated in the first and, so far, only resignation of a United States president. Richard Nixon stepped down on August 8, 1974, as chronicled in a historic Washington Post account.

Wills quickly called the Washington D.C. police, who discovered exactly who had placed that suspicious duct tape — five men who had broken into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee, which was located on the sixth floor of the Watergate. But the revelation that set the scandal on its fateful course for then-President Nixon came out the following day — one of the Watergate burglars was James McCord, a "security coordinator" for Nixon's re-election committee, which was known by the perhaps fitting acronym CREEP (Committee to Re-Elect the President). McCord was also a former security specialist for the Central Intelligence Agency, according to a Washington Post obituary for McCord, who died in 2017.

But the FBI had already linked another former CIA operative to the Watergate break-in — E. Howard Hunt. Hunt's name came up in a grand jury investigation and was soon discovered by reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of The Washington Post. They revealed that Hunt worked for the White House, and had organized the Watergate burglary along with a former FBI agent named G. Gordon Liddy.

Hunt, it was soon revealed, worked in a secret White House unit known as "The Plumbers," because they had been formed by Nixon's own top staffers to "plug leaks." But Hunt and the Plumbers, in fact, committed a series of crimes — including the break-in at the office of a psychiatrist who treated Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg — designed to dig up damaging information on Nixon's political enemies, as Time.com recounted.

Though Nixon repeatedly denied knowing anything about Hunt or The Plumbers, tapes of Nixon's White House conversations made by a secret taping system that he, himself had ordered installed captured the president just a few days after the break-in complaining, "This fellow Hunt, he knows too damn much," as The New York Times recalled in its obituary of Hunt, who died in 2007 at age 88.

Hunt became a thorn in Nixon's side, with his demands for "hush money" to keep quiet about his part in the Watergate break-in and other acts of political sabotage carried out by The Plumbers. Eventually, Herbert W. Kalmbach — Nixon's personal layer and "bag man," whose role was similar to the role later played by Trump's personal lawyer Michael Cohen — raised $250,000 to pay off Hunt and the other Watergate defendants, according to another account by The Washington Post.

Nixon's deep involvement in the cover-up of Watergate and other illegal political operations carried out on his behalf had become evident by mid-1974. Congress and prosecutors, however, still lacked a "smoking gun" to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that Nixon himself was a chief mastermind of the cover-up operation. On August 5, 1974, they got it.

As Watergate.info recounts, that was the date on which Nixon, finally complying with a court order issued almost two weeks earlier, released a tape from June 23, 1972 — six days after the Watergate break-in. On that tape, Nixon was heard telling a top aide to persuade the CIA to falsely tell the FBI that it must stop its Watergate investigation because it could expose sensitive national security secrets.

Just three days later, Nixon resigned rather than face certain impeachment for his attempt to obstruct justice in the Watergate investigation — the final result of a history-changing series of events that began early in the morning of June 17, 1972.