Nixon Resigns from the U.S. Presidency Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In the aftermath of the Watergate affair and the ensuing constitutional crisis, Richard M. Nixon’s resignation reaffirmed the principle that no one, including the president, is above the law.

Summary of Event

On August 9, 1974, Richard M. Nixon became the first president of the United States to resign that office, subsequently retiring to his estate in California. Nixon’s resignation and the collapse of his administration were an outgrowth of the Watergate affair, which occupied increasing amounts of his time between June, 1972, and his forced resignation in August, 1974. Presidency, U.S.;Richard M. Nixon[Nixon] Watergate scandal (1973) [kw]Nixon Resigns from the U.S. Presidency (Aug. 9, 1974) [kw]U.S. Presidency, Nixon Resigns from the (Aug. 9, 1974) [kw]Presidency, Nixon Resigns from the U.S. (Aug. 9, 1974) Presidency, U.S.;Richard M. Nixon[Nixon] Watergate scandal (1973) [g]North America;Aug. 9, 1974: Nixon Resigns from the U.S. Presidency[01640] [g]United States;Aug. 9, 1974: Nixon Resigns from the U.S. Presidency[01640] [c]Government and politics;Aug. 9, 1974: Nixon Resigns from the U.S. Presidency[01640] [c]Crime and scandal;Aug. 9, 1974: Nixon Resigns from the U.S. Presidency[01640] Nixon, Richard M. [p]Nixon, Richard M.;resignation Ervin, Sam Rodino, Peter Sirica, John J. Cox, Archibald Jaworski, Leon Haig, Alexander M. Ford, Gerald R. [p]Ford, Gerald R.;Richard M. Nixon resignation[Nixon]

The Watergate scandal grew out of the arrest of five men who on June 17, 1972, broke into the national headquarters of the Democratic Party, which was then located in Washington’s Watergate Hotel. Although three of the criminals, E. Howard Hunt, Hunt, E. Howard James W. McCord, McCord, James W., Jr. Jr., and G. Gordon Liddy, Liddy, G. Gordon worked for the Committee to Reelect the President (CRP, popularly known as CREEP), there was then no proof connecting their criminal activity with influential people at the Nixon White House. Starting in early 1973, others were implicated in the burglary because of the insistence of U.S. district judge John J. Sirica, and the chain of conspirators eventually reached into the White House and the Justice Department, entangling the president himself. Some months later, it was revealed that on June 23, 1972, Nixon had ordered the Central Intelligence Agency Central Intelligence Agency;Watergate scandal (CIA) to interfere with the investigation of this crime by the Federal Bureau of Investigation Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The proof of Nixon’s criminal obstruction of justice brought about the president’s resignation.

The burglary was first investigated by the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, chaired by Senator Sam Ervin of North Carolina, while crusading Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein persisted in their attempts to get to the bottom of the situation. The president’s personal lawyer, John W. Dean Dean, John W., III III, in sworn testimony before the Ervin Committee, stated that the president and his advisers had tried to cover up for the burglars. This testimony launched a slow but steady momentum in the press, Congress, the courts, and the Justice Department to get to the truth of the affair. Eventually, Dean’s testimony was substantiated by the presidential audiotapes, whose existence was revealed to the public on July 16, 1973, when a White House aide named Alexander Butterfield Butterfield, Alexander told the Ervin Committee that all conversations in the Oval Office had been secretly recorded and that these tapes had been kept by order of President Nixon.

Nixon leaves the White House on August 9, 1974, after resigning the office of president.

(Nixon Presidential Materials Project)

The president acccepted the resignations of his principal aides Bob Haldeman Haldeman, Bob and John Ehrlichman Ehrlichman, John in April of 1973, following the early portions of Dean’s damaging testimony. Dean himself was dismissed. Attorney General Richard Kleindienst Kleindienst, Richard and L. Patrick Gray Gray, L. Patrick, III III, acting director of the FBI, also resigned shortly thereafter. The new attorney general, Elliot Richardson, Richardson, Elliot appointed a special Watergate prosecutor, Harvard University law professor Archibald Cox, with full authority to pursue the case wherever it might lead. Cox fought a battle in the courts to force the president to surrender his taped conversations as material evidence. In a blatant effort to put an end to the investigation of his own involvement in the Watergate affair, President Nixon ordered Cox not to subpoena tapes or documents from the White House. When Cox refused to comply with this request, he was abruptly fired on October 20, 1973, in what has been called the Saturday Night Massacre. Saturday Night Massacre His firing was followed by the resignations of Attorney General Richardson and his deputy, William D. Ruckelshaus, Ruckelshaus, William D. both of whom refused to carry out the president’s order to fire Cox. These events caused a public uproar and reaction against the president, and the House Judiciary Committee on February 6, 1974, began formal impeachment proceedings against him. Public pressure forced the president to relent, and his new attorney general, William Saxbe, Saxbe, William appointed a new Watergate prosecutor, Leon Jaworski, who continued the battle to acquire the tapes.

The struggle on the part of the House Judiciary Committee under its chairman, Peter Rodino, from New Jersey, to enforce its subpoena that President Nixon turn over relevant tapes for the impeachment proceedings, and Jaworski to gain access to the entirety of the president’s taped conversations, took many turns during the spring and summer of 1974. On July 24, an eight-to-zero decision by the Supreme Court determined that the president must surrender completely all the relevant and subpoenaed evidence in his possession. The high court’s decision marked a total defeat for Nixon and his special counsel, James D. St. Clair St. Clair, James D. from Boston, one of the best trial lawyers in the country. Meanwhile, the House Judiciary Committee, looking toward impeachment, had begun nationally televised hearings. Between July 27 and 30, 1974, the committee approved three articles of impeachment, charging Nixon with obstruction of justice, abuse of presidential powers, and impeding the impeachment process by defying committee subpoenas for evidence.

Even after the three articles of impeachment had been approved by the House Judiciary Committee, President Nixon still thought that enough Republican senators would support him during the impeachment trial to prevent his removal from office, but he was deceiving himself. At the insistence of James St. Clair, the president on August 5 released three taped conversations—covered by the Supreme Court decision—which clearly indicated that he had tried to obstruct justice and cover up for the Watergate conspirators. The president’s position was destroyed in both houses of Congress, and even prominent conservative Republicans and longtime Nixon supporters, such as Senator Barry Goldwater from Arizona, Senator Hugh Scott from Pennsylvania, and Congressman John Rhodes from Arizona, privately urged the president to face reality and resign. White House Chief of Staff Alexander M. Haig devoted his energies and position to convincing the president that resignation was now the only way out. Nixon wavered for days, but on August 8, 1974, he went on national television to announce that he would resign as president the following day, saying that his political base in Congress had eroded to the point that there was no longer any point in continuing to struggle.

Significance

Nixon’s successor, Gerald R. Ford, on September 8, 1974, granted his predecessor a full and complete pardon for all federal crimes he might have committed while president. Nixon then issued a formal statement accepting the pardon and expressed regret only that he had not been more forthright and decisive in dealing with the Watergate scandal. He never admitted his personal guilt to the American public. A considerable public outcry arose—the feeling being that, as in the case of the earlier resignation of Vice President Spiro T. Agnew Agnew, Spiro T. on October 10, 1973, justice had not been served because neither Agnew nor Nixon ever had to answer to juries for their crimes. Presidency, U.S.;Richard M. Nixon[Nixon] Watergate scandal (1973)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ervin, Sam J., Jr. The Whole Truth: The Watergate Conspiracy. New York: Random House, 1980. A thoughtful analysis by Senator Ervin of the ethical and political implications of the Watergate scandal. Examines the seriousness of the constitutional crisis caused by Nixon’s obstruction of justice.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Friedman, Leon, and William F. Levantrosser, eds. Watergate and Afterward: The Legacy of Richard M. Nixon. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1992. Examines various legal and political dimensions of the dismissal of Archibald Cox, the July, 1974, Supreme Court ruling against Nixon, and the impeachment hearings in the House Judiciary Committee.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Liebovich, Louis W. Richard Nixon, Watergate, and the Press: A Historical Retrospective. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2003. Drawing from newly available sources that help shed new light on the Nixon administration’s treachery, this book reexamines the scandal and demonstrates how the administration attempted to battle and manipulate the press.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">White, Theodore H. Breach of Faith: The Fall of Richard Nixon. New York: Atheneum Press, 1975. Describes Nixon’s unsuccessful efforts at damage control during the unfolding of the Watergate scandal. A well-documented history of this constitutional crisis.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wicker, Tom. One of Us: Richard Nixon and the American Dream. New York: Random House, 1991. Contains a thoughtful analysis of the possible reasons for Nixon’s belief that he could violate the Constitution with impunity.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Woodward, Bob, and Carl Bernstein. The Final Days. 2d ed. New York: Touchstone, 1994. Written by two Washington Post reporters who became famous for investigating the Watergate scandal, this volume describes events from the Saturday Night Massacre to Nixon’s resignation.

Watergate Affair

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