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The Curious History of ‘What Did the President Know, and When Did He Know It?’

A half-century ago an ally helped bring down a president with one simple question.

March 12, 2018

The Wash­ing­ton Post wants to know. So does the New York Times. So too do The New Yorker, USA Today, The Nation and Salon.

What all these outlets want to know is the same ques­tion last asked in another pres­id­en­tial corrup­tion scan­dal, Water­gate, 45 years ago: “What did the pres­id­ent know, and when did he know it?”

The simple inquiry became world famous. But what is less well-known is the story behind the ques­tion, and perhaps most surpris­ing of all, that it was asked in order to defend Pres­id­ent Richard Nixon.

The person who asked the ques­tion was Tennessee GOP Sen. Howard Baker Jr. His party creden­tials were unas­sail­able. His father was a GOP Congress­man and his father-in-law was Senate minor­ity leader for a decade. Baker was the rank­ing Repub­lican on the special Senate commit­tee that invest­ig­ated Water­gate.

In Febru­ary 1973, before the hear­ings began, Baker had a secret Oval Office meet­ing with Nixon. He told the Pres­id­ent the commit­tee’s game plan, which was to start out with minor witnesses in an effort to ratchet up the pres­sure on major witnesses to appear before the panel.  As Nixon later related, Baker sugges­ted having major figures such as White House Chief of Staff H.R. Halde­man and top aide John Ehrlich­man testify first, “to deflate the whole thing.”  

Through the first half of that year, Nixon trus­ted Baker and vice versa. The White House and Baker were in frequent contact. Nixon’s staff prepared a strategy memo for Baker suggest­ing ways he could keep the hear­ings from becom­ing a “polit­ical circus.” The whole inquiry, they wrote, was a “witch hunt.” (Sound famil­iar?) In fact, they wrote, the Pres­id­ent himself could inform Baker that it was actu­ally the Demo­crats who had bugged his offices in 1968.

The Senate’s Water­gate hear­ings began in May. North Caro­lina Demo­crat Sam Ervin chaired the proceed­ings on a special Commit­tee whose member­ship was equally divided between the parties.

At first the testi­mony backed the spin being pushed from the White House: Water­gate was a third-rate burg­lary attempt by a small group of bad apples. The Pres­id­ent was unin­volved.

But on June 25, former White House Coun­sel John Dean, who had been fired by Nixon in the spring, star­ted testi­fy­ing. Read­ing a 245-page state­ment to the Commit­tee over the course of two days, he system­at­ic­ally linked Nixon to a pattern of corrup­tion and obstruc­tion of justice. Then the ques­tion­ing began.

When it was Baker’s turn to inter­rog­ate Dean, his goal was to prove that the accus­a­tions against the Pres­id­ent were based on circum­stan­tial evid­ence. Baker care­fully ques­tioned the former White House lawyer, attempt­ing to prove that he had no direct evid­ence of the Pres­id­ent’s role in the break in or in any cover up. Dean held his own, ulti­mately testi­fy­ing that he and Nixon discussed the cover up 35 times.

Baker was subdued after Dean’s testi­mony. The Commit­tee took a two-week break. Shortly after it resumed work, it learned of the Pres­id­ent’s secret Oval Office tapes. Now, it wasn’t just Dean’s word against the Pres­id­ent’s. Not only that, but the level of Baker’s involve­ment with the White House could be exposed.

Baker’s opin­ion of the Pres­id­ent and the scan­dal was chan­ging. In 1992, he explained to the Asso­ci­ated Press “I believed that it was a polit­ical ploy of the Demo­crats, that it would come to noth­ing…But a few weeks into that, it began to dawn on me that there was more to it than I thought, and more to it than I liked.”

The Commit­tee’s discov­ery of the tapes marked the turn­ing point in Water­gate and set in motion the events that would lead to Nixon’s resig­na­tion. On July 23,1973, less than a month after Baker asked his famous ques­tion, the Commit­tee voted to subpoena the tapes. Baker and all the Repub­lic­ans on the commit­tee voted to issue it. It was the first time a congres­sional commit­tee had ever issued a subpoena to a Pres­id­ent, and only the second time since 1807 that anyone had subpoenaed the chief exec­ut­ive.

Mean­while, Special Prosec­utor Archibald Cox also subpoenaed the tapes. Nixon spurned both demands. Baker warned that the nation was “on the brink of a consti­tu­tional confront­a­tion between the Congress and the White House.”

The legal maneuv­er­ing between Nixon, the Senate Commit­tee, and Cox contin­ued into the fall of 1973. Finally, on Octo­ber 19, Nixon offered a comprom­ise. He would let the famously hard of hear­ing Senator John C. Sten­nis (D-Miss.) listen to the tapes and summar­ize them. Cox rejec­ted the offer, and the next morn­ing, a Saturday, Nixon ordered him fired.

All through 1973 and into 1974, Baker slowly moved out of the Pres­id­ent’s camp. He shif­ted from being a Nixon apolo­gist to acting as a medi­ator between the Senate and the Pres­id­ent. Ulti­mately, he let the chips fall where they might. Baker’s eyes star­ted open­ing in the days after he posed his famous ques­tion.

Forty-five years later, is there a Senator or Repres­ent­at­ive poised to inherit Baker’s mantle? It’s not impossible to imagine.

The views expressed are the author’s own and not neces­sar­ily those of the Bren­nan Center for Justice.

A signi­fic­ant portion of the narrat­ive in this piece is derived from The Wars of Water­gate (1990) by Stan­ley I. Kutler. 

Image: WASH­ING­TON, DC—CIRCA 1973: Members of the US Senate Water­gate Commit­tee during the Commit­tee’s hear­ings in Capitol Hill, circa 1973 in Wash­ing­ton, DC. In attend­ance, among others, are minor­ity coun­sel (later senator and pres­id­en­tial candid­ate) Fred Thompson (left) and Rank­ing Member Sen. Howard H. Baker, Jr. (right).