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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).