It was April 29, 1974. President Nixon held a press conference announcing that he was about to release more than 1,200 pages of edited transcripts of his recorded conversations.
Nearly three weeks earlier, the House Judiciary Committee had subpoenaed the tapes. Nixon hoped releasing transcripts would be enough.
“… These transcripts will show,” Nixon told the American people, “that what I have stated from the beginning to be the truth has been the truth: that I personally had no knowledge of the [Watergate] break-in before it occurred, that I had no knowledge of the coverup until I was informed of it by John Dean on March 21 …”
There was a problem, though. The transcripts were different from what was said on the tapes. At times, very different.
Last Wednesday, the Trump administration released a rough transcript of a phone call between President Donald Trump and the president of Ukraine that has led to an impeachment push in the House. According to the rough transcript, Trump offered Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky Justice Department help investigating Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, as well as a White House meeting in exchange for the investigation.
Trump said in a tweet Sept. 28 the rough transcript will prove it was a “very friendly and totally appropriate call.”
To students of history, though, this is more fodder for the endless comparisons between Trump and Nixon.
The first revelation when Nixon released the transcripts was that he and his aides swore - a lot. “EXPLETIVE DELETED]” littered the pages and became a national joke. Rather than smooth the language, the all-caps censoring ended up magnifying what in many cases were mild swears like “hell” or “damn,” making them seem worse than they actually were.
But there were other issues, too. Nixon said he had personally removed anything from the transcripts that weren’t relevant. And as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein later described in their book “The Final Days,” Nixon had spent months excising “long and relevant” sections of the tapes from the transcripts.
While Republican leaders praised the president for his “fair and reasonable” release of the transcripts, Democratic leaders on the House Judiciary Committee refused to accept them. They still wanted the tapes. Nixon also was fighting a subpoena for the tapes from Special Prosecutor Leon Jaworski.
Nixon eventually released 19 clips of the tapes to the committee but refused to hand over any more, according to the New York Times.
Nixon’s defense hinged on the transcripts showing that while he had discussed ways of covering up White House ties to the Watergate break-in, they made it clear he never ordered aides to take any of those steps.
He also said the transcript of a pivotal conversation on March 21, 1973, with White House Counsel John Dean made it clear he was just becoming aware of the White House ties to the break-in in that moment.
But in late June, a Republican member of the committee leaked internal memos to the Times, showing there were dramatic discrepancies.
Some of it could be explained by the House having superior audio equipment, but “words, phrases and sometimes whole sections of conversation contained in the Judiciary Committee transcripts are missing from or at variance with the expurgated White House narrative,” the Times reported.
For example, Nixon mentioned that aides could avoid perjuring themselves in testimony by saying they didn’t recall. In the White House version, Nixon suggests it - “But you can say ‘I can’t recall’ ” - whereas in the actual tape he ordered them to do it - “Just be damned sure you say, ‘I don’t remember; I can’t recall; I can’t give any honest answer to that that I can recall.’”
In the pivotal March 21 conversation with Dean, the White House transcript has Nixon saying “we could” buy time by paying off Watergate conspirator E. Howard Hunt, but, in the actual recording, he said “we should,” later adding “for Christ’s sakes, get it.”
In the same conversation, Nixon told Dean to write up a Watergate report to defend the White House. On the tape, he added, “Understand, I don’t want it that goddamned specific.” That entire sentence was missing from the White House transcript.
Most importantly, the March 21 conversation was supposed to show Nixon was just learning of the cover-up that day. But in a recording three weeks earlier, Nixon said his former attorney general and 1972 campaign manager, John Mitchell, was “too clever” to allow himself to be “ruined” by Watergate. This comment was missing from the White House transcript.
On July 9, the committee released publicly its version of the transcripts. Two weeks later, the Supreme Court ordered the president to release the remaining tapes to the special counsel.
Nixon finally released the tapes, including the so-called smoking gun tape, from June 23, 1972, just a few days after the Watergate break-in, in which he talked about asking the CIA director to instruct the FBI to back off its investigation of the break-in.
Nixon announced his resignation on Aug. 8, 1974.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.