The burglary and ensuing scandal led to the only resignation of a US President, changed American politics forever and became a synonym for government corruption.
On June 17, 1972, police arrested five men trying to bug and steal documents from the Democratic National Committee offices in the Watergate building in Washington.
One of those men, James McCord Jr., was the security chief of the committee to re-elect Republican President Nixon.
The suspects were found with a series of items, including lockpicks, $100 bills with the serial numbers in sequence and a shortwave receiver that could pick up police calls, the Washington Post reported.
The White House distanced itself from the burglars, and initially the scandal did not ensnare Nixon. He was re-elected that November over his main contender, Democratic Sen. George McGovern.
But months after his inauguration, journalists and congressional investigations began to piece together details of the scandal, pointing to White House involvement.
Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward jumped on the story after the break-in.
With the help of a source known as “Deep Throat,” later identified as Mark Felt, they filed groundbreaking stories that revealed stunning truths about Watergate.
“It was not about a break-in, a single break-in,” Bernstein told CNN in 2003. “It was about a pattern of illegal activities involving beating up members of the political opposition physically, stealing their memos, wiretapping political opponents, breaking into offices of psychiatrists, firebombing think tanks.”
Months after the break-in, some of the burglars pleaded guilty and were convicted of conspiracy and other charges.
But a handful of journalists, along with the Judge John Sirica, who presided over the burglars’ trials, sensed there was more to the story.
In March 1973, the judge released a letter written by McCord, in which he said White House officials had pressured the defendants to plead guilty.
As the scandal blew up, Nixon and his aides were suspected of obstruction of justice by planning to use the CIA to stop the FBI’s investigation.
Some Nixon administration officials would later get convicted of charges relating to Watergate. They included John Mitchell, Nixon’s onetime campaign chairman and former attorney general; former White House chief of staff H.R. Haldeman; John Dean, the White House counsel; and John Ehrlichman, his domestic policy adviser.
‘Saturday night massacre’
While the trial was over, the fallout was just beginning.
The Senate voted to create a special investigative committee to look into Watergate. On July 13, 1973, a White House aide told Senate committee members that Nixon had taped all his Oval Office conversations.
A battle ensued among the White House, Congress and the administration’s special prosecutor over the release of tapes recorded after the break-in.
Archibald Cox, who was appointed Watergate special prosecutor, subpoenaed the tapes. Nixon refused to turn them over.
In what became known as the “Saturday Night Massacre,” at Nixon’s order, the solicitor general fired Cox.
He fired Cox because Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus quit rather than obey the President.
After the firings, calls for Nixon to be impeached only grew louder.
The White House later agreed to release some of the subpoenaed tapes, but one included a mysterious 18-minute gap.
In April 1974, the White House released more than 1,200 pages of edited transcripts of the Oval Office tapes. But it still refused to turn over the actual tapes, citing executive privilege.
On July 24, 1974, the Supreme Court told the White House to cut it out and hand over more audiotapes.
Nixon released the tapes, including the so-called “smoking gun,” which proved he tried to use the CIA to block the FBI investigation of the burglary.
The tape connected Nixon directly to the burglary, a fact he had long denied. His support in Congress vanished, and the House judiciary committee voted to impeach him.
On August 8, he resigned without admitting any guilt.
“Always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself,” he said in his farewell address to the White House staff on August 9.
Vice President Gerald Ford was sworn in immediately after Nixon’s departure.
“Our long national nightmare is over,” he told the nation.
A month later, he pardoned Nixon.