For all the similarities between President Donald Trump’s Russiagate scandal (or, as I prefer to call it, Onion Dome) and Watergate—the special counsels; the Congressional hearings; the talk of obstruction of justice and secret tapes—there’s one parallel that is getting less attention.
In Watergate as in Onion Dome, defenders of the president plunged deep into conspiracy theory to explain away a growing body of evidence pointing to serious White House wrongdoing. Today, Trump surrogates deny Russian interference in the election and assert that U.S. intelligence agencies—portentously (and inaccurately) called the “Deep State”—are hoping to overturn the election results through leaks and fake news. And though it has largely been forgotten, some Nixon acolytes during and after Watergate pushed a very similar claim: that the CIA, the Pentagon or other entrenched government interests secretly conspired to oust Nixon for their own reasons, even as the news media trumpeted a phony narrative about the president’s guilt. Tracing the history of those Watergate-era claims—their origins as a diversionary cover story, their intrinsic appeal to loyalists who were in denial about the scandal’s gravity, their afterlife among radical skeptics on the ideological fringes of public debate—may help illuminate similar thinking of those determined today to see Onion Dome as a plot by Trump’s enemies to maintain the status quo.
The claims that Nixon was done in by the CIA or other vested interests began soon after hirelings of his re-election team—the Committee to Re-Elect the President, or CREEP—were arrested breaking into the Watergate building on June 17, 1972. With the full scope of Nixon’s involvement in Watergate still unknown to the public, speculation about the break-in ran wild. As information streamed out—from the 1973 Senate investigation, the trials of the burglars, the reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post and other journalists—keeping track of it all became bewildering; in November 1973 Edward J. Epstein and John Berendt laid out in Esquire 43 theories of what really happened. Among Nixon defenders, the most popular theories, which fingered the CIA as having masterminded the break-in, began with an unlikely source: Richard Nixon himself.
At first, the notion of CIA involvement didn’t seem ridiculous. Watergate burglars Howard Hunt (a White House employee) and James McCord (of CREEP) had worked for the agency in the past, and after retiring Hunt joined the Robert Mullen Company, a public-relations firm with CIA ties. The Cuban operatives whom Hunt hired had also done CIA work, notably during the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion. When early news reports linked the burglars to the CIA, New York Times reporter Tad Szulc chased the false lead, setting back the Times in its competition with the Post.
Nixon then deliberately used the CIA links to invent a cover story and a cover-up. “I think that we could develop a theory as to the CIA if we wanted to,” his close aide Chuck Colson, one of the key Watergate plotters, told the president on June 21, noting Hunt’s past CIA ties. Nixon liked the idea, adding that the involvement of the Cubans was a “plus” that made the story more believable. Colson lied to the FBI agents who interviewed him the next day, saying that the break-in was “a CIA thing,” and then reported back to White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman that he expected that “the CIA turnoff will play.”
In a decision that would cost him his presidency—recorded by the fateful “smoking gun” tape—Nixon green-lighted the CIA misdirection. He approved a scheme to have the CIA quash the FBI’s Watergate inquiry by falsely warning the bureau that a probe would compromise national security. As Haldeman told the president, Attorney General John Mitchell “came up with [the idea] yesterday … to have [Deputy CIA Director Vernon] Walters call [Acting FBI Director] Pat Gray and just say, ‘Stay the hell out of this—this is, ah, business here we don’t want you to go any further on it.’” Nixon agreed to it, telling Haldeman to call Walters, who in turn told Gray to back off. Walters, however, learned from CIA colleagues that his agency wasn’t actually involved and reversed himself; Gray went back to Nixon for clarity on what to do. At that point the president backed down, in effect conceding that the tale of Watergate as a CIA operation was bogus. Still, in setting the cover-up in motion, he had obstructed justice.
He also continued to use the cover story. In protesting his innocence in a speech in May 1973, Nixon repeated the claim. McCord—whom the White House was secretly paying to keep silent—was also urged to blame the CIA during his trial, but eventually he confessed to John Sirica, the presiding judge, that it was a White House “ploy.” At one point, the notion of the CIA orchestrating Watergate captured the fancy of Tennessee Senator Howard Baker, the ranking Republican on the Senate Watergate committee and a White House water-carrier. Baker and Fred Thompson, his protégé and the committee’s minority counsel, included an appendix to the final Senate committee report of June 1974 that speculated, albeit inconclusively, about the CIA’s role.
From the sidelines, baroque extensions of the theory grew. It was a widely held tenet among Nixon’s defenders that Democrats and liberal journalists were hyping Watergate, which they thought was a rogue operation and an inconsequential crime, to weaken the president; on the right, the inquiry was routinely called, metaphorically, a “coup.” But some on the right went further, alleging a literal coup engineered by the CIA or, in other versions, the Pentagon. In National Review, CIA officer Miles Copeland spun out a narrative in which McCord, still loyal to the agency despite having moved to Nixon’s re-election campaign, “took Hunt and Liddy into a trap … putting the White House’s clowns out of business.” Others posited that Hunt was the double agent.
Just as today some far-left elements as well as some on the right see the Russia scandal as a tempest in a samovar—a stratagem by intelligence officials to oust or undermine Trump—so in 1973 there were left-wing conspiracy theorists who cottoned to coup scenarios. In July, national security adviser Henry Kissinger recounted to Nixon a conversation he had with the novelist Norman Mailer. Mailer (already a Kennedy assassination obsessive) “wants to write that it’s all a CIA conspiracy against you,” Kissinger told the president, “because you were [pursuing] détente.” Kissinger, Nixon and White House Chief of Staff Al Haig laughed at the thought. “That’s a little weird,” Haig said.
Others tried to elevate the importance of the so-called Moorer-Radford affair, another Nixon administration scandal, broken by Woodward and Bernstein in early 1974, in which Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Thomas Moorer, suspicious of Nixon and Kissinger’s secretive foreign policy, used a Navy liaison to filch documents from the national security adviser. In these accounts, which, oddly, could never quite explain away the White House’s involvement in the Watergate break-in, it was the military brass trying to bring the president down. Needless to say, “none of this,” noted Nixon speechwriter Ray Price, who flirted with these theories, “if true, excuses the White House or the Committee to Re-elect the President. The break-ins and the buggings did take place, and at one level or another they were approved by our people.”
Evidence of Nixon’s complicity in Watergate, preserved on the White House tapes, soon forced his resignation and mostly put an end to claims of a coup from within. In later years, though, books began appearing reviving the notion of Nixon as the victim of hidden powers. In 1984 Jim Hougan, a writer for Harper’s, published Secret Agenda: Watergate, Deep Throat and the CIA, which argued that the Watergate intruders were really after information related to Ida “Maxie” Wells, a young Democratic National Committee secretary whose phone was allegedly used to arrange assignations as part of CIA-run call-girl ring. McCord, in Hougan’s telling, sabotaged the break-in to protect the agency, for which he was secretly still working. Secret Agenda was close to incoherent, few historians took it seriously and it came and went quickly.
Seven years later a similar account, Silent Coup, by Len Colodny and Robert Gettlin, built on Hougan’s claims about a prostitution ring, confusingly tying it to the Moorer-Radford affair and positing Pentagon rather than CIA complicity in Nixon’s downfall. Despite multiple debunkings, that book enjoyed a surprise run on the best-seller list. But former White House counsel John Dean, whose wife Maureen the authors had alleged to be part of the escort service, sued and won a cash settlement from the publisher, and in later printings Gettlin removed his name as co-author. Colodny kept at it, though, at one point concocting a faux controversy about a published edition of the Nixon tape transcripts that landed him an article in the New York Times (improperly so, according to its public editor). Today, Deep State conspiracy theories about Watergate live on thanks to assorted oddballs and extremists. One of them, perhaps unsurprisingly, is Nixon-operative-turned-Trump-operative Roger Stone, who wrote his own book several years ago saying the CIA tried to kill Nixon.
Whether in Watergate or Onion Dome, there’s a pattern to Deep State conspiracy theories. They begin—understandably, though not honorably—when the people under suspicion seek to deflect attention from their own role, however great or small, in alleged wrongdoing. They’re believed, or at least repeated, by loyal surrogates and sympathetic partisans. Then, perhaps more disturbingly, they find favor from those of a particular cast of mind, on the left or on the right—people so galled, perhaps, by the swollen powers of government, business or other civil institutions that they judge those powers to be capable of almost anything, and perhaps of concealing almost anything, too.
In these accounts, what changes when presidents or parties gain or lose power is merely cosmetic; there is only the constancy of the power elite. The news media, the school system, historians—all perpetuate false narratives and lies. Devotees of this way of thinking believe not simply that there are conspiracies in history, which of course there are from time to time. They believe, rather, that the ultimate conspiracy is history itself.