During the Watergate hearings, surprise witness Alexander Butterfield revealed tapes

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This month marks the 50th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, a failed crime at a DC hotel on June 17, 1972, which two years later led to the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon.

Perhaps the members of the House committee investigating the January 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol have read some of the recent Watergate retrospectives, because on Monday afternoon they pulled a straight shot from the playbook of the Watergate: they announced a surprise hearing to “present newly obtained evidence and receive testimony. »

On Tuesday morning, news had leaked that Cassidy Hutchinson, an aide to former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, would be the witness.

Former Meadows assistant Cassidy Hutchinson set to testify in surprise hearing

In July 1973, the Senate committee investigating the Watergate scandal called only one surprise witness, and what that witness had to say blew up the investigation.

Alexander Butterfield was never a high-profile man, not like Nixon’s attorney general-turned-campaign leader John Mitchell or White House attorney John W. Dean III. In 1968, he was an Air Force colonel stationed in distant Australia before using an old college connection to land a job at the White House. As Deputy Assistant to the President, Butterfield was responsible for Nixon’s schedule, handling visitors, and recording memos.

Shortly after taking the job, Butterfield nearly quit. Nixon seemed to him “an ignorant boor, a thug,” he later revealed to Bob Woodward for the 2015 book “The Last of the President’s Men.” Much of his work has been devoted to dealing with the president’s fragile ego and his strained marriage. But Nixon could also be charming and generous. So in early 1973, when Butterfield vowed to come out of the “sink” of the White House and Nixon appointed him head of the Federal Aviation Administration, he still felt a certain warmth and loyalty to the president. .

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The Senate inquiry at the time followed a protocol similar to current House hearings: Witnesses were interviewed privately and extensively before their somewhat choreographed public testimony.

Committee staff members interviewed Butterfield behind closed doors on July 13, 1973. Upon entering, Butterfield later told Woodward, that he had decided not to say anything about Nixon’s tape recording system unless unless specifically asked.

The previous month, Dean, Nixon’s former White House attorney, had testified that he suspected his conversations with the president had been taped, so the committee had begun questioning witnesses about it. They touched the ground with Butterfield; in 1971 he had been tasked with installing it, having the Secret Service place microphones throughout the Oval Office.

As soon as he revealed this to the committee staff, he asked them not to call him to testify publicly. Revealing the existence of the tapes would be a threat to national security, he told them.

Three days later, on July 16, the committee announced a surprise public hearing. Butterfield was given a few hours’ notice.

Future lawmaker Fred Thompson, then a lawyer for the Republicans, did the questioning, and he got straight to the point: “Mr. Butterfield, are you aware of the installation of listening devices in the President’s Oval Office? »

Butterfield paused for five long seconds.

“I was aware of the listening devices, yes sir.”

The news stunned DC, The Washington Post reported.

Less than a week later, the special counsel investigating the burglary subpoenaed the tapes. And the rest – Nixon’s refusal, the “Saturday Night Massacre”, the missing 18 minutes, “I’m not a crook”, United States vs. Nixonthe “smoke” strip, a disgraced president smiling and waving in front of a helicopter – is history.

Butterfield is still alive – as of 2015 he was living in San Diego. The same goes for Dean, who first guessed a recording system and is now a CNN commentator. On Monday evening, when the surprise hearing was announced, he recalled Butterfield’s testimony and tweeted, “The January 6 Committee is facing a very high historic standard by holding a surprise hearing and witness tomorrow. …Cancel now if you can’t match!


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