After a tumultuous week, The New York Times reported on Friday that the FBI has in its possession tape-recorded conversations between the attorney Michael Cohen and the then-candidate Donald Trump from September 2016. In one of the conversations, the two men can be heard discussing potential hush-money payments to a former Playboy model, Karen McDougal, with whom Trump had an affair. CNN reported that the FBI had also seized recordings of other, “more mundane” conversations with the president.
The revelation of the tapes comes almost 45 years after the most famous secret-presidential-tape revelation of all—the moment on July 16, 1973, when Alexander Butterfield, the head of the Federal Aviation Administration and the former deputy assistant to the president, told the Senate Watergate Committee in a televised hearing that President Richard Nixon had recorded his Oval Office conversations. The tapes helped bring an end to Nixon’s presidency. This time, Cohen’s tapes probably won’t have the same effect.
The Watergate Committee, chaired by the folksy Senator Sam Ervin of North Carolina, had started its televised hearings in May. Throughout the summer, the nation had been riveted as the senators questioned administration officials about what Nixon’s White House had been up to. The most dramatic testimony took place in late June, when former White House Counsel John Dean said that Nixon had discussed methods to cover up information and even stifle the investigation through “silence money” and promises of clemency.
But Republican support for the president remained strong and the idea of impeachment remained far-fetched. Even after Dean testified, Nixon remained confident that he could survive. As John Farrell writes in his award-winning biography of the president, the testimony until that point was “hearsay.” At one point, Dean had suggested that conversations were recorded, but he had no evidence to prove that that was the case. As a result, Dean’s allegations were his word against the claims of President Nixon. One Republican pollster told White House officials, “Barring some new sensational revelations, it would appear that the tempest … has passed its peak.” Administration officials believed that they would be able to discredit people like Dean as opportunistic and self-serving. “Why on earth should I believe anything that John Dean says?” the television personality Dick Cavett asked his viewers. Polls showed that only about 50 percent of those surveyed believed Dean.
But in mid-July, everything changed. Senate Watergate staffers found evidence through interviews that the White House did indeed tape conversations. The committee lawyers Scott Armstrong and Don Sanders confirmed the discovery during their secret pre-testimony interview on Friday, July 13, with Butterfield, whom they dragged into their offices. Sitting in a messy Senate room, the lawyers handed Butterfield a transcript that one of Nixon’s lawyers had turned over to the Republican staff. Looking at the document, Butterfield understood immediately that they knew this was the transcript of a conversation that had been taped. “I thought to myself that this had to come from the tapes—the very thing I’m worrying so much about. So, I just hemmed and hawed,” Butterfield later remembered. Sanders then asked Butterfield directly if there were any listening devices in the Oval Office. Butterfield did not feel comfortable lying to them and feared ending up in jail. “I’m sorry you asked that question,” he told them. “Yes, there was, and that’s where this document had to come from.” When Butterfield admitted to lawyers the existence of the recordings, he recalled, “they were ecstatic.” Sanders tracked down the committee member Frank Thompson, a Republican, who was having a drink at the old Carroll Arms Hotel, and told him the news.
Presidents since Franklin D. Roosevelt had been recording White House conversations. Although Nixon had initially taken down Lyndon B. Johnson’s recording system, in 1970 he replaced it with a noise-activated system that recorded everything, instead of the manually operated system used by his Texas predecessor. Only a small number of people, including Butterfield, knew of the existence of the tapes.
By this time, much of the country was tuned into the hearings. Even popular soap operas reported a steep decline in their ratings, as viewers switched to the real-life drama in Washington, D.C. In a dramatic testimony on Monday, July 16, with television cameras covering the proceedings, Butterfield, who was a surprise witness, revealed to the nation that the president had recording devices in the White House that automatically taped conversations. When Thompson, to the consternation of some Democrats who wanted more credit, asked, “Are you aware of the installation of any listening devices in the Oval Office of the president?” Butterfield responded: “I was aware of listening devices, yes, sir.” Butterfield went onto explain that the president had been taping the conversations “for posterity.” He had been in charge of having machines installed that automatically recorded the Oval Office telephone and conversations in numerous rooms.
The committee counsel Samuel Dash announced to the press: “We now know there are records of those meetings. I don’t have to draw the line underneath and add it up.” Nixon, who was in the hospital after having suffered a sharp pain in his chest, instinctively feared how the recordings would make him look. His chief of staff, Alexander Haig, was terrified that the tapes of any president would be destructive.
“Suddenly,” Martin Schram wrote in Newsday, “the Watergate scandal is more than just one man’s word against another’s.” For the first time, it became possible that members of Congress would be able to actually hear the president talking about matters related to Watergate. It would be his words against his own public denials.
The Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward called the tapes a “pivot” in the scandal. Nixon would fight as hard as possible to block access to them for almost a year. He rejected proposals to destroy the tapes before they were subpoenaed by Congress—Vice President Spiro Agnew advised, “Boss, you’ve got to have a bonfire”—based on the belief that executive privilege would be enough to protect them. He still wanted to preserve the material for the historical record. He told Haig the conversations on the tapes would “protect” him. He was wrong.
On July 24, 1974, the Supreme Court ruled 8–0 (Justice William Rehnquist recused himself) that he had to turn over the tapes. Despite an intense investigation that had lasted for over a year and taken place through the tenure of a number of different officials, it was the ability of members of Congress to hear Nixon asking the CIA to stop the FBI investigation that had an impact unlike anything else. It had not actually been clear before then that the constitutional system would work. Fifteen days later, Nixon left office.
Will the Cohen tapes possibly have the same impact? The answer depends in part on what they contain, and on what the public hears. But our political world has changed. Watergate itself generated so much distrust in government that it lowered public expectations of leaders. This is triply true with Trump, whose own loyal supporters seem to understand that he is an extremely flawed man but still love him. Unless there is direct evidence on this or other tapes of his culpability in illegal activity, just hearing Trump discussing untoward, unethical, or even slightly illegal things not rising to the level of impeachment won’t have the same kind of political impact. Indeed, he still survives despite all of the shocking things that he has already said in front of television cameras and on his Twitter feed.
The United States is now so fiercely partisan that shocking tape recordings will still have trouble shaking the political landscape. That congressional Republicans continue to stand by Trump despite his scandalous behavior with Russia has made it clear that almost nothing can overwhelm partisan loyalty. Even if there is a damning tape, the president and his Republican allies in the House would attack the material as fake and illegitimate, part of a “witch hunt.” Unlike Nixon, who fought tooth and nail to prevent the tapes from being released, Trump seems more likely to focus on moving to control the narrative. This has consistently been his preferred strategy with scandal: Get the information out to the public and then control the spin. Nor did President Nixon have Fox News hosts to explain why the tapes don’t prove anything about the president’s wrongdoing. Trump can count on his Fox friends.
The biggest political risk for Trump’s opponents is that the tapes, if they focus primarily on sex scandals and shady real-estate deals that don’t quite reach the level of high crimes and misdemeanors, may actually help deflect attention from more damaging issues. Indeed, news of the Cohen tapes might be perfectly timed for the president, shifting the conversation away from treason and toward Trump’s sex life, just as the Access Hollywood tapes in October 2016 drowned out the public warnings by President Barack Obama’s intelligence chiefs that Russia was attempting to sway the election results.
Of course, Nixon, too, initially thought that he would survive, and that the tapes might even help his case. He was wrong. Butterfield’s testimony turned out to be a crucial step in bringing down Nixon’s presidency. The lesson of 1973 is that the impact of secret recordings is impossible to predict.