When Rufus Edmisten was 31 years old, he delivered a subpoena to the president of the United States asking for tape recordings from the Oval Office. It was July 23, 1973, and “it had to be the hottest day in the world,” he told me last week, 44 years later.
Edmisten had recently been appointed deputy chief counsel on the Senate’s newly formed Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, also known as the Watergate Committee. Its chairman, North Carolina Democrat Sam Ervin, was leading an investigation into the break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters, which had occurred the year before in the midst of President Richard Nixon’s reelection campaign.
It would take another year of firings, cover-ups, and claims of executive privilege, but the committee’s evidence-gathering would ultimately lead to the indictment of 40 administration officials and the first-ever resignation of an American president.
I spoke with Edmisten, now an attorney in North Carolina specializing in government relations and litigation, about what it was like to play a part in one of the most tumultuous periods in modern American politics—and how he feels like he’s reliving some of that period in 2017. Our conversation, which took place over the course of two phone calls, has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Elaine Godfrey: Tell me about your role on the Watergate Committee.
Rufus Edmisten: I guess you might say I’m now one of the oldest hands around. All the members of the committee are dead, except [Republican] Senator [Lowell P.] Weicker. [Chief Counsel] Sam Dash is dead, [Minority Counsel] Fred Thompson is dead.
My role was deputy chief counsel of the Watergate Committee. I like to describe it this way, as Fred Thompson once did: “Everybody knew that Rufus was Ervin’s man.” I appreciate that because who wouldn’t want to be Ervin’s man?
Godfrey: When people think of Senator Ervin, they think of Watergate. But you had known him for a long time before that.
Edmisten: There’s a lot about Senator Ervin that was way before anything called Watergate even occurred. Ervin was big into the privacy issue. He was extremely interested in [the 1970 revelation that the U.S. Army was conducting domestic investigations on U.S. civilians]—it just infuriated him. He was the unheralded leader of those that thought the government had no business snooping on people.
Godrey: Before all of this, you worked with him as counsel on Senate Judiciary’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, which focused on civil rights and constitutional amendments. Then, when Ervin became chairman of the Subcommittee on Separation of Powers, he named you chief counsel. What was that like?
Edmisten: Unknown to me—and, of course, the senator—we were doing a rehearsal for Watergate. We were studying separation of powers, executive privilege, impoundment of funds. Senator Ervin had been having a battle with Nixon since he was first elected in 1968, battling what he called excesses of executive power. [Ervin] referred to “the imperial presidency,” where the president would say things like “the president can do whatever he wants to do.”
These are all the principles that came up during Watergate. Before, nobody would attack a president, but it didn’t bother Senator Ervin. And ironically, he had been sworn in in 1954 by then-Vice President Richard Nixon.*
Godfrey: In 1973, the Watergate Committee was formed, and Ervin asked you to come on. Why?
Edmisten: Everybody was vying around Capitol Hill to get a piece of this thing called Watergate, because it was in The Washington Post every day. [Senate Majority Leader Mike] Mansfield named Senator Ervin [chairman of the panel] because he wanted a man that everybody trusted. I think everybody would agree [Ervin] was the perfect man to lead the hearings.
Ervin asked me to be the deputy chief counsel, because he said “Rufus knows Capitol Hill.” I had been with him since 1964. He said, “I got to have somebody I can depend on to help me get this stuff done.”
Godfrey: What was it like working on the committee when the hearings came around?
Edmisten: I was in charge of press credentials, lining up that stuff. I was helping prepare witnesses, helping interrogate them, in what I called the “interrogation dungeon.” Before anybody went public, we interrogated them in this little windowless room down in the basement of the Dirksen building. Dash brought some bright people on [staff], and I brought some qualified people on from North Carolina, some people from George Washington University Law School.
Godfrey: What stands out to you from those interrogations?
Edmisten: During a hearing, I remember one time asking L. Patrick Gray, the acting FBI director, a question: “How in the world did you get yourself in such a fix?” [Gray, who had resigned in April 1973, admitted to destroying documents he received from a White House official a few days after the Watergate burglary.] He said: “I was in the Navy, and there were bombs exploding around me, but I have never run into a buzz saw like this thing called Watergate.”
I kept thinking, ‘How could these people, who were well educated, fall to the hypnotism of thinking that they were doing something for their country?’ You know that breaking into a building is as wrong as wrong can be. All these folks involved with Watergate were blindly following their leader. They were doing this to impress the president, to curry favor with him.
I’m having déjà vu all over again in recent weeks. There’s so much attention being given to Watergate. Everytime I turn the TV on, somebody’s talking about Watergate, and most of those people weren’t even born yet.
Godfrey: Do you see similarities between your investigation on the Watergate Committee and the investigations now, into Donald Trump and Russia?
Edmisten: I’m not making judgments yet on President Trump. As my mother used to say, “Son, before it’s cooked, don’t talk about it.” This thing’s not cooked enough yet. But eerily, you have so many of the same things going on. You have presidents who seem to believe in the theory of the imperial presidency. You have a president asserting that he can do just about anything, and it not be against the law. This has all been brought on by a very active press. The press has been very active in this to keep it in the minds of the American people. Both presidents had a very strong dislike for the press.
Godfrey: Another North Carolina senator, Richard Burr, is leading the Senate investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, as well asand allegations of collusion between Russia and Trump’s campaign. How do you think that is going?
Edmisten: I think they’re doing it the right way—quietly, deliberately. I told him some of the things that we did in the Watergate committee, and I think he is very well capable of doing what’s right.
Senator Burr has been a friend of mine for many years. While I’m a Democrat and he’s a Republican, I don’t want to see a North Carolinian head up a major committee and make a flop of it. The Watergate Committee worked because of the very closeness of Senator Ervin and the vice chair, Senator Howard Baker. I was in the room when [Ervin and Baker] agreed that they would not publicly disagree on anything. [Burr’s] staff had asked to draw from my experience, and I just gave him advice like that.
There seems to be a wonderful relationship between Senator Burr and [Vice Chairman Senator] Mark Warner. I really think they’re doing their homework.
Godfrey: Do you see parallels in how the two investigations unfolded?
Edmisten: When Watergate got to a crescendo, you had people speaking out that were of the same party as President Nixon. We’re not to that point yet. This thing with Nixon had been boiling over for five years.
We’re not far enough into this yet to know exactly where it’s going to lead. But [the Trump administration is] doing some very fine copying, early on, of some of the things that brought down some perfectly sound people in Watergate.
Godfrey: What do you mean?
Edmisten: The old adage, which I know is hackneyed, is: “We study history so we won’t repeat the mistakes of the past.” It occurs to me that the Trump administration has read Watergate and used the worst things about Watergate as a playbook—asserting their executive powers [for example]. Some witnesses are going on Capitol Hill and asserting all sorts of things, like: “We’ve had a conversation with the president, and we can’t talk about it.”
Godfrey: Right, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Director of National Intelligence Director Dan Coats, and National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers all said something similar in recent congressional testimony, though they didn’t invoke executive privilege specifically.
Edmisten: I have no idea where that came from. If there is a legal basis for that, I want somebody to show it to me. If [White House Counsel] John Dean [who was involved with the Watergate coverup] had said, “Well, I can’t talk about anything I said with the president” ...
Ervin threatened everyone—he told them: “If you don’t talk to me, we’ll hold you in contempt.” He said we’re not going to put up with it.
Godfrey: What about Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s inquiry? What do you think about the suggestion floating around that Trump might fire him?
Edmisten: The special counsel here is a creature of the Department of Justice. If anybody were to try to touch Robert Mueller, they would do so at their peril. This man’s reputation is sterling. I just can’t imagine anybody even thinking about firing him. I think it would fire up the nation again.
Godfrey: When you said earlier that the Russia investigation isn’t “cooked” yet, what did you mean? How do you know when it’s cooked?
Edmisten: If [and when] you find people lying under oath.
We’re just not to any stage yet where you can say [with certainty] that we’re well along the way to some sort of a copycat of Watergate. But, while there never may be a charge in this whole thing, they’re certainly not giving the impression that all is well at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Sometimes impressions are killers, almost as much as the actual act.
* This article originally stated that Ervin was sworn in in 1964. We regret the error.