Filmmaker Charles Ferguson on Richard Nixon, Watergate & Impeachment
this is democracy now democracy now dot. Org the Warren Peace Report. I mainly Goodman we turn now to a new new documentary by the Academy Award Winning Director Charles Ferguson. It's called Watergate subtitles or how we learn to stop an out of Control Roll precedent. This is the film's trailer for America is about five people people have been arrested and charged with breaking into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee. This break was part of a vast campaign to undermine the election itself up in the White House. Does it go and is the president himself involved. I have never obstructed justice. People have gotta know whether or not their president's correct well. I'm not a crook. They want war. I'll give them more in the question of whether it president still in office can be indicted in the courts it is far from settled that can be has been says the person can be impeached for treason bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors that could threaten the liberty says the American people. President Nixon has discharged Watergate Special Prosecutor the FBI acting on orders from the president sealed off the Special Prosecutor's office. Thanks in democracy. Maybe this would not happen in terms of the presidency everything in the lab that was the trailer for the Documentary Watergate or how we learn to stop an out of control president. The film just premiered on the history channel channel. It's widely available for viewing on that channel well for more we are joined by the film's Director Charles Ferguson Academy Award Winning Director author his previous films include a time to choose an inside job among others his foam on the war in Iraq. No end in sight was nominated for an Academy Award Charles Ferguson. It's great to have you with us. Thank you so how to stop an out of control president. You started this before or after Donald Trump was elected president of well L. before he was elected and I originally wanted to make something of principally historical value in part to show younger people who weren't around around when Watergate occurred what it was like but as events progressed it became clear that I had to make a quite different film that that certainly showed what Watergate was like but that also showed how the system works and doesn't work when there's a true constitutional crisis in the united suits so there are many people who watch or listen to the show in this country who were born well long after Richard Churned Nixon. This is ancient history for them. Can you start off by explaining what the Watergate scandal was and why in particular you got interested in this well the scandal began with the discovery arrest of five men in business suits carrying being a great deal of cash and a lot of electronics in the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee on June Seventeenth Nineteen Seventy two but the investigation uh initially of that burglary and bugging operation turned into an investigation both by law enforcement in and very importantly by two journalists to young crime reporters at the Washington Post turned into an investigation of what became what was unveiled to be a far wider effort on the part of the Nixon administration to undermine the Democratic Party and Nixon's democratic opponents in nineteen seventy two election now. Let's talk about this because that one thousand nine hundred seventy two election he won by a landslide. This was by no means a squeaker. That's absolutely true in most people agree that in fact he didn't have to do any of this stuff stuff in order to win but he did it anyway paranoid. Yes he was Richard Nixon was an angry troubled man and and he saw enemies everywhere including where they didn't really exist so explain what the Watergate break-in was well the the break in had been ordered and authorized by the former attorney general of the United States John Mitchell who had resigned signed as attorney general in order to manage Nixon's reelection campaign called the Yes very ironic name the committee to re elect the president an abbreviated as creep. Yes one couldn't make that up so he's crepes chief yes and he and several other pilots people at the community reelect the president acting under constant pressure from Nixon in his chief aides started a wide ranging campaign to investigate and undermine the Democrats and in fact there were multiple operations some manage through the White House some managed by a personal friends of Nixon some managed by the reelection campaign to do many different things there were infiltrators who were secretly reporting on what Democratic candidates were doing. Nixon's strongest potential rival in the election was Maine Senator Edmund Muskie Muskie's driver was secretly on the payroll of the Nixon campaign and copied and reported documents records plans et Cetera there and there were dozens of such operations dozens of them many of which were eventually revealed after the burglars were caught in June of Nineteen seventy-two and how does this relate to the Bay of pigs well the burglars were primarily primarily Cuban-americans who had been recruited by a couple of warmer. CIA agents who had worked with awesome in regard to the Bay of Pigs and other operations against Castro's Cuba and the burglars in in fact were extremely honorable bowl patriotic men who thought that they were doing something for their country and for their president and didn't understand exactly exactly why they had been ordered to do these things. Why don't you set up. This first clip for switch is Bob Bob Haldeman and John Ehrlichman speaking before the Senate Watergate Committee explain who they are and at what point in the crisis this is well starting in March of nineteen seventy-three the burglars under pressure from Federal Judge started to talk and when they started to talk the Senate formed a special committee to investigate the Watergate affair and it held public hearings rings starting in May of Nineteen seventy-three which were televised live by all three networks in which completely transfixed the United States and among those forced to testify where Nixon's former chief of staff and former domestic policy adviser who continued to deny all involvement Oldman and when they testified there wasn't yet definitive aunt definitive evidence to convict them but it it was already clear that a lot of very unsavory things had occurred and you're about to see their cross examination. This is John Zarrella c'mon and Bob Haldeman appearing before the Senate Watergate Committee the Committee Force Ehrlichman and Haldeman to testify after dean. Let's be clear I did not cover up anything anything to do with Watergate. They denied everything and there was not yet any definitive evidence against them but they got nailed anyway so there came a time when you were administering during investigative unit is yes in in a in a literal sense. That's true yes. Sir Not an actual sense well. I I am dueling with a Professor Dylan. I'm just trying to get you say actual. It's act and as soon as Howard Baker realized that much of what was being said about Nixon was true and based in fact the emily backed off and became probably the most prominent questioner of of of witnesses. When did you first learn great cat on on the day following the break in when I received this telephone call toward dusk late afternoon. Did you talk to the president on the seventeen. Now I did not that I can recall you talked to Mr Harlem and on the seventeen I think I talked to him the following day or are you concerned about it not particularly if someone one on my staff even remotely on my staff were charged with breaking and entering to the Democratic National Committee headquarters or someone was even associated with the newspaper column out be determined to find out if that happened now. was there this air of urgency in the White House on your part or Holliman's art or part. It's not not coming through that way. It sounds like a routine staff operation but this wasn't a routine step up break point one. He wasn't on my staff fat but that's that's beside the point. Some believe George best you name. It was really for the first time a very strong hospital questioning of an administration illustration witness now. Is that a fair statement now. I don't like it is really I if it is it's an unconscious situation because I'm trying today as I was trying. Hang on these hearings began to treat everyone the same and to pursue the matter ash dispassionately as very passionate circumstances will permit. Do you believe as spending political campaign funds to pay for the defense of defendants could embarrass the president. I don't know I don't know it depends on the circumstances in this situation. I think what about these these circumstances and this situation involving the Watergate. I don't know that I can make a judgment on that. I'd like to submit to you a document Ray Charlotte North Carolina demonstration one the most reason intelligence that has been received from the advance man Bill Henkel and the USS United States secret service. I got we will have demonstrators in Charlotte tomorrow. The numbers running between one hundred and two hundred the advanced man's gut reactions between one hundred and fifty and two hundred they will be violent. I went with a pencil underlining violent. They will have extremely obscene signs underlining obscene and next to the word word obscene penciled in writing which to me and you'll have to confirm. This seems to be the same as the writing below. Your initialling appears to be yours. Not I want you to say-so saying good is that you're writing there where it says good. I believe it is yes sir as has been indicated by their handbills. We'll it will not only be directed toward the president but also toward Billy Graham underlining signing underlining also toward billy Graham Pencil in great. My question specifically relates to exactly Kley what mentality it is in the White House that goes ahead and indicates good when the word violences mentioned when obscenity is mentioned engine which violence in which Senate is to be directed against the present the United States. How in any way can that be good so oh you were just listening to John Ehrlichman and Bob Haldeman they were being questioned by low weicker the Connecticut Republican Lucan senator as well as Sam Dash the Council the Senate Committee Council and Howard Baker the ranking Republican on the Senate Watergate Committee Charles Ferguson talk about the significance of these men. I mean we live in search polarized time time here. We're talking about the Republicans. The President's Party taking the most active role here well. San Mervyn was the head and he was certainly fierce fierce but joining with the Democrats Howard Baker was not always like that no Howard Baker had started out at the beginning of the Watergate scandal in fact as basically a mole for President Nixon and would secretly go to the White House and report on what the Senate committee was doing but as evidence ends came out that in fact Nixon had been involved in all of this very deeply involved in it. Baker began to change Lowell Lowell Weicker was quite different. Lowell Weicker was extremely aggressive from the very beginning and in fact while he was on the Senate Watergate Committee conducted his own separate investigation that revealed a number of additional things that the committee hadn't previously known there was without question a degree of bipartisanship in that effort in the We certainly don't see these days and this must have been very unusual experience for you as you started this film before four. Donald trump was elected and as you're moving through it I mean all the players are now coming forward like in the second clip we wanNA play which his former Watergate special prosecutor George Frampton and Jill wine banks discussing the security of the evidence files. We're seeing JOE WIND BANKS ON TV all all the time now talking about President Trump yes yes. There are so many parallels between what happened then what's happening now. we're now very concerned about the security of not only the investigation but of the documents and evidence that he is already assembled. We don't know what's going to happen to them. So what were these evidence files that they were talking about the these were files in memoranda that they had created that pertained to the potential impeachment and or prosecution of the President Nixon and as pressure on the special prosecutor mounted Archibald Cox the the Harvard professor who had been appointed to be the special prosecutor as pressure on him mounted from the Nixon White House the junior prosecutors under him became extremely concerned about what might happen to their evidence. Indi- and in fact those concerns were fully justified when Cox was fired by President Nixon Nixon also ordered the FBI to Ah occupy his offices in sees those records. I let's go to the former. Watergate prosecutors George Frampton and Joe Wind Banks. Thanks discussing the security of their evidence files as Nixon continued to resist. It was totally unclear. How this was is going to play out. We knew that a storm was coming. We just didn't know from what direction are how bad it was gonna be when we were planning what's going to happen then. Who's going to serve a subpoena on the White House. How are we going to enforce you know who's going to go in and to get the tapes what the president refuses and we thought well maybe maybe we should take some of the key documents and bring them to our homes. Viadana prosecution now about all the evidence that we had about President Nixon. I took a copy of that and put it in my grandmother's basement. Meanwhile special prosecutors had been playing another chess game. What's the other chess game. The other chess game was in yet another parallel between then and now Nixon's former counsel John Dean his former lawyer had turned and had expressed a willingness this to testify about what he had known he had in fact been managing the cover up of the Watergate scandal for Nixon but in return earn he demanded immunity and Archibald Cox Special Prosecutor didn't want to give him complete immunity because he had been so centrally involved often criminal activity in the bargaining went on for six months so let's turn to William Rickles House and Pat Buchanan describing describing the battle between Nixon and special prosecutor Archibald Cox during the days leading up to the Saturday night massacre the the president was obviously desperate to get these tapes back under his control and not have them released. It was trying to think of every way to do it. We're spending spending pregnancy entire day trying to figure out what to do. Next sources close to the negotiations indicated late today that so far all efforts to reach a compromise on the tapes apes case had failed but attorney general Elliot Richardson was described as still try trying very hard to work out a compromise because he if that was his response as Torney General I'll head called me and said we're going to give these summaries and we're GonNa GonNa Tell Cox who was Balkan that he's going to have to accept these and if he doesn't well he can do what he wants to do but talk if he process. Richardson will fire him. I said three words his Elliott aboard and I said yes US I said in that case let's go ahead on the evening of Friday October. Nineteen the White House publicly ordered Cox to stop pursuing the tapes Cox refused used issued a public statement himself and announced a press conference for the next morning. Anybody know you guys number. Jim Doyle marched while Cox's office. Yes I have a long statement. You're ready in my judgment off. The president is refusing to comply with with the court decrease Friday night resident had sent a letter Richardson telling him to fire Karsh Bridgeton Call Koch and read the letter to him over the phone but said he was going to issue the order because he didn't think appropriate and finally on Saturday Mauri the press covers so it's Saturday October twentieth nineteen seventy-three when US President Senate Richard Nixon Orders Attorney General Elliot Richardson to Fire Independent Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox and lay out what happens happens rigid refused and resigned instead so then Nixon had his chief of staff El Hage call the deputy attorney general we just saw Elliot Richardson Pardon. Me William Russell's house and Haig ordered ruggles house us to who was now the acting attorney general to to fire Cox ruggles house refused and depending on a who you believe in what time day it is he either resigned or was immediately fired these proud of both and and then finally Robert Bork the number three at the Justice Department agreed to fire Cox on ixis orders well. You're remarkable film. Watergate takes us through this step by step so let's go back to Watergate to William ruggles house remembering how Nixon and hey colton about the firing hiring Archibald Cox and Richard Benvenisti explaining how real power in Washington can be wielded originally and got a call from the White House and said he wanted the president wanted him he would order the White House and the president insisted any fire Cox and he would he wouldn't do it. My sister came up and said the president wants. Don't you on the phone. He's pretty clear what he wanted. When I got there it was actually exit was on the phone and the president and he said Eh president wants you to fire Archibald Cox. I said well I've thought about it. I can't do it. I think it's fundamentally wrong when he's done nothing wrong except except carry out his responsibilities and I just can't bring myself to fire a man who's done what he's hired to do by the president and Hey said well. Your commander in chief is ordering you to fire. Karsh come on now. I know he's a commander in chief it the union determine that. Who's going to blow me on my allergy but I don't do the right thing. We all go home awaiting awaiting further developments because it Saturday afternoon. I'm taking the evening off. Nothing happens in official Washington Washington on a Saturday night general reaction to the developments today well you'll have the announcement out of the White House later on there will be they'd have to do with the resignation Ignatius Attorney General. You'll have to get thank you go. Although the deputy attorney general didn't have much to say to reporters at that moment was evident from his appearance that something big was about to happen at Washington tonight but look I was thirty years old. I was as you know thought I was so sophisticated coming from New York and having been a federal prosecutor for five years I didn't know squat down real power and how it might be exercised at eight twenty pm Saturday evening all normal television broadcasts costs were suddenly interrupted. That's a clip from Watergate. All television networks were suddenly interrupted and what was the special report Port Charles Ferguson special report was that President Nixon had ordered Richardson the Attorney General to fire Cox and Richardson Richardson resigned instead then Deputy Attorney General William ruggles house was ordered to fire Cox and he refused and he was fired and then finally Archibald Cox himself was fired by Richard Nixon and all networks interrupted their normal programming to announce this and the people announcing announcing it often from the White House lawn were visibly shaken. It was clear that they were terribly distraught by what what did just happened as was the whole country and Richard Benvenisti that last voice we heard explain who he was and what happened to him. He was the deputy one of the deputy special prosecutors working under Archibald Cox and Nixon in an oversight neglected to fire Cox's staff just fired Cox so the staff remained and five days later after enormous political and Popular Resistance Nixon and was forced to appoint a replacement special prosecutor and Benvenisti stayed in his job and he stayed in his job but a special the prosecutor was appointed he was he was Leland. Your ski was the Replacement Special Prosecutor so let's turn to yet another clip. Let from Watergate I mean the film itself is over four hours and the health problem with that is that you almost can't breathe for the four hours. It is so filled with suspense in this Richard Benvenisti George Frampton and Jill wine banks described the tension for the Special Prosecutor Peter Office after the Saturday night massacre and this is accompanied by archival footage and explain who Henry Ruth and James Doyle aw who speak to the press immediately after the announcement explain it and Ruth was another deputy special prosecutor and Jim Doyle was archibald. Cox Isn't a special prosecutor offices spokesman public spokesman. Let's go to the Clam Broth Force had supplanted law. It was the closest thing to a Khuda todd then our country ever experienced I mean I thought it was possible. Some of US would be arrested. I mean the president had mounted a coup. What happens in a coup. I mean you arrest people locked out of their own offices. Prosecutors went upstairs to the library the continuing the investigation. I must say I suppose a human emotions. Take over in this kind of occasion does one thanks for Democracy. Maybe this would not happen but when Richard Nixon fired Archibald Cox he disastrously misjudge reaction from the public the courts the media and Congress not to mention the special prosecutor's themselves who were not about to roll over and play dead me talked about what what we were going to do and some people very few back showy said what we ought to resign and Archie said No. You should not if you haven't been fired. You should do everything you can to pursue. This case president of hand fired us. You'd fired arching being nobody knew of our existence. Really we were stat over side. Nixon had forgotten the fire us then we're here. Let's make them far worse. The White House announced that you were abolished. When did you begin to well. It were orange worried about you know the White House announced. We were abolished but if they announced the sky is green and you look in the sky is blue a couple of weeks ago. I got word from the civil service that I was a permanent employee of the government and I had rights. We are going to try like hell and that's the message I want want to get across today. We are here on. We're going to try. We are a criminal prosecution for us. We have reason to believe there's been some serious crime and we want to prosecute it. So that is Jim Toyota royal still the spokesperson had not yet been fired had not been fired for the Special Prosecutor's office who would become Leon Joie Ski. Yes Nixon was under under pressure forced to appoint a replacement special prosecutor Texas Attorney Leandra Water Ski five days later but during that five days we really didn't know what the world was going to be like. It was an enormously tense difficult time very scary time the closest thing the the United States has ever experienced to a coup collaborate on that well so Nixon head fired the attorney general the Deputy Attorney General and the special prosecutor he'd ordered the FBI to occupy the special prosecutor's offices and and he was resisting subpoenas that had been issued for the secret tapes that he had made which eventually proved his guilt and it was really very unclear that the rule of law would triumph and it was in the wake of the Saturday night Askar that for the first time people people in Congress and many people throughout the nation and the media started calling for Nixon's impeachment which takes us to our last clip and then we're going to talk about the power lyles else today the last clip of this remarkable film Watergate out now on history channel just premiered this is the venerable full Texas Congresswoman Barbara Jordan Jordan who people said had the voice of God and Elizabeth Holtzman who was the youngest woman elected to Congress for some forty years making statements during the House Judiciary Committee impeachment inquiry earlier today. We've heard the beginning of the preamble to the constitution of the United States. We the people it's a very eloquent beginning but when the document was completed on the seventeenth of September in seventeen eighty seven I was not included in that we the people I felt somehow for many years. George Washington Alexander Hamilton just left me out by mistake but through the process of amendment interpretation in court decision I have finally been included in we the people today I am and in was tall and hyperbole would not be fictional and would not overstate the solemness that I feel right now. My my faith in the constitution is hold. It is completed as total and I am not going to sit here and be an idol spectator to the Demo Lucien Russian version the destruction of the constitution it isn't the presidency that is in jeopardy Eddie from us. We would strive to strengthen and protect the presidency but if there be no accountability accountability another president will feel free to do as he chooses the next time there may be no watchmen in the night. Republicans David Dennis and Trent Lott gave the strongest speeches opposing impeachment the March twenty one payment to hunt was the last asked in a long series of such payments engineered by Mitchell Haldeman Dean and combat and later on Larue and all so far is appears without the president's dozens knowledge or complicity. We are faced with impeaching the president. The line must be drawn directly to the president clearly to the the president. This is not been done but they hadn't reckoned with Elizabeth Holtzman. The president discussed the matter of paying. Hunt Ken separate the times and a conversation on March twenty first with being in Haldeman and the last time the president disgusted he said and I quote that's why for your immediate thing. You've got no choice with hunt but the one twenty or whatever it is right. Would you agree that. That's a by time thing you better damn I am. We'll get that done but fast for Christ's sake get it. Perhaps some people find ambiguous in that conversation. I don't that last voice Elizabeth Holtzman the first Congress member Barbara Jordan now we've leapt forward over half a year ear to the House Judiciary Committee and the impeachment hearings you when you take us through what happened in October the Saturday night massacre the president being forced to appoint a new special prosecutor so then everyone felt he would be covering for President Nixon Leandra Gorski and explain what happen next with Archibald Cox staff actually still. They're doing the work well your cue proved to be quite tough sky and took his job very seriously and eventually from the combination of of political pressure and legal decisions. Nixon was forced to turn over the first group of his secret tapes which already demonstrated enormous involvement at least in the Watergate cover up and those tapes were then transmitted by the special prosecutor to the House Judiciary Committee which was considering impeachment. Dow's Judiciary Committee spent six months conducting its research hearing for witnesses reading documents and and then opened public debate and what we just saw was part of that public debate and explain especially for young people who don't even know what these tapes or about that. Richard Nixon himself secretly ordered the taping of the White House and all the conversations in the Oval Office. Yes Nixon secretly taped himself between February of Nineteen seventy-one in July of nineteen seventy-three and only one person on his staff his chief of Staff Haldeman knew about the existence of the taping system. Nobody else knew including his cabinet and those tapes eventually demonstrated Nixon's direct complicity city in the Watergate cover up in led to his forced resignation and there was also another issue is not only the Watergate cover up but it was the burglarizing of Daniel Ellsberg Ellsberg's psychiatrist's Office yes along with these many efforts to investigate and sabotage the Democrats. It's in Nixon's democratic opponents. There was a similar effort conducted by many of the same people to investigate infiltrate and sabotage the antiwar movement that was opposing the war in Vietnam and Nixon's policies with regard to the war in Vietnam and Daniel Ellsberg Berg was one of the targets of those efforts because Daniel Ellsberg previously a top adviser to the Pentagon with regard to Vietnam had leaked to the New York Times and the Washington Post a secret study of American policy in Vietnam that he had been involved in constructing trucking and which demonstrated that the American government had frequently lied about Vietnam and Nixon was outraged as was Henry Kissinger Injure Nixon and Kissinger eventually forced an effort to investigate and try to sabotage Asia Daniel Ellsberg and that involved a burglary of Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office and he was going to face the rest most of his life in jail. Ellsberg trial was going on at this time yes he was he was charged with offenses under the espionage act and he was facing a potential total of all over one hundred years in prison for releasing the Pentagon papers was the reaction his trial when he understood what had taken place well all the as a result of the Senate Watergate Committee investigations in the middle of nineteen seventy-three an an enormous number of revelations came out including those pertaining to to Ellsberg and what Nixon had in the administration had done to him that included not only burglarizing Ellsberg's psychiatrist but wire-tapping various people involved in the antiwar movement wiretapping various as people who were suspected of leaking John Erlich men the domestic policy adviser had actually approached the judge in the Pentagon papers case and offered him the directorship of the FBI while he was judging the Ellsberg trial and when all of this came out the judge dismissed all charges against Ellsberg because the case had been so prejudiced by the administration's behavior and now we move to the House Judiciary Committee with Barbara Jordan with Liz Holzman and what did they do and what did the Republicans on the committee who had and how did the party's shift when did Republicans like Trent Lott get convinced of Richard Connections guilt well. Some Republicans stayed loyal to Nixon until the very end but most nice to them. Most Republicans began to shift after the first group of Nixon's tapes were released and as a result of what the Senate Watergate Committee and then later the House Judiciary Judiciary Committee's impeachment inquiry had uncovered about Nixon's behavior and in late July of nineteen seventy four the judiciary committee voted on three articles of impeachment which were approved and which were then going to be referred to the house which would almost certainly impeach Nixon but before then a second group of tapes were released just after the impeachment votes as a result of legal pressure from the special prosecutors and a Supreme Court decision and those tapes showed Nixon extremely directly ordering the Watergate cover up and engaging in several abuses of presidential power in order to conceal what his organization have been doing and at that point all of Nixon's remaining Republican support disappeared so Charles Ferguson. You've worked on this film now for years before for the trump presidency and during it. It's just been released. What most surprised you in your research and what's most important especially for young people to understand stand as we look at what's happening today. I think that one thing that surprised me was the degree to which the successful resolution of the Watergate scandal depended ended on the the unbelievable courage and commitment and high ethical standards of a relatively small number of people I was astounded by what people in the media did by members of Congress and what they did by government officials who stood up to President Nixon refused to obey his orders in some cases it was quite remarkable remarkable to see that to see the way that the government worked and people in the media worked Katharine Graham the owner of the Washington Post at the time she had a spinal cord of tempered steel and the Republicans filed a lawsuit against the Washington Post in an attempt to get access to their sources and when that happened the reporters went to the editor. The editor went to Thomas Graham and her response was the reporter's notes are not their notes there my notes and if anybody's going to go to jail it's GonNa be me. It's difficult difficult to imagine a media executive in a comparable situation saying that now and I would say the same thing for many government officials many members of Congress so one worrying difference between Watergate and now is I think that the quality of people in Government Service and the quality of people in Congress has declined sharply as has bipartisanship in Congress Charles Ferguson. Thanks so much for joining us today but also for your remarkable documentary Charles Ferguson is an Academy Award Winning Director and author his new documentary Tree Watergate or how we learn to stop an out of control precedent. This is democracy now democracy now DOT ORG the Warren Peace Report. I'm Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.