United States v. Nixon

Contributor: Nathan Murphy. Lesson ID: 13676

In 1974, the Supreme Court had to decide how far executive privilege went. Is the president above the law? If so, to what degree? What they decided would bring the Watergate scandal to an end.


Government, United States

learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Grade Level
High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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In November of 1973 amidst the Watergate scandal, President Richard Nixon addressed the nation and proclaimed that he:

  • never profited from public service
  • never obstructed justice
  • welcomed examination
  • was not a crook

Watch the speech yourself in Richard Nixon - "I'm not a crook" from Major Kong:

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  • Does he seem believable?

Discover which -- if any -- of those assertions were true as you analyze the 1974 Supreme Court case United States v. Nixon.

June 17, 1972

Watergate Hotel

The defining event of Richard Nixon's presidency was the Watergate scandal.

During the 1972 presidential campaign, Richard Nixon was set on one thing: winning. He had lost the 1960 election to John F. Kennedy and barely managed to win in 1968, so he fought hard for his re-election.

In the middle of the campaign, on June 17, 1972, several people employed by the White House broke into the Watergate Hotel, where the Democratic National Committee was organized.

These people, nicknamed the Plumbers, took photos of private documents and attempted to find incriminating evidence that could be used to get an advantage over Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern.

June 23, 1972

Nixon Oval Office tap recorder

Image from the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

At some point during his presidency, Richard Nixon decided that he wanted to record every word that was spoken in the Oval Office. Accordingly, seven microphones were hidden inside the Oval Office and instantly started recording when someone began talking.

Although no one knows exactly why Nixon wanted this, he likely wanted to record people just in case they became disloyal, so he would have incriminating audio of them. Or he genuinely thought some of the conversations would be so historically significant that he would send them to the National Archives to save.

Regardless, this system captured a conversation on June 23, 1972, which came to be known as the "Smoking Gun Tape".

As you listen and read along to part of this conversation between Nixon and his Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman, decide if you think Nixon knew about the Watergate break-in before it occurred.

President Nixon and H.R. Haldeman discuss the Watergate investigation, June 23, 1972 from the Richard Nixon Presidential Library:

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It seemed like Richard Nixon had no clue this had happened. While Nixon was incredibly devoted to getting re-elected, he likely would not have jeopardized his presidency to gain some information on George McGovern.

As you listen you can hear the voice of a man trying to figure out what to do when faced with major consequences.

However, the consequences Richard Nixon would have faced would have been minimal if he had immediately told the FBI what happened and that he was not a part of it.

  • Considering it had already happened though, would the American people want to vote for someone even remotely tied to the Watergate break-in?

It was at this moment that Richard Nixon made his mistake. He agreed to cover up an event that he likely had no part in planning.

April 11, 1974

For over a year, the Watergate Commission investigated the burglars and tried to figure out who had hired and paid them. Following the money trail revealed that these men were members of the Committee to Re-Elect the President (CREEP) and were, essentially, "fix-it" men for the White House.

However, the commission did not stop there. People discovered that Nixon was recording every conversation in the Oval Office. As a result, a subpoena was issued for the tape recordings made immediately following the break-in.

Richard Nixon, circa 1970

Image by the Department of Defense, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

On April 11, 1974, Nixon and his team began editing the tapes to remove anything relating to Watergate. The president believed Executive Privilege allowed him to legally do this.

July 8, 1974

Executive Privilege is the idea that the executive of the nation, the president, has certain privileges that other citizens do not. Because many of the conversations the president has are confidential, Nixon argued he should not be forced to turn over any recordings he did not wish to release.

Supreme Court

On July 8, 1974, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a case arguing that Richard Nixon had to release the tapes unedited.

July 24, 1974

Only 16 days later, United States v. Nixon was decided unanimously. Richard Nixon had to release the tapes because the prosecution had proven:

"...sufficient likelihood that each of the tapes contains conversations relevant to the offenses charged in the indictment"

Therefore, Nixon's claim of Executive Privilege no longer stood.

August 5, 1974

Only weeks later, the "Smoking Gun" tape was released in accordance with the United States v. Nixon ruling.

Watch President Nixon recalls the day the 'Smoking Gun' tape was released, from The News & Observer, to hear him explain what that day was like:

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While Nixon never should have covered up this scandal or made the Supreme Court decision on the extent of Executive Privilege, he did eventually accept the consequences for his actions.

Fearing he would be impeached and face a trial he would inevitably lose, Nixon resigned and left the office with as much dignity as possible.

Continue on to the Got It? section to explore the limits of Executive Privilege and what this case was really about.

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