The coverup carried Nixon through the election, but not without a feeling of doom. On the eve of the balloting, he had stood on the California shore, staring at an abnormal low tide, and feared it was a portent. In victory he was snappish, churlish. “There is something rancid about the way things are going,” one top aide told another.
The burglars came to trial, and were convicted, in January 1973. U.S. District Judge John Sirica threatened them with draconian sentences if they did not say who ordered the break-in, and they soon beat a path to the federal prosecutors and the Watergate committee—where the White House counsel, John Dean, testified that summer, in public and at length, about Nixon’s misdeeds.
It was Dean’s word against the president, but the committee had stumbled onto the secret of the White House taping system. Nixon knew he was guilty of obstructing justice. He knew that the White House tapes would prove he was lying. And here was Cox, determined to get those tapes.
So Nixon ordered his attorney general, Elliot Richardson, to fire Cox. Richardson refused, and resigned. So did his deputy, William Ruckelshaus. According to the Justice Department’s line of succession, the deed fell to the solicitor general, Robert Bork. “The office of the Watergate Special Prosecution Force has been abolished,” the White House press secretary, Ron Ziegler, declared. FBI agents sealed off the special prosecutor’s office and barred the staff from removing their files.