The seriousness of the Watergate matter was measured by the strength of the Senate’s vote to create an investigative committee – 77 to 0. By the time it began its televised hearings in mid-May 1973, its chairman, the affable, homespun, Senator Ervin and his team of investigators were flanking the White House defense. James McCord was cooperating, and White House counsel to the president, John Dean, was a veritable fountain of allegations. President Nixon had fired Dean on April 30. That same day Nixon’s chief of staff Bob Haldeman and Domestic Counsel John Ehrlichman had resigned because of their role in Watergate. And Attorney General Richard Kleindienst resigned stating he was incapable of prosecuting close friends.
In an attempt to mitigate the damage, Nixon named Elliot Richardson Attorney General. Following Nixon’s instructions, Richardson announced on May 18, that the Justice Department was appointing its own special prosecutor, former Solicitor General Archibald Cox, to investigate possible administration misdeeds.
Meanwhile, the White House announced that the president had no prior knowledge of the Watergate matter. Yet Dean’s testimony refuted that claim. He told a stunned Senate committee and, through the gathered media, an astonished public, that Nixon not only knew of the break-in, the president had directed in the cover-up. But how could such claims be corroborated?
The answer came on July 16, when Alexander Butterfield, a former White House appointments secretary, quietly and unexpectedly informed the Senate committee that a system of taping conversations and telephone calls was in place within the White House.