President Donald Trump’s early-morning tweet that his predecessor Barack Obama wiretapped him prior to the November election has created a political and media firestorm still burning today. “Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory,” he wrote Saturday. “This is Nixon/Watergate.”
But this isn’t the first time a sitting president has accused a former president of illegally wiretapping him on the eve of an election. It happened in 1973, when Richard Nixon, his presidency consumed by the Watergate scandal, accused John F. Kennedy of the exact same thing in the last days of the 1960 presidential campaign.
Allegations that Kennedy operatives had bugged Nixon’s hotel suite at the Wardman Park Hotel in Washington D.C. on the eve of their second televised debate in October 1960 first surfaced in 1973 as Nixon was facing possible impeachment in the Watergate scandal.
Their first debate – the first presidential debate ever televised – is far more famous, with historians generally agreeing that Nixon, ill at ease and sweating profusely under the glare of the hot studio lights, lost the encounter to the more poised and self-assured Kennedy. But it’s the unfounded allegation of wiretapping on the eve of their second debate that so eerily echoes today’s headlines.
Nixon’s allegations, like Trump’s, were widely and skeptically reported, and would go on to reshape the investigation into the Watergate scandal. But just as there has been no proof offered so far to support Trump’s recent allegation against Obama, there was none to support Nixon’s claim against Kennedy, either. And then as now, critics accused Nixon and Trump of making their unsubstantiated claims to deflect the attention of the media and government investigators away from scandals that threatened to undermine their presidencies.
On July 24, 1973, the day after Nixon refused to comply with the Senate Watergate Committee’s subpoena to turn over the infamous White House tapes, Nixon’s deputy, George H. W. Bush, held a press conference and accused Carmine Bellino, the Watergate Committee’s chief investigator, of having wiretapped Nixon’s hotel room 13 years earlier on the night before that second TV debate.
As the committee’s chief sleuth, Bellino’s job was to track down evidence for all the various crimes Nixon and his co-conspirators were accused or suspected of having committed. But Bellino was no independent investigator. A longtime friend of the Kennedy family and a former administrative assistant to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, Bellino had been JFK’s ace investigator when then-Sen. Kennedy was investigating Jimmy Hoffa for the Senate rackets hearings in the 1950s. And during the 1960 presidential race, Bellino had worked as an investigator for Kennedy’s campaign.
And Bellino was good at his job. Much of the evidence to support the wide-ranging charges that would eventually bring Nixon down and land many of his top aids in prison was either uncovered or dug up or substantiated by Bellino.
So with the Watergate Committee closing in, Nixon trotted out Bush, whom he had appointed as chairman of the National Republican Committee to help him manage the growing Watergate crisis, to hold a press conference and accuse Bellino of having wiretapped Nixon before the 1960 election.
During that hastily called press conference in July 1973, Bush, who had been put up to it by Nixon, produced affidavits from three convicted wiretappers who claimed they’d been hired by Bellino to bug Nixon’s hotel room before the second TV debate.
“The Nixon-Kennedy election was a real cliffhanger,” Bush told reporters at the press conference, “and the debates bore heavily on the outcome.” Bush sheepishly acknowledged that the evidence supporting his allegations against Bellino was “incomplete,” but said, “I’d like to see somebody develop it further.”
And develop it they did. Senate Republicans demanded Bellino be taken off the Watergate investigation, and that he be investigated himself — and he was, for the next two and a half months.
Bellino, who had the determination and grim countenance of a bulldog, angrily denied the charges, insisting he had never engaged in any surveillance of Nixon during the 1960 election, and had never used electronic surveillance against anyone during his long career as an investigator.
Even so, Bellino was removed as the committee’s chief investigator for the next 2½ months as he himself was being investigated. In the end, investigators found no evidence to support Bush’s charges that many believed had been designed to deflect media attention away from Nixon’s own crimes and onto the alleged wiretapping crimes of a former president.
After Bellino was cleared, Watergate Committee chairman Sam Ervin declared him to be “an honorable and faithful servant,” adding that “there was not a scintilla of competent or credible evidence” to sustain the charges against him.
“It was a frame-up,” said Sam Dash, the Watergate Committee’s chief counsel. “We were all angry about it. We thought Bellino was a man of great integrity, and we thought the charges against him were an effort by people who thought they could harm the integrity of the committee by harming its chief investigator. Both Sam Ervin and I believed then that this was a Nixon dirty trick.”
Whether or not Trump’s allegations turn out to be nothing more than a dirty trick remains to be seen. If so, his claim that “This is Nixon/Watergate” could be truer than even he imagined.