The Slatest

’70s Memo Indicates George H.W. Bush Had Role in Nixon Obstruction-of-Justice Scheme

Bush and Nixon smiling while wearing tuxedoes.
George H.W. Bush and Richard Nixon in D.C. on March 11, 1992, at an event related to the Nixon Library.
Luke Frazza/AFP/Getty Images

Well, this is wild: In the course of researching a Nov. 13 episode of the Slow Burn–style podcast Bag Man, which is about corrupt Nixon administration Vice President Spiro Agnew, MSNBC host Rachel Maddow and producer Mike Yarvitz seem to have uncovered evidence that the late George H.W. Bush was involved in a Nixon-led effort to obstruct a federal investigation into Agnew’s activities.

It’s a convoluted story, but the gist is this:

• Prosecutors working for U.S. Attorney George Beall of Maryland were investigating local corruption when they learned that Agnew, when he was an elected official in that state, had taken bribes from individuals seeking government contracts. At the time, George Beall’s brother Glenn was one of Maryland’s U.S. senators.

• Agnew found out about the U.S. attorney investigation sometime in the spring of 1973 and started asking Nixon aides John Ehrlichman, H.R. Haldeman, and Alexander Haig to help him squash it.* He wanted to do this by having Glenn Beall, the senator, tell his brother George Beall to back off.

• Because Nixon recorded his conversations and Haldeman kept his own recorded audio diary, there’s real-time documentation of the entire scheme. “[Agnew] asked Bob [Haldeman] for help in turning [the investigation] off,” Ehrlichman told Nixon at one point; Agnew himself is on tape saying that “Glenn Beall’s the only way to influence this” and that Beall needed to tell his brother to “finish up what he’s doing.” Nixon muses to Haig about the need to “fix the case” without the public finding out.

• Nixon and Haig decided they’d have Bush, who was at that point the chairman of the Republican National Committee, talk to Sen. Beall about the investigation.

HAIG: Yeah, they’re after everybody. And the vice president has been very nervous, he called me three times here.

NIXON: I know and you decided to have Harlow try to, well he’s isn’t here—

HAIG: He isn’t here, so I did it through George Bush on the first run.

• In July 1973, George Beall (the U.S. attorney) wrote in his own notes that his brother (the senator) had told him that individuals including “Vice President Agnew … and George Bush” had inquired about the Maryland corruption investigation. These notes, which MSNBC posted online, specifically mention “a complaint that [Sen. Beall] had heard from Bush to the effect that attorneys in this office were said to be harassing persons who had been questioned by us in the Baltimore County investigation.”

So, there’s a record of Nixon and his aides discussing the need to “fix” the investigation into Agnew, of Nixon learning that Bush had been asked to help do so, and of the U.S. attorney running the investigation noting that Bush had complained to his brother.

Nixon’s plan didn’t work: U.S. Attorney Beall simply ignored the complaints. By the end of 1973, Agnew had resigned and pled no contest to felony tax evasion. But as MSNBC notes, the attempt to shut down the investigation still seems to fit the legal definition of obstruction of justice. It’s impossible to say whether Bush would have been found legally liable for his participation therein if such a case had ever been brought, or how he would have defended himself if accused. But in any case, the incident seems like a relevant data point in the ongoing discussion of the 41st president’s legacy.

Correction, Dec. 5, 2018: This post originally misspelled John Erhlichman’s last name.