Richard Nixon and John D. Ehrlichman on 14 June 1971


Transcript

Edited by Ken Hughes, with Patrick J. Garrity, Erin R. Mahan, and Kieran K. Matthews

President Nixon’s White House tapes reveal how quickly and casually he decided to launch one of the biggest First Amendment cases in American history. In this conversation, President Nixon first learned that his Justice Department was considering prosecution of the New York Times for publishing excerpts from a top secret Defense Department history of the Vietnam War that the newspaper called the Pentagon Papers. Less than ten minutes later, in a phone call with Attorney General John N. Mitchell, the President agreed to let the department issue a warning to the newspaper claiming that publication of the Pentagon Papers violated U.S. laws against espionage.[note 1] See Conversation 005-070, 14 June 1971, 7:19–7:22 p.m., White House Telephone.

A transcript of this conversation appears in John Prados and Margaret Pratt Porter, eds., Inside the Pentagon Papers (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004), 104–5.
President Nixon

Hello.

White House Operator

It's Mr. [John D.] Ehrlichman calling you, sir.[note 3] John D. Ehrlichman was White House counsel from January 1969 to November 1969, and White House domestic affairs adviser from January 1969 to April 1973.

President Nixon

Yeah, OK.

White House Operator

Here you are.

John D. Ehrlichman

Thanks. Hello?

President Nixon

Yeah.

Ehrlichman

Mr. President, [President Nixon acknowledges] the Attorney General [John N. Mitchell] has called a couple times about these New York Times stories, and he's advised by his people that unless he puts the Times on notice, [President Nixon acknowledges] he's probably going to waive any right of prosecution against the newspaper.[note 4] John N. Mitchell was U.S. attorney general from January 1969 to February 1972; director of Richard Nixon's 1968 presidential campaign; and chair of the Nixon reelection campaign from March to July 1972. And he is calling now to see if you would approve his putting them on notice before their first edition for tomorrow comes out.

President Nixon

Hmm.

Ehrlichman

I realize there are negatives to this in terms of the vote on the Hill.[note 5] Nixon assumed that the Times was running the Pentagon Papers stories to influence the Senate vote on a troop withdrawal timetable for Vietnam.

President Nixon

[Pause.] You mean, to prosecute the Times?

Ehrlichman

Right.

President Nixon

Hell, I wouldn't prosecute the Times. My view is to prosecute the goddamn pricks that gave it to them.

Ehrlichman

Yeah, if you can find out who that is.

President Nixon

Yeah, I know. I mean, could the Times be prosecuted?

Ehrlichman

Apparently so.

President Nixon

[Pause.] Wait a minute. Wait a minute. They . . . on the other hand, they're going to run another story tomorrow.[note 6] The Times had previewed the next day’s articles: “Tomorrow: The President Orders a Ground-Combat Mission.”

Ehrlichman

Right. And—

President Nixon

Why doesn't he just wait till after that one?

Ehrlichman

Well, his point is that he feels he has to give them some sort of advance notice, and then if they go ahead in disregard, why, then [President Nixon acknowledges] there's no danger of waiver. But if he doesn't give them notice, then it's almost like entrapment: we sit here and let them go ahead on a course of conduct and don't raise any objection.

President Nixon

Well, could he wait one more day? They have one more day after that. Oh, I don't know. I don't know.

Ehrlichman

He apparently feels under some pressure to either decide to do it or not do it.

President Nixon

Hmm. Does he have a judgment himself as to whether he wants to or not?

Ehrlichman

Yeah, I think he wants to. You might want to give him a call and talk with him about it directly, as I'm not very well posted [President Nixon acknowledges] on this whole thing.

President Nixon

How do you feel about it?

Ehrlichman

Well, I'd kind of like to have a cause of action against them in the sock in case we needed it. I'd hate to waive something as good as that. But I don't know [President Nixon acknowledges] what the ramifications would be in terms of the Hill.

President Nixon

Oh, hell. It isn't going to affect the vote, in my opinion, just . . . [Long pause.] Mm-hmm.

Ehrlichman

Would you want to take a call from him?

President Nixon

Oh yeah, I'll call him.

Ehrlichman

All right.

President Nixon

I’ll call him.

Ehrlichman

Good.

President Nixon

OK. Thank you.

Cite as

“Richard Nixon and John D. Ehrlichman on 14 June 1971,” Conversation 005-068, Presidential Recordings Digital Edition [Nixon Telephone Tapes 1971, ed. Ken Hughes] (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014–). URL: http://prde.upress.virginia.edu/conversations/4002138