Historical Accuracy (Q&A):
Who were the "White House Plumbers"?
The true story reveals that the name refers to President Richard Nixon's team of political operatives who were tasked with identifying and "plugging" national security information "leaks" to outside parties from within the government. The unit was established after the publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971. Two of Nixon's "plumbers," E. Howard Hunt (played by Woody Harrelson in the series) and G. Gordon Liddy (portrayed by Justin Theroux), masterminded the Watergate burglaries, which involved breaking into the Democratic National Committee's headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C. to bug telephones with listening devices and to photograph campaign documents.
The Watergate complex as seen on approach to Washington National Airport in 2006.
Is the White House Plumbers HBO series based on a book?Yes. While conducting our fact-check, we discovered that the HBO limited series is partly based on Egil "Bud" Krogh's 2007 memoir Integrity: Good People, Bad Choices, and Life Lessons from the White House which he co-authored with his son, Matthew Krogh. To coincide with the release of the HBO Max limited series, a new edition of the book was released and titled The White House Plumbers: The Seven Weeks That Led to Watergate and Doomed Nixon's Presidency. Egil Krogh was a lawyer and Nixon Administration official who was tasked in 1971 with heading the Special Investigations Unit that later became better known as "The Plumbers." Prior to Krogh stepping into the role, Nixon said that he wanted the unit run by a "real son of a bitch." Instead, he got the studious, principled, fervent, and loyal-to-a-fault Bud Krogh.
Krogh was implicated in the Watergate scandal and pleaded guilty to violating the civil rights of psychiatrist Lewis Fielding when he approved the September 1971 burglary of Fielding's office. E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy committed the break-in in hopes of finding information that Daniel Ellsberg (the man who leaked the Pentagon Papers) revealed in confidence when meeting with Fielding, his psychiatrist. Egil Krogh was sentenced to six years in prison but he served just four-and-a-half months.
Were the DNC offices at the Watergate complex burglarized twice?Yes. The two Watergate burglaries were orchestrated by two of Nixon's operatives, former CIA officer E. Howard Hunt and the Finance Counsel for the Committee for the Re-Election of the President, G. Gordon Liddy. The White House Plumbers true story confirms that the first Watergate break-in to wiretap phones in the Democratic National Committee's offices was carried out on May 28, 1972. While the operation was successful, it was soon determined that the listening devices needed repairs. A second break-in was plotted and carried out on June 17, 1972. This time, the five burglars who broke into the DNC's offices were caught in the act and arrested by police.
Were E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy in radio contact with the Watergate burglars during the break-in?
Yes. A White House Plumbers fact-check confirms that Hunt and Liddy were stationed in a Watergate Hotel room and were in radio contact with each other and with the burglars. Tiny microphones inside Chapstick tubes were later discovered in Hunt's office safe in the White House. They were used to communicate during the break-in. The Chapstick microphones are pictured in the evidence photo below.
The Chapstick microphones used by E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy during the Watergate break-in. Photo: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration
How were the Watergate burglars caught?At some point after midnight on June 17, 1972, a security guard at the Watergate complex named Frank Wills noticed that tape was covering the latches on some of the building's doors that accessed the underground parking lot. Wills removed the tape and didn't think much of it. However, when he returned a short time later and saw that someone had retaped the locks, he called the police.
Three plainclothes officers in an unmarked police car were the first ones on the scene. They searched the Democratic National Committee's offices on the sixth floor and arrested five men. The Watergate "burglars" were later identified as James McCord, Virgilio Gonzalez, Eugenio Martínez, Frank Sturgis, and Bernard Barker. They were charged with attempted burglary and for bugging the phones.
Did the spotter across the street miss the arrival of the police car because he was distracted watching a movie?
Yes. During the second break-in to the DNC offices at the Watergate complex, spotter Alfred Baldwin was on lookout duty at the Howard Johnson Hotel across the street. In answering the question, "Is White House Plumbers accurate?" we learned that it's true Baldwin did not see the police car pull up because he was watching the 1958 movie Attack of the Puppet People on TV. He also failed to notice the plainclothes police officers investigating the DNC's 29 offices on the sixth floor. By the time he noticed the officers' activity on the sixth floor, he radioed the burglars but it was too late. The five Watergate burglars were apprehended by the police.
Watergate spotter Alfred Baldwin missed the arrival of the police because he was distracted watching the movie Attack of the Puppet People
in his hotel room across the street. Photo: Courtesy of Archives and Special Collections. LIU Post Library. Long Island University
Did the Nixon administration try to cover up their involvement in the Watergate break-ins and wiretapping?Yes. While Watergate prosecutor James Neal didn't believe that Nixon knew about the break-in beforehand, Nixon did order his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, to have the CIA stop the FBI's investigation into where the money came from to fund the Watergate break-in. At an August 22, 1972 news conference, Nixon stated that Presidential Counsel John Dean had conducted a thorough investigation of the Watergate complex break-in. In reality, Dean had not conducted any investigations at all. "I can say categorically that his investigation indicates that no one in the White House staff, no one in this Administration, presently employed, was involved in this very bizarre incident," said President Nixon. -The New York Times
After E. Howard Hunt's arrest, he pressured the White House and the Committee to Re-Elect the President to provide him with cash payments for himself and his fellow Watergate conspirators, claiming they needed money to cover legal fees, support for their families, and expenses. Key figures around Nixon became involved in the payoff schemes to ensure the silence of Hunt and the others at the trial. They were to plead guilty to avoid prosecutors' questions that could expose the administration's involvement in the Watergate break-ins and subsequent cover-up. Investigative journalists at outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post exposed the payoff scheme, which is when the cover-up began to fall apart.
Were E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy part of a 1972 plot to assassinate a journalist?Under orders from Charles Colson, an attorney who served as the director of Nixon's Office of Public Liaison, E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy were involved in an assassination plot targeting Jack Anderson, an adversarial journalist who Nixon disliked because he had published an election-eve story in 1960 regarding a secret loan Nixon's brother had received from Howard Hughes. While conducting our White House Plumbers fact-check, we learned that Nixon felt that Jack Anderson's story had been the reason he lost the 1960 presidential election. Fortunately for Anderson, the assassination plot to poison him was aborted and both Liddy and Hunt were arrested for their role in the Watergate scandal. -The Washington Post
Does White House Plumbers accurately portray E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy?
While White House Plumbers may get its facts largely correct, it opts for somewhat campy and over-the-top interpretations of Hunt and Liddy. This is not uncommon for political dramas. We need only look at recent films like Vice and a number of other TV shows and movies. This is often what happens when members of one side of the political aisle make a movie about members of the other, especially those in government. Instead of taking their subjects seriously, the characters essentially become caricatures of the real people. It may still make for an enjoyable series or movie, but it detracts from the historical accuracy. Perhaps it was somewhat easy for the filmmakers to veer in that direction here, especially since the burglars were in fact, second-rate criminals.
Actors Justin Theroux and Woody Harrelson portray G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt in White House Plumbers
on HBO Max.
For a 1970s-era political drama with a more honest take on its subjects, check out Steven Spielberg's 2017 drama The Post
, which tells the story of the publishing of the Pentagon Papers
, the event that prompted the Nixon Administration to create its White House Plumbers unit to investigate that leak and plug any future leaks.
Was E. Howard Hunt involved in the assassination of JFK?Toward the end of the White House Plumbers teaser trailer, G. Gordon Liddy (Justin Theroux) asks E. Howard Hunt (Woody Harrelson), "Who really killed JFK?" Hunt gives the exasperated response, "Oh Christ." The scene is alluding to the fact that there were conspiracy allegations that Hunt and fellow Watergate criminal Frank Sturgis may have been near the Texas School Book Depository when JFK was assassinated. This is because in 1974, assassination researchers Alan J. Weberman and Michael Canfield thought that the two men resembled two of the "three tramps" (transitory homeless people) who were arrested after President Kennedy was assassinated.
Conspiracy allegations described E. Howard Hunt as being one of the "three tramps" arrested in Dallas shortly after JFK's assassination. In the photo above, a police officer escorts the three tramps after their arrest.
In 1975, the Rockefeller Commission concluded that Hunt and Sturgis were not two of the tramps who had been arrested. An FBI photo identification and analysis expert had compared photos of the three tramps to Hunt and Sturgis and found that the Watergate criminals were not a match. In 1989, the Dallas Police Department finally released the November 22, 1963 arrest records of the three tramps, revealing that the men were Harold Doyle, John F. Gedney, and Gus W. Abrams. The records stated that the men had been "taken off a boxcar in the railroad yards right after President Kennedy was shot" and were held as "investigative prisoners."
The other rumor linking E. Howard Hunt to the JFK assassination began when author and former New York Times foreign correspondent Tad Szulc published his 1973 book Compulsive Spy, in which he claimed that unnamed sources conveyed to him that Hunt had not only helped coordinate the assassination of Castro, but that he had been the acting chief of the CIA's Mexico City station in 1963 when Lee Harvey Oswald was there. According to a 1975 Rockefeller Commission report, "At no time was [Hunt] ever the Chief, or Acting Chief, of a CIA Station in Mexico City." The report also emphasized that there was "no credible evidence" that the CIA was involved in the assassination of JFK.
Did investigators find a significant amount of cash with Dorothy Hunt's body after she died in a plane crash?Yes. The White House Plumbers true story verifies that E. Howard Hunt's wife, Dorothy Hunt (portrayed by Lena Headey), perished when United Air Lines Flight 553 crashed in a Chicago neighborhood while it was on approach to Midway International Airport on December 8, 1972. Of the 61 passengers and crew aboard the Boeing 737-222, 43 perished and two people on the ground were killed.
E. Howard Hunt's wife, Dorothy Hunt, perished when United Air Lines Flight 553 crashed into a Chicago neighborhood.
Investigators discovered that Dorothy Hunt had been carrying $10,000 in $100 bills in her purse. It was speculated that the money was for the Watergate defendants to help with their legal expenses and to pay for their silence. A conspiracy theory emerged that the flight had been sabotaged in order to target Hunt and that government agencies covered up their involvement. This led to the crash becoming known as "the Watergate crash." In the end, the official cause of the crash as determined by NTSB investigators was pilot error.
What was E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy's punishment?A White House Plumbers fact-check reveals that in total, 69 government officials were charged in relation to the Watergate scandal. 48 of them were found guilty. Security consultant E. Howard Hunt (played by Woody Harrelson in the HBO Max series) was convicted of masterminding and supervising the Watergate burglary. While his original sentence was up to 35 years in prison, Hunt served just 33 months. His co-conspirator, G. Gordon Liddy (portrayed by Justin Theroux), was also convicted of masterminding the burglary. His original sentence included up to 35 years in prison. He spent a total of four-and-a-half years in federal prison.