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Nixon shows no surprise that Frost had access to this previously undisclosed Colson tape. It was subpoenaed by Watergate Special Prosecutor Leon Jaworski for use against Nixon's top aides in their criminal trial, but was not put into evidence. The implication of the tape is that Nixon—on his first day at work after the burglary—was already directing a cover-up effort. Now, for the first time in the days of interviewing, Nixon's speech begins to falter.
"My motive in everything I was saying or certainly thinking at the time was not to try to cover up a criminal action but ... to be sure that as far as any slip-over—or should I say slop-over, I think, would be a better word—any slop-over in a way that would damage innocent people." He begins to ramble. "We weren't going to allow people in the White House, people in the committee [his re-election committee] at the highest levels who were not involved to be smeared by the whole thing. In other words, we were trying to politically contain it."
As he has done before, Nixon is clinging to the frail legal distinction that he was not intent on covering up any criminal acts by his men, which would be a crime in itself, but merely working to avoid what he contends would have been unjustified political criticism of the White House and his re-election committee. Understandably, Frost does not buy that.
Did not Nixon go far beyond a political act in directing his aides to get the CIA to ask the FBI to stop following certain leads in its official investigation of Watergate? Nixon can no longer deny he did so, since the celebrated June 23, 1972, "smoking pistol" tape shows conclusively that he did.
For the first time, Nixon, his taut face betraying his discomfort, admits publicly that his repeated claim that he was only trying to keep the FBI out of national security matters is "untrue." Indeed, it is obvious that what he sought to stop was the FBI's tracing of money found on the Watergate burglars back to his political committee. Nixon concedes: "It was a grievous mistake to have gotten the CIA involved in this thing."
But, Nixon insists, this was not a criminal act. He did not at that time know, he claims, that his aides had been involved in planning or directing the burglary.
Frost pounces. "But surely, in all you've just said, you have proved exactly that that was the case, that there was a cover-up of criminal activity because you've already said, and the record shows you knew, that Hunt and Liddy [E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy, who had served on Nixon's secret White House plumbers' team] were involved ... you knew that, in fact, criminals would be protected."
"Now just a moment," protests Nixon with a fleeting half-smile. "Period," says Frost.