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Speaking slowly as his mind gropes for a way out, Nixon recalls that in a familiar July 6, 1972, conversation, he told acting FBI Director L. Patrick Gray to "conduct your aggressive and thorough investigation." Nixon does not note that this was after the CIA had refused to put its concerns about "national security" in writing, as Gray had insisted. Nixon tells Frost that this FBI go-ahead shows that, whatever he might have said in June, by July he certainly was not obstructing justice.

This puts Nixon in deeper verbal trouble. Declares Frost: "An obstruction of justice is an obstruction of justice if it's for a minute or five minutes, much less the period June 23 to July the fifth." Nixon looks shaken.

Adopting a patronizing tone, Nixon turns lawyer. He says his absence of motive precludes any criminal intent, but then Frost probably has not read the law on obstruction of justice. It is an unfortunate bit of condescension. Just minutes before, on the way to the taping, Frost, at the request of his advisers, had read the law. He surprises Nixon by attacking Nixon's knowledge of the law. Nixon fumbles, explains first that he has not really read the statute since his law-school days, then pulls back further when he has to acknowledge that the law was not written then. Still, he insists, he had no criminal motive.

"The law states," says Frost with emphasis, "that when intent and foreseeable consequences are sufficient, motive is completely irrelevant." Nixon says nothing. He is now subdued, a somewhat forlorn figure who contrasts sharply with the forceful debater whom television viewers see in later programs in the series (which were actually taped earlier).

Throughout Frost's Watergate assault, the old Nixon mannerisms inject an uneasy déja vu. The most discomforting is his reflexive, contrived smile, flashed—when he is under harsh attack. Sometimes his face freezes impassively, his eyelids fluttering. He stutters a bit under stress, and his syntax breaks down. At certain moments his lips shut tight, his mouth seems to shrink.

Frost moves ahead to the renowned tape of March 21, 1973, in which Nixon discusses with Haldeman, John Ehrlichman and John Dean the demands by the convicted Hunt for cash so the burglars could meet legal fees and support their families. If not satisfied, Hunt threatened, he would tell all of "the seamy things" he had done for the White House. As he always has, despite the contrary evidence, Nixon now tells Frost that "March 21 was the date in which the full import, the full impact of the cover-up came to me."

But Frost's staff has uncovered two other tapes of conversations in the White House between Nixon and Colson. TIME has secured full transcripts of both tapes, dated Feb. 13 and 14, 1973. On the Feb. 14 tape, Nixon says: "The cover-up is, is the main ingredient... That's where we gotta cut our losses. My losses are to be cut. The President's losses got to be cut on the cover-up deal."

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