president of the United States?’’
John Mindermann is part of an unusual fraternity. A former agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, now 80 and retired in his hometown, San Francisco, he is among the relative handful of law-enforcement officials who have investigated a sitting president of the United States. In June, when it was reported that the former F.B.I. director Robert Mueller would investigate whether President Trump had obstructed the federal inquiry into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election, I called Mindermann, who told me he was feeling a strong sense of déjà vu.
Mindermann joined the F.B.I. 50 years ago, after a stint with the San Francisco police force, whose corruption he was happy to leave behind. He was soon transferred to the bureau’s Washington field office, housed in the Old Post Office building on Pennsylvania Avenue — the same 19th-century edifice that is now a Trump hotel. On the afternoon of Saturday, June 17, 1972, he was in the shower at home when the phone rang.
An F.B.I. clerk told him that there had been a break-in overnight at the Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate complex. He was to go to the Metropolitan Police Department headquarters and see the detective on duty. Then, lowering his voice, the clerk confided that the bureau had run a name check on one of the burglars, James McCord. It revealed that McCord had worked at both the F.B.I. and the C.I.A. He would later be identified as the chief of security at the Committee to Re-elect the President, the Nixon campaign operation known as Creep.
Mindermann met the detective, who was wearing a loud sports jacket and smiling widely. The detective strode into the walk-in evidence vault and, wearing latex gloves, produced nearly three dozen crisp new $100 bills, each in a glassine envelope. He fanned them out on a desk, like a magician performing a card trick. They had been seized from one of the burglars. Mindermann noticed the consecutive serial numbers. ‘‘That alone told me that they came from a bank through a person with economic power,’’ Mindermann told me. ‘‘I got this instant cold chill. I thought: This is not an ordinary burglary.’’
A month after the break-in, Mindermann and a colleague named Paul Magallanes found their way to Judy Hoback, a Creep accountant. The interview at her home in suburban Maryland went on past 3 a.m. By the time Mindermann and Magallanes stepped out into the cool night air, they had learned from Hoback that $3 million or more in unaccountable cash was sloshing around at Creep, to finance crimes like the Watergate break-in. Both men sensed instinctively that ‘‘people in the White House itself were involved,’’ Magallanes, who is now 79 and runs an international security firm near Los Angeles, told me. Mindermann said he felt ‘‘a dark dread that this is happening in our democracy.’’ By 10:45 that morning, the agents had typed up a 19-page statement that laid out Creep’s direct connections to Nixon’s inner circle.
At 5:15 p.m., 15 agents arose from their dented metal desks in the Old Post Office building and marched in tight formation, fully armed, up Pennsylvania Avenue. On Monday, a highly agitated Nixon returned to the White House to find a skinny F.B.I. accountant standing watch outside a West Wing office. The president pushed him up against a wall and demanded to know how he had the authority to invade the White House. Mindermann laughed at the memory: ‘‘What do you do,’’ he said, ‘‘when you’re mugged by the president of the United States?’’
One of history’s great what-ifs is whether the Watergate investigation would have gone forward if Hoover hadn’t died six weeks before the break-in. When Hoover died, Nixon called him ‘‘my closest personal friend in all of political life.’’ Along with Senator Joseph McCarthy, they were the avatars of anti-Communism in America. Hoover’s F.B.I. was not unlike what Trump seems to have imagined the agency still to be: a law-enforcement apparatus whose flexible loyalties were bent to fit the whims of its director. In his half-century at the helm of the F.B.I., Hoover rarely approved cases against politicians. In the 1960s, he much preferred going after the civil rights and antiwar movements and their leaders, and his agents routinely broke the law in the name of the law.
How did the FBI shut down and occupy the White House?
Get your copy of In Pursuit: from the streets of San Francisco to Watergate today and get the inside story on the investigation that brought down the Nixon administration.