“I will not resign,” said President Nixon in his State of the Union Message. Last autumn I. F. Stone predicted in these pages that Nixon would take this position because resigning would force him to face the prospect of criminal prosecution.* This still holds true. But Stone did not mention that the President would also be forced to give up the enormously valuable free legal advice that he has been receiving during the past few months at the expense of the taxpayers.
To deal with his legal troubles President Nixon has assembled what is referred to around the White House as “The Law Firm.” While the office of the Counsel to the President apparently continues to handle the routine legal problems that reach the White House, Nixon’s other lawyers are rescuing, or trying to rescue, him from his criminal involvement in Watergate, its coverup, the destruction of a critical taped conversation with H. R. Haldeman, and now his own impeachment.
Recent correspondence between Senator Walter Mondale (D., Minn.) and White House Counsel J. Fred Buzhardt reveals only the tip of this legal iceberg. According to Buzhardt, the White House spent $290,418 in the last six months of 1973 on the President’s Watergate defense alone. This figure is supposed to include the salaries for lawyers and others assigned to the White House from other executive departments and agencies, as well as all the administrative expenses for providing this legal advice.
However, according to Buzhardt’s letter, this sum does not include work on the President’s personal finances and taxes, since in those matters he is represented by private counsel. To judge by the standard of completeness of previous White House accountings on subjects such as the amount spent on San Clemente and the President’s personal finances, this figure of $290,418, even for the limited time and subjects that it purports to cover, may soon be “inoperative.”
The savings to the President from his publicly financed defense fund should not be measured by what it costs the taxpayer, but more properly by what he would have had to pay these lawyers if he had hired them himself. Lawyers of the reputation and ability of Charles Alan Wright and James St. Clair do not normally work for salaries of $40,000 per year, which is about what they are being paid by the treasury. Since Mr. Nixon is a millionaire earning a $200,000 salary, lawyers like Wright and St. Clair would surely bill him at no less than $100 per hour. For a forty-hour week, this amounts to $4,000, which would mean that the annual bill would be in the neighborhood of $200,000, or five times what Mr. St. Clair is being paid. Of course, if the President resigned and faced a trial or series of trials, his costs would run much higher. Ellsberg and Russo, for example, spent about one million dollars defending one case.
Misuse of government lawyers for private purposes is not a recent practice at the White House. From…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.