There have been only a few instances in the history of the United States when the conduct of the President has drawn the legitimate attention of criminal prosecutors.
In 1973, President Richard Nixon came under scrutiny when several of his aides were convicted of crimes stemming from “a massive campaign of political spying and sabotage conducted on behalf of” the President’s 1972 reelection effort. A special prosecutor was appointed to investigate Nixon’s involvement, before being fired by Nixon himself in the “Saturday Night Massacre.” Several months later, after the Supreme Court held that the President could not claim privilege over taped conversations between he and his aides, the House Judiciary Committee passed the first of three articles of impeachment. Rather than face trial in the Senate, Nixon resigned, becoming the first and only U.S. President to resign the office. While Nixon’s resignation relieved prosecutors of the need to test whether they were constitutionally permitted to indict the President while he remained in office, the special prosecutor’s staff carefully considered the bounds of the President’s immunity in the months leading up to Nixon’s departure. Watergate thus provided the initial battleground for constitutional law scholars to debate the President’s amenability to indictment and criminal process.