It was a Friday evening in July and Fred Thompson was at the old Carroll Arms Hotel, a popular watering hole for staffers on the Senate Watergate Committee. He wasn’t there long when his deputy, Donald Sanders, a former FBI agent, arrived saying they needed to talk privately. The two men walked outside, and on the street corner, Sanders told Thompson he had just been in an interview with then-Federal Aviation Administration head Alexander Butterfield. He had asked Butterfield, a former Deputy Assistant to President Nixon, if there was a recording system in the White House.
Butterfield’s affirmative answer marked a turning point in the Watergate investigation. How did Sanders know to ask the question that triggered the end of the Nixon presidency?
In an interview with the Daily Beast, Thompson, then chief counsel to the Republican minority on the Watergate committee, says his deputy counsel’s question was prompted by something Chuck Colson, Nixon’s dirty trickster, had said in an earlier interview about the president walking into the corner of his office and saying something in an inaudible manner. “Sanders put two and two together, asked if there was any taping equipment in the oval office, and Butterfield immediately gave him an accurate answer.”