Mitchell, John Newton

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Mitchell, John Newton

John Newton Mitchell served as U.S. attorney general from 1969 to 1972. A key political adviser to President richard m. nixon, Mitchell was later convicted of crimes associated with the Watergate scandal, becoming the first attorney general to serve time in a federal prison.

Mitchell was born September 5, 1913, in Detroit. He worked his way through Fordham University and Fordham Law School playing semiprofessional hockey. After graduating from law school in 1938, he was admitted to the New York bar and began work in a New York City law firm. He was made a partner in 1942. During World War II, he served as a torpedo boat commander in the U.S. Navy.

Mitchell became rich and prominent as a municipal bond lawyer, devising new ways for states and municipalities to finance construction projects. He met Richard M. Nixon in 1962, when Nixon joined a prominent New York law firm. At that time Nixon appeared to have no political future; he had lost the 1960 presidential election and the 1962 California gubernatorial election. In 1967 Mitchell's firm merged with Nixon's and the pair became confidants.

Mitchell served as Nixon's campaign manager for the presidency in 1968. He forged a conservative coalition of southern and western states that helped carry Nixon to victory over Vice President hubert h. humphrey. During the campaign Mitchell claimed he would never accept a cabinet position if Nixon was elected. Despite these statements Mitchell accepted the post of attorney general in 1969.

"You will be better advised to watch what we do instead of what we say."
—John Mitchell

As attorney general, Mitchell led the Justice Department in a sweeping law-and-order drive that many critics believed went too far. He increased the number of telephone wiretaps on private citizens and generally clamped down on political dissenters, especially those who opposed U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. A number of these Justice Department initiatives were later ruled illegal by the courts. For example, in Ellsberg v. Mitchell, 353 F. Supp. 515 (D.D.C. 1973), the department sought to prosecute Daniel Ellsberg for leaking secret documents to the press regarding military involvement in Vietnam. The release of the Pentagon Papers infuriated the Nixon White House. The case was dismissed after Ellsberg's attorneys informed the court that a secret White House security group (the "plumbers") had illegally broken into the office of Ellsberg's psychiatrist in search of damaging evidence. The dismissal was also based on the Justice Department's refusal to produce wiretap records pertaining to Ellsberg.

Mitchell resigned as attorney general in February 1972 to head President Nixon's reelection committee. On June 17, 1972, five men were arrested after breaking into Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate building complex in Washington, D.C. They and two other men associated with the White House and the reelection committee were charged with Burglary and Wiretapping. Mitchell denied playing any part in the Watergate incident but resigned from the reelection committee post in July.

In May 1973 he was indicted in New York City for perjury and Obstruction of Justice in an alleged scheme to secretly contribute cash to the Nixon reelection campaign. He was acquitted of the charge in 1974. In that same year, however, he was indicted for conspiracy, obstruction of justice, giving false testimony to a Grand Jury, and perjury, for his role in the Watergate break-in and cover-up. He was convicted of these charges in 1975 and sentenced to two-and-a-half to eight years in prison. After exhausting his criminal appeals, he entered federal prison in June 1977. His sentence was later reduced to one to four years after he made a statement of contrition. He was paroled in January 1978.

His criminal convictions led to his disbarment in 1975. Following his release he served as an international business consultant. He died on November 9, 1988, in Washington, D.C.

Further readings

Justice Department. 1985. Attorneys General of the United States, 1789–1985. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.

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