[Nixon's] “public line” [that he was baffled why anyone would break into Democratic headquarters] was a public lie. He had an explicit reason to believe there was damaging information about him in Larry O'Brien's office and his pooh-poohing of Watergate as a target shows him lying about that to exculpate himself.
This interpretation is supported by Nixon’s exchange with his No. 2, H. R. Haldeman. Who says, on that tape, after Nixon says there would be no reason to go into the Watergate: “Except for the financial thing.” The financial thing! The Hughes-Rebozo $100,000 bribe and the question of whether O’Brien learned of it and planned to go public with it which could have ended Nixon’s presidency right there. (O’Brien later said he didn’t know about the Hughes-Nixon payoff, but Nixon didn’t know he didn’t know and was obsessed with finding out if he did.)
“Yes I suppose,” says Nixon, in reply to Haldeman's suggesting "the financial thing" was a motive.In February 2008, in response to an earlier iteration of Rosenbaum's argument, I offered a more innocent explanation of the same conversation:
Here’s what Rosenbaum identifies as the key exchange:
NIXON: My God, the committee isn’t worth bugging, in my opinion. That’s my public line.
HALDEMAN: Except for this financial thing. They thought they had something going on that.
NIXON: Yes, I suppose.
Rosenbaum argues that Haldeman means that “they,” the burglars, had been after financial intelligence on the activities of DNC chairman Larry O’Brien. Mr. Nixon’s off-handed acquiescence would show that he must’ve known why the burglars had gone in all along. But it’s hard to argue that Haldeman is talking about the burglars or O’Brien when we look at the whole conversation as well as Haldeman’s next comment, which Rosenbaum doesn’t address:
HALDEMAN: But I asked the question: If we were going to all that trouble, why in the world would we pick the Democratic National Committee to do it to? It’s the least fruitful source–
A few moments before, Haldeman had been talking about what “they,” meaning reporters, had been saying about burglar E. Howard Hunt and his check for $690 found in the possession of another burglar. So Mr. Nixon and Haldeman were actually talking about what “they,” the press, were saying about Hunt’s finances. When Mr. Nixon says his public line is going to be that the Watergate wasn’t worth bugging, Haldeman gently implies that the President’s line is bit too absolutist since “they,” the reporters, “thought they had something going on [this financial thing]” — that is, the seeming financial link between the burglars and Hunt, whose association with the White House had already been established. Bugging the Watergate was obviously worth Hunt’s money. Then Haldeman alludes to conversations he’s been having with others about the silliness of bugging the Watergate. Spinning gears? Certainly. Smoking gun? Seemingly not.