On June 17, 1972, security guard Frank Wills at the Watergate complex finds a door’s bolt taped over so that it will not lock. He calls the police, who find and arrest five burglars in the Democratic National Committee headquarters within the complex. The next morning, The Washington Post assigns new reporter Bob Woodward to the local courthouse to cover the story, which is considered of minor importance.
Woodward learns that the five men, four Cuban-Americans from Miami and James W. McCord, Jr., had electronic bugging equipment and are represented by a high-priced “country club” attorney. At the arraignment, McCord identifies himself in court as having recently left the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the others are also revealed to have CIA ties. Woodward connects the burglars to E. Howard Hunt, a former employee of the CIA, and President Richard Nixon’s White House Counsel, Charles Colson.
Carl Bernstein, another Post reporter, is assigned to cover the Watergate story with Woodward. The two young men are reluctant partners, but work well together. Executive editor Benjamin Bradlee believes their work lacks reliable sources and is not worthy of the Post’s front page, but he encourages further investigation.
Woodward contacts a senior government official, an anonymous source whom he has used before and refers to as “Deep Throat.” Communicating secretly, using a flag placed in a balcony flowerpot to signal meetings, they meet at night in an underground parking garage. Deep Throat speaks in riddles and metaphors, avoiding substantial facts about the Watergate break-in, but keeps advising Woodward to “follow the money”.
Woodward and Bernstein manage to connect the five burglars to corrupt activities around campaign contributions to Nixon’s Committee to Re-elect the President (CRP or, more common at the time, CREEP). This includes a check for $25,000 paid by Kenneth H. Dahlberg, whom Miami authorities identified when investigating the Miami-based burglars. Still, Bradlee and others at the Post doubt the investigation and its dependence on sources such as Deep Throat, wondering why the Nixon administration should break the law when the President is almost certain to defeat his opponent, Democratic nominee George McGovern.
Through former CREEP treasurer Hugh W. Sloan, Jr., Woodward and Bernstein connect a slush fund of hundreds of thousands of dollars to White House Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman—”the second most important man in this country”—and to former Attorney General John N. Mitchell, now head of CREEP. They learn that CREEP was financing a “ratfucking” campaign to sabotage Democratic presidential candidates a year before the Watergate burglary, when Nixon was lagging Edmund Muskie in the polls.
While Bradlee’s demand for thoroughness compels the reporters to obtain other sources to confirm the Haldeman connection, the White House issues a non-denial denial of the Post’s above-the-fold story. The editor continues to encourage investigation.
Woodward again meets secretly with Deep Throat, and demands he be less evasive. Deep Throat reveals that Haldeman masterminded the Watergate break-in and cover-up. He also states that the cover-up was not just to camouflage the CREEP involvement but to hide “covert operations” involving “the entire U.S. intelligence community”, including the CIA and FBI. He warns Woodward and Bernstein that their lives, and others, are in danger. When the two relay this to Bradlee, he urges them to carry on despite the risk from Nixon’s re-election.
On January 20, 1973, Bernstein and Woodward type the full story, while a television in the foreground shows Nixon taking the Oath of Office for his second term as President. A montage of Watergate-related teletype headlines from the following year is shown, ending with Nixon’s resignation and the inauguration of Vice President Gerald Ford on August 9, 1974.