He holds a B.S. in Finance from the University of Southern California (1963) and a J.D. from UC Berkeley School of Law (1966). While at USC he became associated with Dwight L. Chapin, Tim Elbourne, Ron Ziegler, Herbert Porter and Gordon C. Strachan, all of whom joined the "Trojans for Representative Government" group.
Segretti was hired by friend Dwight L. Chapin to run a campaign of dirty tricks (which he dubbed "ratfucking") against the Democrats, with his work being paid for by Herb Kalmbach, Nixon's lawyer, from presidential campaign re-election funds gathered before an April 7, 1972, law required that contributors be identified. His actions were part of the larger Watergate scandal, and were important indicators for the few members of the press actively investigating the Watergate break in in the earliest stages that what became known as the Watergate scandal involved far more than just a simple break in.
Segretti's involvement in the "Canuck letter" typifies the tactics Segretti and others working with him used, forging a letter ascribed to Senator Edmund Muskie which maligned the people, language and culture of French Canada and French Canadians, causing the soon to be Democratic presidential candidate Muskie considerable headaches in denying the letter and having to continue dealing with the issue. Many historians have indicated over the years that Muskie's withdrawal from the Presidential primaries, and the disastrous Iowa primary loss to George McGovern that precipitated it, were at least partly the result of Segretti and some of the other "Ratfuckers" creating so much confusion and false accusations that Muskie simply could not respond in any meaningful way.
One notable example of his wrongdoing was a faked letter on Democratic presidential candidate Edmund Muskie's letterhead falsely alleging that U.S. Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson, a fellow Democrat, had had an illegitimate child with a 17-year-old; the Muskie letters accused Senator Hubert H. Humphrey of sexual misconduct as well. After testimony regarding the Muskie letters emerged, Democrats in Florida noted the similarity between these sabotage incidents and others that involved stationery stolen from Humphrey's offices after Muskie dropped out of the race. A false news release on Humphrey's letterhead "accused Rep. Shirley Chisholm (D-N.Y.) of being mentally unbalanced" and a mailing with an unidentified source mischaracterized Humphrey as supporting a controversial environmental measure that he actually opposed.
In 1974, Segretti pleaded guilty to three misdemeanor counts of distributing illegal (in fact, forged) campaign literature and was sentenced to six months in prison, actually serving four months.
In the 1976 film about Watergate, All the President's Men, Segretti was played by Robert Walden, who downplayed the dirty tricks he had undertaken as "Nickel-and-dime stuff . . . stuff. Stuff with a little wit attached to it."
Segretti was a lawyer who served as a prosecutor for the military and later as a civilian. However, his license was suspended for two years following his conviction. In 1995, he ran for a local judgeship in Orange County, California. However, he quickly withdrew from the race when his campaign awakened lingering anger over his involvement in the Watergate scandal. In 2000, Segretti served as co-chair of John McCain's presidential campaign in Orange County.
- "News of the Week in Review". The Nation. October 2, 2000.
- Swint, Kerwin C. (2006). Mudslingers: the top 25 negative political campaigns of all time: countdown from no. 25 to no. 1. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 135.
- New York Times Press Service. "Watergate jogs memory: Democrats recall strange election incidents," The Dallas Morning News, May 13, 1973, page 14A.
- "Donald Segretti", Notable Names Database, retrieved July 25, 2006.