The star witness of Watergate took a turn as the star witness for House Democrats’ inquiries into President Trump on Monday. And in doing so, he laid out a compelling series of parallels between the two situations.
Former White House counsel John Dean acknowledged at the start of Monday’s House Judiciary Committee hearing that he wasn’t there as a “fact witness.” Instead, he noted in his opening statement several ways in which he sees the report of former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III echoing Watergate.
Dean didn’t run through each of those verbally during his testimony, but his written statement lays his case out in detail.
The most obvious parallel Dean noted involved himself: It concerns the role of the White House counsel. Just as he was the most significant witness against Richard M. Nixon, former White House counsel Donald McGahn has emerged as the most significant witness in the Mueller investigation. McGahn didn’t technically flip on Trump, as Dean did when he pleaded guilty in Watergate, but as Dean pointed out, “McGahn is the only witness that the special counsel expressly labels as reliable, calling McGahn ‘a credible witness with no motive to lie or exaggerate given the position he held in the White House.' "
Dean noted that the Mueller report was spurred by Russian hacks targeting the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign, just as Watergate began with a botched burglary of the DNC. The burglars also had similar plans, he pointed out, for the campaign of Nixon’s 1972 Democratic opponent, George McGovern.
Dean noted that the Mueller report didn’t find that Trump participated in that underlying crime, just as there is no evidence that he knows of “that Nixon was involved with or had advance knowledge of the Watergate break-in and bugging.”
Dean likened Nixon telling chief of staff H.R. Haldeman to get the FBI and CIA to end their investigations for national security reasons to Trump trying to get then-FBI Director James B. Comey to take it easy on Michael Flynn. Trump remarked to Chris Christie, “Now that we fired Flynn, the Russia thing is over.”
“The words Nixon used were strikingly like those uttered by President Trump,” Dean said. “Nixon said, 'And, ah, because these people are playing for keeps … they should call the FBI and say that we wish for the country, don’t go any further into this case, period. And that destroys the case.”
Dean also lent his endorsement to one of the most popular parallels of the entire investigation: between the “Saturday Night Massacre” and Comey’s firing in May 2017. “In short, the firing of FBI Director Comey, like Nixon’s effort to curtail the Watergate investigation,” Dean said, “resulted in the appointment of Special Counsel Mueller.”
Dean also compared Trump’s repeated efforts to get McGahn to change his story about Trump trying to fire Mueller to Nixon’s effort to get Dean to claim he had investigated the Watergate break-in and found nothing.
“Nixon first announced on August 29, 1973, that I had investigated the situation under his direction and found ‘nobody presently employed at the White House had anything to do with the bizarre incident at the Watergate,’ ” Dean said. “Since I had conducted no such investigation, I resisted months of repeated efforts to get me to write a bogus report.”
Similarly, Dean noted Trump’s role in drafting the misleading initial explanation of Donald Trump Jr.'s meeting with a Russian lawyer promising dirt on Clinton. Dean compared it to the initial news release claiming no connection between the Watergate burglars and the White House. “The press statement was false,” Dean said. “As Nixon’s secret tape recordings reveal, President Nixon knew the statement was false.”
Finally, Dean compared Trump’s dangling of pardons — both implied and express — to E. Howard Hunt’s lawyer seeking assurances from Nixon’s counsel that Hunt, who helped carry out the Watergate burglary, wouldn’t go to prison. Dean included two instances in which Nixon acknowledged knowing that the promise was improper. “I was wrong to offer clemency to Hunt, wasn’t I?” Nixon asked Dean at one point, to which Dean responded: “Yes, Mr. President, that would be an obstruction of justice.”
Dean is hardly the first person to draw these parallels between the Mueller report and Watergate, but he is one of the most authoritative. And his opening statement was a detailed recounting of just how much this situation is like deja vu for him.
That doesn’t mean the two scenarios are completely analogous, though. A key difference is that Nixon was on tape for much of his scheming, while Trump’s motive is the X Factor in his potential obstruction of justice. Trump denied Mueller’s request for an interview, meaning that we’re left to evaluate his frame of mind based upon his contemporaneous public comments.
But Dean made clear Monday that he hopes there’s one last parallel between the two.
“In many ways, the Mueller report is to President Trump what the so-called Watergate ‘road map’ … was to President Richard Nixon,” Dean said. “Stated a bit differently, Special Counsel Mueller has provided this committee a road map.”
The question is what that “road map” leads to — and whether that’s another threatened impeachment.