Former White House Counsel John Dean compares Trump to Nixon
Nixon's White House Counsel John Dean was the center of attention from the press yesterday when he compared President Trump to his old boss Richard Nixon at a House Judiciary Committee hearing in Washington. | Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

WASHINGTON—There’s a big Watergate parallel between Donald Trump and Richard Nixon: Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report is the Trump equivalent of the briefcase of grand jury evidence against Nixon which then-Special Prosecutor Leon Jaworski sent to Congress 45 years ago.

And that briefcase of evidence of cover-up and conspiracy helped oust Richard Nixon from office for, among other crimes, obstruction of justice.

So says a man who knows something about presidential obstruction of justice, John Dean.

Not only that, but Dean said, “I think there is evidence in the report of collusion” between the GOP Trump campaign three years ago and Russian manipulation of that year’s election. He did not elaborate on that statement either verbally or in his written testimony June 10 to the House Judiciary Committee.

“I would say the Trump administration is in fast competition with the Nixon administration” on obstruction of justice, Dean told Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif. “It’s quite striking and startling to me that history is repeating itself, with a vengeance,” Dean told Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md.

Dean, Richard Nixon’s White House Counsel at the time of Watergate, was the lead witness at the Judiciary Committee hearing on Mueller’s report. It came in the context of accelerating congressional investigations of the Trump campaign and the first two years of his presidency.

On June 11, the House will take up potential subpoenas for former White House Counsel Don McGahn and other top Trump aides.  Trump has ordered McGahn not to testify. Meanwhile, the latest public polls show, for the first time, a plurality of respondents favors an impeachment investigation.

Dean, White House Counsel to Nixon and the chief – well-documented and proven on the evidence — whistleblower to Congress in Watergate, testified as the committee opened hearings on obstruction of justice findings in Mueller’s report. Obstruction of justice is potentially an impeachable offense, and the Judiciary Committee handles impeachments.

Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., cautioned that the panel’s session, the first of many, is not an impeachment hearing but could lay institutional groundwork for future proceedings.

Dean said that, like Jaworski’s famous briefcase of evidence, Mueller’s report is “a roadmap” for Trump’s obstruction of justice. “The attempt to obstruct justice is the important thing here” not whether there was an actual crime, added another witness, Joyce White Vance, a former U.S. attorney.

Trump vehemently, vociferously — and sometimes using Nixonian deleted expletives — denies he committed obstruction of justice. He also denied he colluded with the Russians on the election. Nadler, quoting Mueller, pointed out, however, that there were 171 contacts between 16 Trump campaign officials and the Russians.

Dean emphasized the ten instances of obstruction of justice, after reading Mueller’s full report. One was when Trump’s White House Counsel, Don McGahn, first refused to fire Mueller, then refused a direct Trump demand that he lie about Trump’s order to fire Mueller.

Other Trump attempts included trying to get then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to first interfere in the probe by “unrecusing” – getting back into – the Mueller probe. Trump also tried to get Sessions to limit Mueller to probing future foreign threats to campaigns and tried to get other aides to follow his fire-Mueller orders. The two prosecutors who joined Dean at the witness table said unrecusal is not allowed.

Mueller also said Trump’s treatment and firing of former FBI Director James Comey could be viewed as obstruction of justice.

McGahn remembered Nixon’s “Saturday Night Massacre” when Nixon ordered his top two Justice Department officials to fire then-Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox. McGahn refused Trump’s demand, as the top two DOJ officials did then, Dean told Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn. Both Nixonian officials quit, and the department’s third-in-command, Robert Bork, fired Cox.

“In both situations, the White House Counsel was implicated in the cover-up activity,” Dean added in his prepared statement. “While I was an active participant in the cover-up for a period of time, there is absolutely no information whatsoever that Trump’s White House Counsel, Don McGahn, participated in any illegal or improper activity – to the contrary, there is evidence he prevented several obstruction attempts.”

“But there is no question Mr. McGahn was a critical observer of these activities. Mr. McGahn is the most prominent fact witness regarding obstruction of justice cited in the Mueller report.”

Another witness, former federal prosecutor Barbara McQuade, compared Trump ordering Comey to let former Trump National Security Advisor Michael Flynn go to Nixon ordering the CIA to order the FBI to stop investigating Watergate – six days after the initial burglary. That cover-up command sank Nixon.

“We’re talking about the president of the United States putting his thumb on the scale of the criminal justice system,” McQuade added.

Dean concentrated on another parallel: Nixon being asked to pardon his aides and the Watergate burglars as well. Nixon, Dean pointed out, refused top aide Charles Colson’s request to pardon the head of the burglars, former White House aide Howard Hunt.

The parallels, Dean said, are Trump’s discussions of pardoning his aides, including former campaign manager Paul Manafort.

“The Mueller report addresses the question of whether President Trump dangled pardons or offered other favorable treatment to Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, Michael Cohen and Roger Stone — whose name is redacted so I assume it is him — in return for their silence or to keep them from fully cooperating with investigators,” Dean said in both his written testimony and answering questions.

“The Mueller report offers a powerful legal analysis that, notwithstanding the fact the pardon power is one of the most unrestricted of presidential powers, it cannot be used for improper purposes. Mueller refutes the dubious contention that when the president exercises his constitutional powers, he is not subject to federal criminal laws,” Dean’s full statement adds.

Dean also pointed out another parallel: Nixon asked him to produce the “Dean Report” saying “no one in the White House was involved in this incident,” Watergate. There was no such report, Dean pointed out. “It would have been a lie,” Dean told Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga. The parallel was Trump asking McGahn to lie about Trump’s demand to McGahn to fire Mueller and create a false paper trail for it.

Committee Republicans spent their time not discussing the Mueller report but trying to discredit Dean. They attacked his prior comparisons between Nixon and other presidents, demanded he disclose earnings from his books and kept pounding away that Dean pleaded guilty to Watergate-related offenses. They also called the hearings, the FBI probe, panel Democrats and the investigators biased.

“If we were really focused here, we would be investigating collusion,” one Republican said.

Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly identified Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., as Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Ga. Bishop does not serve on the House Judiciary Committee. A correction has been made.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.