- John Dean, the former White House counsel to President Richard Nixon, testified Monday that the former special counsel Robert Mueller’s report in the Russia investigation is to President Donald Trump as the Watergate road map was to Nixon.
- He also laid out six parallels between Mueller’s report and the Watergate investigation as it relates to obstruction of justice.
- The parallels he drew involved: attempts to shut down the investigations; the firing of FBI Director James Comey and “the Saturday Night Massacre”; Dean’s and former White House counsel Don McGahn’s refusals to carry out the president’s orders; efforts to exert control over the investigations; attempts to limit the disclosure of evidence; and dangling pardons to influence witness testimony.
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John Dean, the former White House counsel to President Richard Nixon and the star witness in the Watergate hearings, told Congress on Monday that the former special counsel Robert Mueller’s report is to President Donald Trump as the Watergate road map was to Nixon.
Dean’s testimony came as part of a House Judiciary Committee hearing exploring the Mueller report and obstruction of justice. It is the first of several sessions the committee is holding to educate the public on Mueller’s findings and drum up support for impeachment.
The Mueller report, which was compiled by Mueller, details Russia’s interference in the 2016 US election and Trump’s efforts to obstruct the investigation. It did not recommend that Trump or anyone on his campaign be charged with conspiracy related to Russia’s election meddling.
But in the obstruction thread, prosecutors highlighted 11 instances of potential obstruction of justice and indicated that it was up to Congress to investigate further because they were bound by Justice Department guidelines that say a sitting president cannot be indicted.
In his testimony on Monday, Dean laid out six striking parallels between some of the instances of potential obstruction that Mueller outlined and Nixon’s actions during the Watergate scandal.
Attempts to shut down the investigation
- When Trump learned then-national security adviser Michael Flynn had lied to the FBI about his conversations with the Russian ambassador, Trump asked then-FBI Director James Comey for his loyalty during a private dinner and later told him, “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go.”
- Similarly, when Nixon learned of his reelection committee’s involvement in the Watergate break-in, he instructed his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, to have the CIA ask the FBI not to pursue the investigation, citing “bogus national security reasons,” Dean testified.
- Nixon’s words were “strikingly like those uttered by President Trump,” he added. “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.'”
Comey’s firing and the ‘Saturday Night Massacre’
- Before dismissing Comey, Trump called him several times – against the advice of then-White House counsel Don McGahn – to get his assurance that Trump was not personally under investigation and ask Comey to publicly exonerate him. Trump decided to fire Comey after Comey refused to tell Congress on May 3 that Trump was not personally under investigation.
- The White House initially said Comey’s firing had nothing to do with the Russia probe, but Trump later said on national television that “this Russia thing” was a factor in his decision. He also told two top Russian officials that firing Comey had taken “great pressure” off him.
- Dean said Comey’s firing “echoes Nixon’s firing of Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox” during “the Saturday Night Massacre” in October 1973. Cox was appointed by Attorney General Elliot Richardson after Nixon fired Richardson’s predecessor, Richard Kleindienst, in April of that year.
- When Cox refused a White House ultimatum seeking to limit access to the infamous secret White House tapes, Nixon ordered Richardson to fire Cox. Richardson refused and resigned. His deputy, William Ruckelshaus, also refused to fire Cox and resigned. Cox was ultimately fired by Solicitor General Robert Bork. But the public backlash to Cox’s ouster was so great that Nixon had to appoint Leon Jaworski as the new special prosecutor.
- “In short, the firing of FBI Director Comey, like Nixon’s effort to curtail the Watergate investigation, resulted in the appointment of Special Counsel Mueller,” Dean testified.
Dean’s and McGahn’s refusals to carry out directives
- The Mueller report details a multitude of instances in which Trump sought to have Mueller removed, and then-White House counsel Don McGahn played a “critical role” in intercepting Trump’s efforts, Dean said. McGahn’s determination that he would rather resign than carry out Trump’s directive is reminiscent of Richardson’s and Ruckelshaus’ refusals to fire Cox.
- When the media reported that McGahn considered resigning after being asked to fire Mueller, prosecutors said Trump asked another White House aide to tell McGahn to publicly dispute the story and say he’d never been asked to have Mueller removed. McGahn refused.
- During Watergate, Dean said, Nixon asked him to “write a phony record exonerating the White House from any involvement in Watergate.” Nixon also announced in August 1973 that Dean had investigated the matter and found that no one linked to the White House had anything to do with the break-in.
- “Since I had conducted no such investigation, I resisted months of repeated efforts to get me to write a bogus report,” Dean testified. He added that Nixon also tried on multiple occasions to influence and “shape” Dean’s testimony after he broke ranks.
Efforts to exert control over the investigations
- The Mueller report details how, in addition to McGahn, Trump also pressed his former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski and his former chief of staff Reince Priebus to get then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to reverse his recusal from the Russia probe and curtail Mueller’s investigation. Lewandowski and Priebus refused to do so.
- During Watergate, Dean testified, Nixon sought to control the FBI’s investigation through John Ehrlichman, who was his former White House counsel. Nixon also colluded with Henry Petersen, the top Justice Department official overseeing the Watergate investigation, after Dean started cooperating with investigators. Petersen went on to give Nixon confidential information from prosecutors and grand-jury testimony.
Efforts to limit the disclosure of key evidence
- The Mueller report documents extensive attempts by Trump to block the disclosure of information related to a June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower between top campaign officials and two Russian lobbyists offering dirt on the Hillary Clinton campaign. The meeting was pitched to Donald Trump Jr., who attended the gathering, as part of “Russia and its government’s support” for Trump’s candidacy, according to the original emails Trump Jr. released later.
- After The New York Times first reported the meeting in 2017, prosecutors wrote Trump tried to prevent the disclosure of emails setting up the meeting and that he dictated a misleading statement Trump Jr. released characterising meeting as having nothing to do with campaign business and being primarily about Russian adoptions and the Magnitsky Act.
- During Watergate, when men working for Nixon’s reelection committee were arrested following the break-in, Nixon’s aides drafted a false press release claiming the men who were arrested “were not operating either in our behalf or with our consent.” Nixon’s White House tapes subsequently revealed that he knew the statement was false and that he correctly suspected his former attorney general, John Mitchell, had approved the break-in and bugging attempt. But Nixon did not disclose the information because he believed it would “destroy” his friend Mitchell, Dean testified.
Dangling pardons to influence witness cooperation
- The Mueller report addresses whether Trump or those around him floated pardons or offered other favourable treatment to key witnesses like Flynn, former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen, and one more person whose name is redacted but whom Dean said he believes to be the GOP strategist Roger Stone.
- The report “offers a powerful legal analysis” that the presidential pardon power “cannot be used for improper purposes,” Dean testified.
- During Watergate, Nixon used the possibility or promise of pardons to prevent witnesses from fully cooperating with the investigation, even though he “knew that offering such pardons or giving pardons to try to control witnesses in legal proceedings was wrong,” Dean testified. He conceded as much during a conversation with Dean in March 1973. The House Judiciary Committee eventually listed this as one of the reasons it was launching impeachment proceedings against Nixon.
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