John Dean is a connoisseur of cover-ups, a savant of scandal, so he can more than imagine what it’s like inside the Trump White House right now.
“It’s a nightmare,” he said, presiding in a high-backed leather wing chair off the lobby of the Beverly Hills Hotel. Not just for those in the headlines — political strategist Stephen K. Bannon, jack-of-many-duties Jared Kushner — but for their unsung assistants and secretaries as well.
“They don’t know what their jeopardy is. They don’t know what they’re looking at. They don’t know if they’re a part of a conspiracy that might unfold. They don’t know whether to hire lawyers or not, how they’re going to pay for them if they do,” Dean said in a crisp law-counsel cadence. “It’s an unpleasant place.”
Dean was a central figure in Watergate, the 1970s political scandal against which all others are measured, serving at the tender age of 32 as President Nixon’s White House attorney. In that capacity Dean worked to thwart investigators after the clumsy break-in at Democratic Party headquarters, then flipped and helped sink Nixon by revealing the president’s involvement in the cover-up.
It is the one thing, Dean said resignedly, for which he will be forever recalled. “I can thank you and your profession,” he said. “I was placed in a pigeonhole, and once you people put somebody in a pigeonhole, you live there. You never get out.”
Nixon, fighting vainly to stay in office, famously said a year was long enough to wallow in Watergate. For Dean, it’s been more than four decades.
As part of a deal with prosecutors, he pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and served four months in a federal safe house. He was barred from practicing law in Virginia and the District of Columbia, moved to his wife’s home state of California and made his livelihood as an investment banker and regular on the lecture circuit. He has also written a shelf-load of books, including several on Watergate.
The memory that persists though, is the owlish whiz-kid lawyer, with horn-rimmed glasses and his pretty blond wife perched stoically behind him, laying out Nixon’s treachery in a dull monotone before the Senate Watergate Committee.
At age 78, he is fleshier and far more affable, with rimless glasses sliding down his nose and receding white hair combed straight back. He arrived this week in the cream-colored hotel lobby, not far from his Beverly Hills home, camera-ready in a blue blazer, striped dress shirt and red tie.
John Dean is having a moment, again.
Everyone — the BBC, Der Spiegel, the New York Times, MSNBC and on — wants to know what he thinks of Trump, of Russian interference in the 2016 campaign, about the cascade of investigations that threaten to bury Trump’s presidency. He hasn’t been in this great a demand since his call for President George W. Bush’s impeachment — for condoning torture, among other perceived abuses of power — and, before that, as a ringside commentator during the Clinton-era Monica Lewinsky scandal.
First, Nixon vs. Trump.
“Nixon was much better prepared for the job than Trump,” Dean said, citing the former president’s service in the House, the Senate and then eight years as vice president.
Trump “just doesn’t know anything about the job, and it shows,” Dean said as a gas-fed fire flickered nearby. (It was a touch that Nixon, who famously kept a blaze going even during Washington’s blistering summers, might have appreciated.)
Both men have authoritarian personas, Dean went on, though Trump is far more narcissistic and easier to read: “We wouldn’t know Nixon as well as we do but for his taping system, where his guard is down. He reveals who he is. Trump is the same in public as he is in private.”
Dean was careful to say he has no inside information on the Trump administration, no Deep Throat, the famous Watergate leaker, funneling him tales of intrigue from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. But, he said, he knows the odor of malfeasance, even from 3,000 miles away.
“I’ve been inside a cover-up. I know why we could make certain things go away and other things not go away. And that’s because some things, you just couldn’t make them disappear,” he said. He might have been roughing out a verbal draft of “Scandal Containment for Dummies.”
“I feel that’s true with the Trump people. If they could make this go away, they would. I mean, they’re not stupid. They would hire good P.R. people who would say: ‘This is how you deal with this. You make mistakes, you go out and you explain them, and people are very forgiving.’”
Dean was raised in a Republican family, and acquired his political coloration thus, but he no longer belongs to the party, calling himself an independent. “My political beliefs have not changed very much in the last 45 years,” Dean said, describing himself as a fiscal moderate and social liberal. But “just by staying in one place, today I’m way left of center.”
He hasn’t voted for the GOP candidate for president since George H.W. Bush ran against Michael Dukakis in 1988, backing President Obama and, last year, Hillary Clinton. So his observations on Trump and his cohorts and their alleged wrongdoing may be judged accordingly.
Dean firmly believes the truth about any misdeeds, if they took place, will come out much sooner than the many years it took for the full nature of the Watergate scandal to be revealed.
Unlike Nixon, “Trump is surprisingly candid about himself,” Dean said. The president’s admission that he fired FBI Director James B. Comey to relieve the pressure of his investigation into Russia and the 2016 election was, to Dean’s mind, “basically confessing obstruction of justice.”
Another appointment was looming.
His role as the Watergate whisperer and a leading expert on White House scandal was not something he sought out, Dean said, but given no choice he’s embraced it. He mused about the vagaries.
As a teenager, “I remember marching by the White House at the Eisenhower inauguration and seeing this kind of gray figure beside Eisenhower who was all smiles, his vice president, and never would it ever to occur to me that man would become president and I would help ease him out of his job,” Dean said. He smiled faintly at the memory of that distant encounter with Nixon. “You just don’t know where life is going to turn.”
With that, he slipped out a back door and headed off to his next TV appearance, this time on CNN.
@markzbarabak on Twitter