Nearly five decades after he helped bring down President Nixon in the Watergate scandal, former White House Counsel John Dean returned to a congressional hearing room Monday to try to reprise the role.
Testifying before the House Judiciary Committee, Dean called special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s redacted report a “road map” to investigate possible wrongdoing by President Trump.
Dean — who pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice as part of the Watergate cover-up — said Mueller’s findings paralleled the “road map” submitted by Watergate special prosecutor Leon Jaworski in 1974.
The Senate’s Watergate Committee used that 55-page document as a guide for subsequent stages of its investigation of Nixon and his efforts to obstruct justice.
Monday’s hearing thus offered a flashback to a time when Congress exerted its constitutional power to rein in the executive branch, and an example of how it has struggled to get past the partisan divides of the Trump era.
House Judiciary Committee members asked Dean to provide historical perspective on presidential obstruction of justice — a key issue in the aftermath of Mueller’s report documenting Russia’s “sweeping and systemic” interference in the 2016 election, and the president’s repeated efforts to thwart the investigation.
“There can be no question that Congress must investigate this direct attack on our democratic process,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), the committee chairman.
During the 1973 Watergate hearings, Dean detailed Nixon’s efforts to obstruct justice, disclosing closed-door meetings and conversations with the president that proved devastating to Nixon’s denials of ordering a cover-up.
On Monday, Dean focused on what he portrayed as a parallel between Trump’s and Nixon’s offers to pardon figures under investigation in exchange for their refusal to cooperate with prosecutors.
According to the Mueller report, one of Trump’s lawyers suggested to former Trump campaign Chairman Paul Manafort and former White House national security advisor Michael Flynn in 2017 that the president might be willing to pardon them. Manafort later was sentenced to 7½ years in prison for financial crimes, and Flynn is awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to lying to the FBI.
Dean noted that Nixon also had considered pardoning former aides facing charges, including former intelligence operative E. Howard Hunt and the burglars who broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters.
He also said Trump’s 2017 request to then-White House Counsel Donald McGahn to have Mueller fired mirrored Nixon’s “Saturday Night Massacre” — directions to senior Department of Justice officials to fire the special prosecutor, Archibald Cox.
Atty. Gen. Elliot Richardson and Deputy Atty. Gen. William Ruckelshaus both resigned rather than carry out Nixon’s order. The third-ranking official at Justice, Solicitor General Robert Bork, ultimately agreed.
In response to a question from Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), Dean said he thought McGahn had ignored Trump’s request because “he was very aware that firing a special counsel could provoke an equivalent to the Nixon ‘Saturday Night Massacre.’”
“And so he stepped away from it,” Dean said. “He didn’t want any part of it.”
Some Republicans argued Monday that Dean’s testimony was not relevant to Trump or the Mueller report.
“I’m hearing from the ’70s, and they want their star witness back,” said Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.), the ranking Republican on the committee.
Dean’s appearance drew the ire of Trump, who called the former White House counsel a “sleazebag” on Twitter on Sunday.
The hearing began shortly after the Judiciary Committee and the Department of Justice came to an agreement allowing lawmakers to view some underlying evidence cited in Mueller’s report in response to a committee subpoena.
Nadler said he was “pleased” with the arrangement, although the House still intends to vote Tuesday to take administration figures, including Atty. Gen. William Barr and McGahn, to court to enforce the subpoenas.
“It is true that witnesses have been ordered by the White House not to appear before this committee, but we’ll get them,” Nadler said.
Although McGahn provided extensive evidence to Mueller, the White House blocked him from appearing before Congress, saying it might assert executive privilege to protect his communications with the president.
Dean said he did not find that argument convincing.
“That pushes the outer limit further than I have ever seen it pushed,” he said. “I think this is a smokescreen at this point.”