On the afternoon of June 25, 1973, I was 14 years old — weeks away from high school, still dripping wet from trying to learn the backstroke at summer camp — when I heard something that changed my life for good. On a warm summer day when I probably should have been playing baseball in the back yard, I instead badgered my friend across the street to turn on his TV so I could watch a man named John Dean flickering on a tiny black-and-white screen.
Dean had just resigned as President Richard Nixon’s White House counsel, and there was talk he had damaging info about the 37th president and the so-called Watergate scandal. But I wasn’t prepared for the adrenaline rush of hearing a then-34-year-old Dean saying he’d warned Nixon “that there was a cancer growing on the presidency. And if the cancer was not removed, the president himself would be killed by it.”
Over the following dramatic minutes, Dean spelled out how the president told him he knew where to get $1 million in “hush money” to silence the burglars who’d broken into Democratic offices during the 1972 presidential campaign. I even remember telling my friend, “There should be a siren...whoop, whoop, president implicated!” — perhaps anticipating the Drudge Report 25 years later. From that day forward, I never wavered in my ambition to become a journalist — because when I grew up, I wanted to cover a dramatic story like that!
Little could I have guessed that on another balmy June day, 46 years later, I’d be a newspaper columnist watching not a story like that but exactly that — John Dean, now 80, on Capitol Hill and national TV warning America about a cancer on the presidency, a new one.
Let me be clear: I’m a bigger fan of John Dean (who, in the weirdness of the 21st century, has become an internet friend I’ve met along the way) than ever. Rather than retreat after his 15 minutes of Watergate fame, he’s become one of our best and clearest voices warning about presidential abuses of power starting with George W. Bush and spiking with Donald Trump. When Dean testifies Monday before the House Judiciary Committee about the meaning of the Mueller report on Russia’s 2016 election interference and a subsequent cover-up, TV viewers will gain valuable insights into the high crimes and misdemeanors of the 45th president.
The news that House Democrats are trying to jump-start their stalled investigation of the Trump presidency by summoning Dean’s Watergate mojo from nearly a half-century ago, along with a panel of other friendly witnesses — former federal prosecutors who believe that Trump obstructed justice — carries the sad smell of retreat, and exactly NOT what we need right now.
Much more than Nixon’s White House counsel from the era of The Brady Bunch and Three Dog Night, America needs to hear from Trump’s White House counsel in the time of scandal, Don McGahn, so the public can hear out loud what special counsel Robert Mueller supposedly heard from McGahn behind closed doors, about the president’s efforts and desires to impede the investigation.
Instead, the Trump White House has moved to block McGahn from testifying, even after he left the White House to become a private citizen, while also moving to prevent former officials like McGahn’s aide Annie Donaldson and Trump’s ex-communications chief Hope Hicks from appearing before the House Judiciary Committee chaired by New York Rep. Jerry Nadler. It’s part of a much larger Team Trump effort to kill any probe of the president’s obstruction of justice...by obstructing it.
While Nadler, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and other House Dems dither on impeachment over these clear-cut abuses of power, Congress is struggling to even get to first base to conduct the first round of public hearings of the same kind that spotlighted Dean and marked the beginning of the end for Nixon, 46 Junes ago. Maybe their on-base percentage is so low because they’re trying to hit Team Trump’s 95 mph hardballs with a Wiffle Ball bat.
You want to analyze this in Watergate terms? Three months before Dean testified in 1973, Nixon told a top lieutenant: “I want you all to stonewall it, let them plead the Fifth Amendment, cover up or anything else, if it’ll save it — save the plan.” The moral of Watergate was supposed to be that “stonewalling” doesn’t work, that the system is stronger. But in 2019 the lesson is that Trump’s “new and improved” stonewalling is working out just great.
Trump is steamrolling the system with authoritarian tactics that either weren’t employed or weren’t invented in 1973 — a relentless defense from a kind of state-run media in Fox News, an army of social media voices (some real, some fake) to amplify that message and keep the base in line, and a Roy Cohn-flavored strategy of massive resistance to the rule of law as embodied by subpoenas and congressional hearings, in the (successful, it seems) hope of stalling serious action until the 2020 election is at hand and more than 100 pro-Trump judges have been sworn in.
You could argue that Jerry Nadler is no Sam Ervin, wishy-washy New York Times editor Dean Baquet is no Ben Bradlee, and Watergate hero judge Jack Sirica had been replaced by some whack job from the Federalist Society — but the problem goes way beyond that. Leaders like Pelosi and Nadler are very good at winning a game that’s not being played here, and their so plastic Wiffle Bat has already been shattered in two. Trump’s reckless disregard for the rule of law is screaming out for an immediate impeachment inquiry, an accelerated legal fight to get information out, and messaging to the American people that this is our worst constitutional crisis since the Civil War. That should have started weeks ago. Testimony from John Dean is just more throat clearing.
People who want to proclaim that Trump’s 10 separate acts of obstruction during the Mueller probe were inconsequential “process crimes,” at worst, are hoping you won’t see how the president’s ability so far to get away with stuff have emboldened the White House to commit abuses of power that are extremely consequential — impose legally dubious tariffs, sell weapons or even transfer nuclear technology to rogue states like Saudi Arabia, keep huddled masses of Central American kids unlawfully in camps or keep them on a parked van for 39 hours.
The Washington elites aren’t getting it. Just this week I read a remarkable — in the worst sense of the word — essay from Fred Hiatt, the Washington Post editorial page editor whose spine was apparently removed surgically on the eve of the immoral war with Iraq. Hiatt’s simple argument today is that Trump can’t be impeached because his crimes and misdemeanors were well-advertised to 2016′s voters who elected him anyway.