On Saturday, New York Times reporters Maggie Haberman and Michael S. Schmidt broke a blockbuster story explaining that the White House counsel, Donald F. McGahn II, “cooperated extensively” with Robert Mueller’s investigation. According to the Times, McGahn spoke to the special counsel’s office for as much as 30 hours, on at least three separate occasions. Although what he said remains unknown, Haberman and Schmidt report that his testimony was sparked, at least in part, by the fear that “Mr. Trump was setting up Mr. McGahn to take the blame for any possible illegal acts of obstruction” after Trump’s (now former) lawyers, John Dowd and Ty Cobb, encouraged McGahn to talk to Mueller as part of their “open-book strategy.” (Near the end of the piece, Haberman and Schmidt note—wryly—that “as the months passed on, it became apparent that Mr. McGahn and [his lawyer] had overestimated the amount of thought that they believed the president put into his legal strategy.”)
There is one obvious historical parallel here, which the story mentions: “Worried that Mr. Trump would ultimately blame him in the inquiry, Mr. McGahn told people he was determined to avoid the fate of the White House counsel for President Richard M. Nixon, John W. Dean, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to obstruct justice in the Watergate scandal.” Dean did, however, help prosecutors near the end of his White House tenure, and served as a witness against the Watergate conspirators.
After the Times story broke on Saturday, I spoke by phone with Dean, who is now a CNN contributor and author. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed McGahn’s motivations, what the role of the White House counsel’s office should be, and the similarities and differences between Donald Trump and Richard Nixon.
Isaac Chotiner: What did you think when you read the Times story today?
John W. Dean: I guess the first impression I had was that I was surprised that Dowd and Cobb wanted to send McGahn over so willingly to talk to the special counsel. But I guess that was part of their philosophy. And it makes me wonder: Did they know what was going on? Because I am not sure Trump is the kind of client that is terribly forthcoming and fully forthcoming.
My second reaction is that Don McGahn is doing exactly the right thing, not merely to protect himself, but to protect his client. And his client is not Donald Trump; his client is the office of the president. That is one of the things that was cleared up as a result of Watergate. The American Bar Association reissued a code of ethics and dealt directly with representation of an organization and who the client is. And the client, in this instance, would not be the man who holds the office, but the office. And that is a huge difference.
When you started your job as White House counsel, whom did you think you were representing, and how did you conceive of it by the end of your tenure?
Throughout my tenure, it was totally confused as to who the client was. Nixon thought I was his personal lawyer and had me doing such things as coordinating two different law firms—one in New York and one in California—to do his estate plan, which couldn’t be anything more personal. [H.R.] Haldeman and [John] Ehrlichman, the chief of staff and top domestic adviser, thought they were my clients too, because I communicated to the president through them.
So did that ever switch in your mind?
By the time I go in to tell the president that there is a cancer on the presidency, I am worried not just about the man, but the office. This was as fuzzy for all organizations as it was for the White House. It was one of the lasting reforms that came out of Watergate. It is why, for example, Bill Clinton had private counsel represent him in the Lewinsky matter. And he also had the White House counsel representing the office. It has been cleaned up and cleared up, and McGahn is doing exactly the right thing. He is representing the office.
Do you think he should resign?
I was just curious.
No. That hadn’t occurred to me. More likely he would be fired than resign. Trump does not like people doing the right thing, like recusing when you have a conflict and you are attorney general, or representing the office when you are White House counsel.
The Times story posits the idea that McGahn was cooperating, in part, because he was worried that Trump would try to blame him for any obstruction Mueller might find. What do you think of that as an explanation for McGahn’s behavior, which seems slightly less honorable than what you are talking about? And secondly, do you think there is any comparison to your situation?
I think there is good reason for McGahn to believe that Trump would throw him under the bus, since Trump throws almost everyone under the bus. So I don’t think it is a reach to have that in your consciousness. And the article does say that he and his lawyer, once they were told to go talk to the special counsel, indeed did so, and were relieved to be able to do so, to explain McGahn’s position and involvement in these things.
Self-preservation is a real motive. At times, I felt it. When I first tried to go in and blow up the Watergate cover-up, I was really worried about the president and the office. When it got back through the grapevine that they were planning to have [former Attorney General] John Mitchell take the rap for the break-in, and me take the rap for the cover-up, I wasn’t very keen on the idea. The first time I ever talked to the press during my tenure in government was when I dictated a couple sentences for my secretary and had her read it to the AP, the New York Times, and the Washington Post, to communicate to my superiors—who were not sharing this with me—that I would not be the scapegoat, and they were making a mistake if they were suiting me up for that.
Is there anything in the story that makes you think McGahn provided Mueller with damning evidence?
You can’t really tell. I don’t think he was motivated to provide damning evidence. I think he was explaining what he knew. He was a fact witness, and trying to explain the facts as he understood them. I don’t think he could even evaluate the importance of some of his testimony that later times and circumstances fit into a bigger pattern. We don’t have all that information now. But I saw that occur in Watergate, where people were providing information, not necessarily for any sinister or other motive, that turned out to be very important and damning for Nixon.
When you read stories like this that display aspects of the president’s relationship to the investigation swirling around him, what similarities and differences do you see between Trump and Nixon?
We wouldn’t know the full degree of Nixon’s similarities to Trump but for the taping system, because Nixon is a very different person behind closed doors than he is in public or on stage. For Trump, there may be some differences, but he is pretty much what you see is what you get, I’m told. He can be charming if he wants to be charming; he can be nasty if he wants to be nasty. You see the same things publicly with him. Nixon had a clear public persona that was much more pleasant than he could be behind closed doors. [Laughs]
The similarities I see—and this is a little bit counterintuitive, because everybody thinks Nixon was extremely competent. There is no question he was. He understood the presidency very well. He had been a member of the House, the Senate. He had been vice president. He had actually been acting president. He was trained as a lawyer and argued cases before the Supreme Court. Unlike Trump, he knew that justices don’t sign bills; they write opinions. So there is no question there is a different level of sophistication. But, having said that, I see a lot of similarity in the bungling. Watergate was not a carefully planned crime and cover-up. It was one bungled event after another. I see the same thing happening with Trump.
If you enjoyed reading this interview and wish to learn more about the history of Watergate, check out Season 1 of our podcast Slow Burn. Slate Plus members can listen to an exclusive episode featuring an interview with John Dean.
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