A clumsy crime that could unravel a giant conspiracy. A paranoid president who lashes out at the media and expresses deep distrust of the intelligence agencies. A top official accused of lying to federal agents. A cover-up that could be worse than the crime. And angry Democrats demanding: “What did the president know? And when did he know it?”
This week’s headlines are giving John Dean a lot of déjà vu. The former White House counsel to President Nixon who went to jail for his part in the Watergate scandal—the FBI called Dean the “master manipulator of the cover-up”—is now 78 and not getting much sleep these days. Reached at home in Beverly Hills, Dean told Fast Company that the scandal surrounding the resignation of President Trump’s former national security adviser Gen. Michael Flynn and the Trump campaign’s communications with Russian officials is on the verge of becoming Watergate 2.0.
While discussing his thoughts, Dean paused to read a news alert from the Washington Post about Flynn lying to the FBI about his conversations. He nervously laughed, talked about his fear of the damage that Trump could do to the presidency, and expressed his amazement at how social media and the 24/7 news cycle has turned this scandal into a black hole that swallows up time. The only question he couldn’t answer? Who in Trump’s administration would fill the role played by Dean during Watergate—becoming a witness for the prosecution and spilling the beans on the scandal?
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Fast Company: So, reading the headlines and watching CNN today, what’s your reaction?
John Dean: That [Trump] press conference was pretty amazing. My first presidential press conference, I was still an undergrad. It was an Eisenhower press conference, very dignified, everyone was very nice. There were no rants. And I’ve either watched or been in the room for hundreds of them. And I’ve never seen anything as classless as this one. What troubles me is that Trump’s dragging down the high office he holds. It’s like he doesn’t care.
Everyone is making the Watergate comparison – does that make sense to you?
There is certainly the hint of it there, not quite to Watergate 2.0 yet but it could happen. As we’re talking, I noticed before I sat down that the Post broke the story that Flynn lied to the FBI. Obviously the NYT got a whiff of that. I tweeted about that. U.S. Code 18 USC 1001 which prohibits making false statements to federal officials. That’s a statute you don’t want to violate. I learned about it there during Watergate. It’s unpleasant to be on the wrong side of that.
Some are even saying that this could eventually lead to impeachment.
I don’t think he’ll be impeached. I think the president is safe as long as the Republicans control the House and Senate. Nixon would not have been impeached if he had Republicans controlling both houses of Congress. Parties have a very high tolerance for misconduct by members of their party. But the question remains what happens in 2018. If Republicans lose control [in those midterm elections], then his presidency could be over. As long as he’s there signing into law things they want–like allowing crazy people to have handguns, as long as he doesn’t bother them, he’ll be safe. Or if he does something so outrageous–like if he’s been compromised by the Russians, for example, and it’s much more serious than his conversation on the bus with Billy Bush, if he’s seriously compromised by the Russians, then this could get very serious.
What similarities do you see to Watergate? There have been so many -gate controversies from Travelgate to Troopergate, but this one seems more to echo the original one.
Do you know where that started with all the gate scandals? The New York Times‘ Bill Safire noticed that there was a wine scandal in France during Watergate and they had used that suffix gate over there. So Safire started attaching it to everything and really got it to grow. The whole reason he did it was that by naming everything a gate, it made Watergate seem less serious.
The parallels here are very troubling. I was literally having nightmares. I was following a different set of polls from most of the major ones and they kept having Trump win. I had the feeling that Trump was going to win a couple of weeks before the election, and I had a knot in my stomach, because of my own knowledge of how the machinery works and how that can be used and abused. It’s unbelievable what he’s doing.
There has been speculation that some of this is the revenge of the intelligence agencies – what do you think?
I didn’t understand why he went out of his way to offend the intelligence community. Yes, it was a totally “unintelligent” thing to do, and these aren’t people you don’t want to pick a fight with. They didn’t like Nixon’s policy on Vietnam and were very suspicious that he had interrupted the peace process that LBJ was trying to employ in ’68, which turned out to be true. For Trump it’s self-inflicted trouble, you don’t have to go to conspiracy theories. To be insulting to these people, many of whom take their life in their hands every day.
What do you think of rumors that GOP leaders want Trump to get impeached, so that [Mike] Pence can take over, who’s much more dependable.
Nixon brought Ford in when Agnew got himself thrown out of office for not paying taxes on his bribes. And Nixon thought that no one would want Gerry Ford to be president. The reverse might be true here–many would love to have Pence here. But if Pence is privy to all of this [Trump aides’ conversations with Russian officials], who knows? I got a lot of calls during the Bush administration because of Cheney trying to reverse all the things he saw as WH chief of staff for Ford, that a strong president is much more important than a strong Congress. And he did reverse much of that. I got the first feel for that [Watergate deja vu] at that time.
Now, there are direct echoes of Watergate but the speed with which it’s happening is much different from Watergate. We used to only have one paper that covered Watergate initially and the Times a little bit and three networks and PBS. But it unfolded over 900 days. Now, it’s so different. Larry Tribe made a comment that this has been like a black hole for history: Everything has accelerated, it’s all familiar but it’s happening in just 900 hours or less.