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John Dean, compared to a ‘rat,’ talks about coming clean

August 21, 2018

John Dean, compared to a ‘rat,’ talks about coming clean

CLEVELAND, Ohio -- John Dean, who warned President Richard Nixon of a “cancer” on the presidency and then blew the cover off the Watergate cover-up as White House counsel, a cover-up he initially aided, shook off a disparaging Tweet by President Trump Sunday.

Trump, Dean said Monday,  should brush up on his history after the president sent  out a tweet complaining again about the New York Times. The newspaper reporter that White House General Counsel Don McGahn is cooperating with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 elections.

Trump complained in a tweet that the Times implied McGahn “must be a John Dean type ‘RAT.’

Dean, 79, told The Plain Dealer that he told the truth for the good of the office he represented. And he said it was well known to Nixon that he was speaking to the prosecutor in the Watergate case, and eventually to a Senate committee.

“I was very open about what I was doing,” Dean said. “They thought in going to the prosecutors, I would lie and give the appearance of cooperating. I did not do that.”

Thousands of lawyers over the past seven years have heard in detail about Dean’s involvement in Watergate, as it’s the basis of a continuing legal education seminar he developed with James Robenalt, a Cleveland lawyer and historical non-fiction author with Thompson Hine. Both spoke with The Plain Dealer Monday.

“The ‘rat’ implies something was done behind the scenes,” Robenalt said. Dean agreed, saying, “It wasn’t secretive.”

Akron-born Dean pleaded guilty to conspiracy to obstruct justice and served a short stint in prison after Watergate. He lives in California and has worked as an investment banker and author.

Trump made it a point in his tweet to note that he’d given permission to McGahn to talk with the special counsel. Dean said McGahn is likely to be a valuable witness for Mueller and that Trump and his team don’t understand the extent of the information McGahn has likely already provided.

No fan of Trump, Dean said it’s not hurtful to be added to the list of people disparaged by the president on Twitter.

“Trump loves to be pejorative. He likes attacking anybody who disagrees with him,” he said.

Robenalt, who is married to Plain Dealer reporter Joanna Connors, said the president’s characterization of Dean was entirely unfair.

“He’s a hero. He is a hero because he is the only guy in the room who stood up and said, ‘We’ve got to stop this’ even though he knew it was going to mean jail for him,” said Robenalt. “That’s not a rat. And he turned down immunity.”

The lesson Watergate taught, from a legal ethics standpoint, Dean said, is that the White House counsel represents the office, not the person occupying it. He said neither he nor President Nixon was clear on that then. It should be crystal clear after more than four decades of legal precedent since. But it appears, he said, that Trump is unfamiliar with the concept.

“To me, it shows (the president’s) ignorance of Watergate, which I think is pretty pervasive, and I think his ignorance of history in general is more pervasive,” said Dean.

“I think it’s a shame we’ve lost that history. I never dreamed it would happen in my lifetime. I thought it would be permanently unacceptable for a president to behave that way,” Dean said. “The difference is, Trump is right out front. Nixon was doing it behind closed doors.”

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