Watergate Witness Testifies on Parallels to Mueller Probe

Former White House counsel for the Nixon administration John Dean is sworn in Monday before a House Judiciary Committee hearing on the Mueller report. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

WASHINGTON (CN) – Forty-six years ago, John Dean gave testimony to the U.S. Senate that triggered the end of Richard Nixon’s presidency. He appeared before Congress again Monday to say President Donald Trump’s possible obstruction efforts outlined by special counsel Robert Mueller echo what he once saw in another White House ensnared in turmoil.

As Dean appeared before the House Judiciary Committee, Trump railed on Twitter, picking up on an earlier thread of insults. He called Dean a “sleazebag” on Sunday and then tweeted Monday afternoon, “Can’t believe they are bringing in John Dean, the disgraced Nixon White House Counsel who is a paid CNN contributor.”

Dean, 80, was called by Democrats to testify so he could provide a historical context from his experience to the parallels in the findings of Mueller’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

He admitted Monday he is not a “fact witness” to the Mueller investigation, but emphasized that the similarities between himself and former White House counsel Don McGahn were too significant to be ignored.

In the early 1970s, Dean participated in the Watergate scandal and covered up for then-President Richard Nixon. He later admitted to obstruction and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors in exchange for a lighter prison sentence.

“In many ways the Mueller report is to President Trump what the so-called Watergate ‘road map’ … was to President Richard Nixon,” Dean testified Monday, adding that his presence was also important because the Mueller report itself has not been widely read by Congress or the public.

Unlike himself, Dean said, McGahn took “the high road” by refusing to follow any illegal or improper directives from a president.

While Mueller outlined 10 instances of potential obstruction in his final report, the interactions between Trump and McGahn were the strongest pieces of evidence Dean said he could refer to as proof of obstruction.

According to Mueller’s report, Trump asked McGahn to stop Attorney General Jeff Sessions from recusing himself from the Russia probe and called McGahn on two occasions to direct him to lean on then-Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.

“McGahn understood the call was to have Rosenstein remove Mueller,” Dean said Monday.

But McGahn refused, and Dean says it was because he understood the risk involved: as White House counsel, McGahn represented the office of the presidency, not Trump personally.

“He stepped away. He didn’t want any part of it,” Dean said.

Joyce Vance, former U.S. attorney in the Northern District of Alabama, also testified before the House panel Monday and said the activity between McGahn and Trump met all of the necessary elements a prosecutor would typically need to successfully charge obstruction.

“There was the act to have McGahn fired after he refused [the president’s request]. The president knew there was an ongoing investigation and there was corrupt motive to curtail that investigation,” Vance said.

Barbara McQuade, former U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, also emphasized that fear over crossing the obstruction line was exactly what prompted McGahn to step down last October, according to the special counsel.

Republicans on the committee, including ranking chairman Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, took a hard line against testimony from what Collins called “pontificators” who appear on television to offer analysis on the Mueller probe yet were not formally a part of it. Dean, Vance and McQuade have all made regular appearances on CNN to talk about the investigation.

Republican Matt Gaetz of Florida also took affront, asking Dean how many presidents he had “accused of being Richard Nixon.” Dean noted he wrote a book on former President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney titled “Worse than Watergate.”

Dean drew laughs when Gaetz tried to push back by saying if Congress insists on asking Dean and others to talk about things they “don’t know about,” why not talk about Nixon’s plan for Medicare for all?

“Well, actually, Nixon did not have a health care plan,” Dean said to much laughter from the gallery.

The only panelist called by the minority, John Malcolm, director of legal studies at the conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation, argued the Mueller contentions on obstruction by Trump are illogical.

“Individuals who attempt to obstruct justice do so because they know darn well they committed a crime. Someone attempting to obstruct an investigation also engages in other nefarious activities, like threatening bodily harm,” Malcolm said.

The president, on the other hand, provided thousands of records and allowed staffers to be interviewed, Malcom noted but refused to acknowledge Trump declined to be interviewed by Mueller or submit written responses in the probe.

“There are not the actions of someone obstructing justice,” Malcolm said before adding Trump’s outbursts on Twitter, like the probe being a “witch hunt,” are little more than a person being ‘maddened by the circumstances.’

McQuade and Vance emphasized that while Trump may not be eligible for indictment under existing Office of Legal Counsel rules, it is Congress who is responsible to hold the president to the promise of his office.

“Congress is responsible to ensure that he can uphold the law and uphold it faithfully and responsibly,” McQuade said.

Separately on Monday, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., announced that he will hold off on any criminal contempt proceedings against Attorney General Bill Barr. Ahead of the hearing, the chairman said in a statement that the Justice Department agreed to provide a series of underlying documents supporting the special counsel’s report.

The House of Representatives will, however, move forward Tuesday with a resolution that will authorize lawmakers to sue the DOJ if it doesn’t comply with congressional requests.

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