The parallels between the Watergate investigation of the 1970s and Robert Mueller’s current investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election have become inescapable: Since the investigation began a little more than a year ago, the debate over how and whether the two moments compare has been nearly constant. With the recent revelation that President Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen has told Mueller that President Trump had prior knowledge of the June 9, 2016, Trump Tower meeting between officials from his campaign and Russian representatives, another connection has been established.
Key to the comparison are the similar roles played by John Dean, the Counsel to the President in 1970-3, and President Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen. Both attorneys were involved in events that led to investigations, and both found it expedient to share what they learned with prosecutors. But, while the information they shared seems to be analogous, the results may be very different.
Watergate began with a break-in into the Democratic National Committee office by agents of the Committee to Re-Elect the President, directed by G. Gordon Liddy, who had previously worked at the White House. John Dean, as he eventually explained to the Senate Watergate Committee and testified in various trials, attended two meetings in early 1972 in which break-ins and eavesdropping against the Democrats were discussed. Partly perhaps because of his opposition to such schemes, he was not at a third meeting where, according to one participant, the Watergate break-in was approved.
Still, after the Watergate burglars were arrested in June 1972, Dean supervised the cover-up. He helped arrange payments to the burglars to make sure they did not implicate higher-ups, turned devastating evidence of wrongdoing by White House aide E. Howard Hunt over to F.B.I Director Patrick Gray personally, and coordinated false stories to authorities. In the spring of 1973 the cover-up began to unravel because one burglar decided to talk, and Dean — a bright young man in his early 30s — got a lawyer and decided to cooperate with prosecutors. He wanted to be shielded from prosecution and accepted a grant of immunity from the Senate Watergate Committee.
In June of 1973, Dean told that committee publicly that he had discussed the cover-up with President Nixon and H. R. Haldeman in March 1973, and that Nixon had authorized further payments to the Watergate burglars, and an offer of executive clemency to at least one of them. Nixon and Haldeman denied this, and Dean’s testimony alone was not enough to sink Nixon.
Things changed when Nixon was eventually forced to release the tape of a March 21, 1973, conversation with Dean in which he did indeed not only bless, but ordered, more payments to the burglars. Prosecutors found that another payment had immediately followed. Based on this and other evidence, the House Judiciary Committee voted articles of impeachment against Nixon in July 1974. That might well have led to his ouster, but before the full House could vote, a new revelation — that Nixon and Haldeman had agreed to ask the CIA to block the FBI’s Watergate investigation right after the break-in — led to Nixon’s resignation. Dean’s immunity from the Senate Committee, as it turned out, did not protect him from prosecution, and he eventually had to plead guilty to obstruction of justice and served four months at a minimum-security prison. He was also disbarred.
The 2016 scandal also began with a break-in, into the same Democratic National Committee — this time electronically, by Russian operatives. Robert Mueller is now investigating whether the hack and its release were coordinated with the Trump campaign.
Michael Cohen is much older than John Dean was in 1972 and has a checkered career in business and a long association with Donald Trump, for whom he evidently handled some difficult assignments. Like Dean, he has apparently decided that he’s better off helping the prosecutors, though there’s been no news yet of an official agreement between Cohen and the investigation.
Can he provide evidence as important as Dean’s was?
Cohen has reportedly provided information about the June 9, 2016 meeting at Trump Tower, between Paul Manafort, Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and several Russian representatives. That may well have been a key moment in this story, parallel to the cover-up meetings Dean disclosed.
The conversation at the June 2016 meeting apparently involved both “dirt” on Hillary Clinton, and the Magnitsky Act, the basis for sanctions that Russia hopes to see repealed. Cohen says that Trump Sr. knew about the meeting in advance. It was only after that meeting, according to Mueller’s indictment, that the Russians began making the hacked documents public. In the wake of the meeting, the Republican platform also softened its language to favor Russia, and the candidate himself publicly dared Russian hackers to come forward with Clinton’s “missing emails.” If the timing of these events was not just coincidence, everyone at the meeting — and Trump, if he can be shown to have known about it, which he and his team have denied — could be implicated in a conspiracy to influence the results of the election with the help of an illegal hack.
Cohen’s lawyer has already released a tape of a conversation with Trump about a payment designed to hide Karen McDougal’s story of an alleged affair with the candidate. More tapes could be key: Dean’s initial accusations against Nixon were not enough to sink him, but they were eventually confirmed by tape transcripts and other evidence. The question is whether Cohen also has such evidence relating to Trump and the June 6 meetings, or whether Mueller can obtain such evidence in some other way.
Dean was instrumental in Nixon’s ouster, and Cohen is now his 2018 counterpart — but there are also huge differences between the political situation in 1973 and today. In part because Democrats controlled both houses of Congress back then, the Senate Watergate Committee conducted a full, public investigation of what was known in the spring and summer of 1973, and the nation became well acquainted with the key players and witnesses as they watched them on national television. In addition, throughout 1973 and 1974, quite a few Republicans made it clear that they were willing to help remove Nixon from office if he were proven guilty. Such does not seem to be the case again.
That Michael Cohen, like John Dean, is willing to speak with prosecutors, is a very important development in another investigation of possible presidential wrongdoing. It may not, however, be a decisive one — and no one knows that better than John Dean himself.
“Michael Cohen,” Dean tweeted earlier this month, “is signaling prosecutors that he is ready to talk… [The] cat is out of the bag, with the only question being what kind of cat is it?”
And, one might add, who will give the cat the attention it deserves?
Historians explain how the past informs the present
David Kaiser, a historian, has taught at Harvard, Carnegie Mellon, Williams College, and the Naval War College. He is the author of seven books, including, most recently, No End Save Victory: How FDR Led the Nation into War. He lives in Watertown, Mass.