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Former White House Counsel To Nixon Doesn't Think Trump Has Had A Massacre Yet

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

You heard Ron talking there about the inevitable comparisons to Watergate which prompted us to wonder how valid are the analogies between what was happening back in the early 1970s and today? So to answer that, we've called someone with firsthand knowledge of the Nixon White House, John Dean. He was White House counsel to President Nixon. By the time of Nixon's Saturday Night Massacre in 1973, Dean was out of the White House. He pleaded guilty to crimes related to the scandal and was soon testifying against other key figures. He served 120 days in custody for his role in Watergate.

In the decades since, he has served as a banker, an author, and he's become something of an expert on presidential ethics. John Dean is on the line from his home in Beverly Hills, Calif. John, thanks for joining us.

JOHN DEAN: My pleasure.

KELLY: I have to ask what went through your mind as you watched this week's events unfold?

DEAN: Well, it's kind of been several weeks where we've had echoes of Watergate at the Comey firing, of course, raised memories for many of the so-called Saturday Night Massacre. There was a difference, but there are some stylistic similarities. The difference being that Archibald Cox, the Watergate prosecutor was openly defying Nixon. And so he finally decided he would just shut down the special prosecutor's operation. Trump obviously was not anywhere near that stage in an investigation. He hadn't told Comey to stop the Russian investigation, and so it's really - I think style is what's more important here because Comey could have been given the right to resign, rather than had his head chopped off as occurred.

KELLY: President Trump warned Jim Comey yesterday via tweets that Comey had better hope there are no tapes of their conversations which, as you know, one of the legacies of Watergate is that since then, presidents have avoided taping their calls, taping their conversations because they can be subpoenaed. Were you surprised to hear President Trump raised the possibility that he may be taping his conversations?

DEAN: Trump must know - he's old enough to be aware of Watergate that by saying exactly what he said, he's raising that whole specter again. And it's just another comparison with Watergate. And that isn't a comparison most presidents seek to put on their presidency.

KELLY: As a trained lawyer, what legal questions were raised for you this week? Is there any evidence of the president overstepping his legal authority that you have seen?

DEAN: I haven't seen a technical violation of any of the statutes, the obstruction statutes or what have you. I have seen a parallel with what ended up in Nixon's articles of impeachment where he was charged with interfering with the FBI investigation. Obviously, removing Comey is not a direct blocking of an investigation, but given his attitude or what he says was in his mind, he was unhappy with the investigation. He knew it was going to have some impact on how the FBI perceived it.

KELLY: We last talked to you back in February when everybody was talking about the Monday Night Massacre, which would be when Trump fired than acting Attorney General Sally Yates. Are we going to have a Monday night, a Tuesday night, a Wednesday night...

(LAUGHTER)

KELLY: I mean, is there a point where the analogy gets overblown?

DEAN: I don't think that Trump has done a massacre yet. He's done firing. There is a difference, and the reason that the massacre was considered a massacre by Nixon is because he shut down the office. He had - he fired his attorney general, his deputy attorney general. He fired the special prosecutor finally through the solicitor general, and then he put the FBI in the special prosecutor's office to hold and lock down the files and was going to transfer the whole thing back to the Department of Justice. That was why it got the massacre status.

KELLY: One last thing I want to ask you, John Dean, the famous phrase there is a cancer on the presidency - that was you describing the Watergate cover up to President Nixon. Is that right?

DEAN: I didn't deal with the president on Watergate until eight months into the cover up, if you will. I had been talking to my colleagues about stopping the cover up that I thought it was unwise and was trying to get Nixon out in front of it. When I went in that morning to do it, I wanted to do something that would get his attention (laughter).

KELLY: Well, let me ask you now if you could lean down and whisper into the ear of President Donald Trump something that would get his attention, what would you say?

DEAN: I'd tell him he's got a very strong White House counsel's office. Well, it's time to rely on those lawyers to keep himself from getting in trouble.

KELLY: That's advice from John Dean, who served as White House counsel back in the 1970s to President Richard Nixon. John Dean, thanks very much.

DEAN: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.