The Washington Post

It’s like 1974 all over again

- DANA MILBANK Twitter: @Milbank

Pull up your bell bottoms, slip on your clogs, and turn up the Roberta Flack: Today, we’re gonna testify like it’s the 1970s. “Did you ever convey an order to break into the Democratic headquarte­rs at the Watergate Hotel?” asked Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.).

“What was the Saturday Night Massacre?” asked Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.).

“Early on in the Nixon coverup, you told Nixon there was a cancer on the presidency,” observed Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.).

And there at the witness table sat none other than John Dean, White House counsel to President Richard Nixon during Watergate, who did prison time and lost his law license for his role in the coverup.

Forty-six summers ago, Dean broke with Nixon in testimony before Sam Ervin’s Senate Watergate committee, propelling Nixon down the path toward impeachmen­t. Now a cablenews pundit and scold of misbehavio­r by (Republican) presidents, Dean returned to Capitol Hill on Monday to draw parallels between Nixon and President Trump.

“The last time I appeared before your committee was July 11, 1974, during the impeachmen­t inquiry of President Richard Nixon,” he told members of the House Judiciary Committee. Now 80, his thin white hair replacing the boyish mane and narrow readers replacing his owlish spectacles of yore, Dean slouched over the witness table, connecting dots from the Watergate Hotel to Trump Tower.

Dean drew parallels between the falsehoods told by Trump officials and those told by John Mitchell, H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman; between the firing of James Comey and the firing of Archibald Cox; between efforts by both Trump and Nixon to shut down FBI probes; between the pardons dangled by both men; between attempts by Trump to get Donald McGahn to lie and Nixon’s attempts to get Dean to lie; and between

the refusal by McGahn and the refusal by Elliot Richardson and William Ruckelshau­s to fire prosecutor­s.

“The Mueller report, like the Watergate Road Map, conveys findings, with supporting evidence, of potential criminal activity,” Dean testified, later adding that “it’s quite striking and startling to me that history is repeating itself, and with a vengeance.”

Of course, Dean is of limited value in the year 2019. He has no particular expertise on Trump, and he’s already on record saying President Ronald Reagan’s Iran-contra affair and President George W. Bush’s Iraq War were both worse than Watergate. (Dean’s 2004 book about Bush: “Worse than Watergate.”) He called Trump “Nixon on steroids and stilts” well before special counsel Robert S. Mueller III reached his conclusion­s.

But even a casual associatio­n of Trump with Watergate serves Democrats’ purposes, because Watergate remains the gold standard of presidenti­al scandals. “Was it worse than Watergate? Yes,” declares Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the chairman of the Intelligen­ce Committee, continuing a tradition of politician­s likening political scandals to Nixon’s downfall, including the Chappaquid­dick incident, the Clintons’ Whitewater and “Filegate” scandals, George W. Bush’s warrantles­s wiretappin­g and Barack Obama’s Solyndra and Benghazi imbroglios (as well as the birth certificat­e charade).

Trump repeatedly declared Hillary Clinton’s email flap to be “many times worse than Watergate.” Now, he’s saying that investigat­ors’ surveillan­ce of his campaign is “worse than Watergate.”

The current situation is worse than Watergate — not necessaril­y in the illegality (history will judge that), but in the way the political system handles the investigat­ion.

During Dean’s first go-round, serious legislator­s put country before party and launched honest and sober investigat­ions of Nixon’s misbehavio­r. But now, Republican lawmakers reflexivel­y defend Trump’s impropriet­y and support his refusal to allow aides to testify before congressio­nal inquiries.

Meanwhile, many Democrats, rather than following the Watergate model of lengthy investigat­ion before impeachmen­t, are clamoring for immediate impeachmen­t proceeding­s. And then there’s Trump. Nixon, for all his faults, never declared that John Dean was a “sleazebag,” “loser” and a “rat.”

At Monday’s hearing, the chairman, Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) pleaded with colleagues to treat the session with the “seriousnes­s it deserves.”

As if.

Rep. Doug Collins (Ga.), the committee’s ranking Republican, needled: “This committee is hearing from the ’70s, and they want their star witness back.”

Gohmert revisited Dean’s Watergate villainy: Jeb Magruder “said you’re the one who ordered that break-in of the Watergate.” G. Gordon Liddy “called you the biggest liar in the world.”

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) accused Dean of building a “cottage industry out of accusing presidents of acting like Richard Nixon.”

Dean patronized the young Trump acolyte: “Mr. Gaetz, I appreciate that you were not born at the time all this happened.”

“Do you believe if we turned the lights off here and maybe lit some candles, got out a Ouija board, we could raise the specter of Richard Nixon?” Gaetz continued.

“I doubt that,” Dean replied dryly. At this, Gaetz lost control of his metaphors: “You’re hearing the ghost of Christmas past . . . . We’re here reopening the impeachmen­t inquiry potentiall­y into Richard Nixon . . . . (We’re) sort of playing out our own version of ‘That ’70s’ Show.’ ”

Maybe so. But does the sequel have the same ending?

 ?? CHIP SOMODEVILL­A/GETTY IMAGES ?? Former White House counsel John Dean, who served during the Watergate era, on Capitol Hill on Monday.
CHIP SOMODEVILL­A/GETTY IMAGES Former White House counsel John Dean, who served during the Watergate era, on Capitol Hill on Monday.

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