John Dean: The James Comey of Watergate
by
John Dean, White House Counsel to President Richard Nixon, in 1973 (Wikimedia Commons)

Pundits are all atwitter over Inspector General Michael Horowitz’s report on former FBI Director James Comey’s disgraceful conduct, which borders on criminality. While Comey is claiming vindication from the Department of Justice’s decision not to prosecute (at this point), the 84 pages of detailed descriptions of his actions as FBI director are simply devastating.

Perhaps not so surprisingly, Comey’s conduct and treatment by the media offer striking parallels to those of John Dean, felonious counsel to President Nixon during the Watergate scandal.

Both Comey and Dean were political lawyers. While holding presidential appointments to positions of extraordinary importance, each intentionally misled his president — and then lied about it.

Comey had been U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York and then Deputy Attorney General under George W. Bush. He was appointed FBI Director by Obama and wanted to stay on under Trump. Dean had been minority counsel to the House Judiciary Committee and Associate Deputy Attorney General before coming to the White House as counsel to Nixon.

Both played critical roles in worsening political scandals that were largely of their own making. Readers are well aware of Comey’s seminal role in downplaying Hillary’s email scandal and participation in incomplete disclosures to the FISA Court. Dean not only recruited and hired campaign intelligence plan author G. Gordon Liddy but was also “chief desk officer” for the ensuing cover-up, the exposure of which brought down the Nixon presidency.

Each was less than candid in meetings with his respective president. Comey’s lies and misrepresentations are well detailed in the IG’s report. Dean somehow neglected to tell Nixon about his own criminal activities in running the Watergate cover-up — and also gave less-than-truthful testimony about his meetings with Nixon in his Ervin Committee appearance and as principal prosecution witness in the cover-up trial.

Each participated in discussions with other law enforcement officials about how he might trap the president into making damaging admissions in scheduled one-on-one meetings. Comey’s audacious setup of Trump is well detailed in the IG’s report. Prosecutorial records show that Dean discussed the idea of wearing a wire to his next meeting with Nixon while still his counsel, but ultimately decided it was too risky.

Both Comey and Dean were publicly fired for their conduct, but immediately emerged as heroes to a media overwhelmed by its own hatred for the president.

-Given his actions during the 2016 campaign, Comey was virtually certain to be fired no matter who won. But when a triumphant Trump did the firing, he was pilloried and Comey idolized as an idealistic and nonpartisan hero.

-Each quickly became a critical actor in an all-out effort to end a presidency. Comey’s improper actions were successful in triggering appointment of a special prosecutor, even if they later faltered. Dean, along with his conveniently shifting recollections, quickly became the centerpiece for the Watergate special prosecutors’ focus on Nixon himself.

-Both received exceptionally lenient treatment from federal prosecutors. DOJ has declined to bring criminal charges against Comey, at least none based on the IG’s report alone. Dean was allowed to plead guilty to a single felony. While sentenced to a prison term of one to four years, this was just for show. He was freed completely immediately after the cover-up trial and ended up serving less than four months. Even then, he did so in a witness protection program, such that he never spent a single night in jail.

-Both have been feted at congressional hearings chaired by Democrats and are now featured regularly in friendly appearances on CNN and MSNBC, where any questioning about their own prior actions is strictly off-limits.

-Each man quickly wrote a bestselling book, spinning his own disgraceful actions in the best possible light. Comey’s A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership was published in 2018 as an audiobook. Dean’s Blind Ambition: The White House Years, ghostwritten by Taylor Branch, came out in 1976. Each, amazingly enough, became New York Times bestsellers. Neither apologized or took any blame for their own actions.

Astonishingly, both now teach courses on ethics and professional responsibility, seemingly in the belief their conduct was exemplary to other members of the legal profession.

Comey taught a course last year in professional responsibility for the law school of William & Mary, his undergraduate alma mater (where he majored in religion). Dean has been featured for years in Continuing Legal Education (CLE) courses for practicing lawyers. In his recent appearance before the House Judiciary Committee, he claimed to have taught ethics to 50,000 to 60,000 lawyers.

I confess I haven’t found it convenient to attend one of Dean’s sessions, but those who have tell me that while Dean bemoans the unethical actions of his former Nixon administration colleagues he never quite gets around to discussing any of his own failings. I’m told he even features some law professor’s assertion that client confidentiality rules in effect at the time prevented him from informing DOJ personnel about the ongoing criminal cover-up actions. What a hoot! Somehow, the good professor missed that there is no attorney-client privilege for government lawyers: they represent the position and not any particular individual, so Dean certainly had an ethical obligation all along to disclose any wrongdoing.

In virtually every jurisdiction, CLE courses must be taught by lawyers admitted to the practice of law and in good standing with their respective bar association. John Dean is not only a convicted felon but he also has been disbarred from the practice of law since 1974 (something conveniently omitted in background descriptions for his many TV appearances). How then can he possibly teach ethics? Oh, that’s easy. He has some shill lawyer sit silently on the stage beside him, while he regales the audience about how he was duped into joining Nixon’s White House staff. The CLE credits, such as they are, technically come from listening to the silent lawyer, and not to Dean himself.

Both are hoping that, over time, they can maintain their current popularity and that people will forget about their actual deeds.

Given the candor and specificity of the IG’s report, that’s going to be a little tough for Comey. It’s thorough, it’s candid and clear, and its characterizations of his conduct are devastating.

It’s a pity there is no parallel IG report about John Dean, because people seem to have forgotten. Fortunately, there are records that can still be accessed. For example, here is what Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox said about Dean:

Archie Cox was particularly firm in his personal determination that Dean be prosecuted no matter what. Dean became an idée fixe for Cox. True, as a witness Dean would cement otherwise weak cases against Haldeman and Ehrlichman. But Cox preferred, if forced to choose, to take the relatively sure shot at Dean rather than the long shot against Dean’s superiors. When the Saturday Night Massacre loomed close, it might have been propitious for Cox to make a deal with Dean and secure Dean’s testimony against President Nixon as another weapon to hold the President off. Even then, Cox’s determination did not waiver. With all the uncertainties of Watergate that swirled around him — the weakness of evidence against Nixon’s top aides without Dean’s testimony, the possibility of Presidential culpability, the problems of obtaining White House evidence and of dealing with “national security” — Cox saw Dean’s guilt as the one enduring constant. During a particularly difficult period Archie remarked to us, “If everything else goes down the drain the one thing I can cling to is Dean’s venality.” [Richard Ben-Veniste, Stonewall: The Real Story of the Watergate Prosecution (Simon & Schuster, 1977), p. 107]

Here is what President Gerald Ford said about him:

Ford singled out for special distain John Dean, the White House lawyer who had helped blow the lid off the cover-up he had once helped perpetrate. Long before Watergate, he hadn’t liked the brash young lawyer. “I knew John Dean when he was chief clerk for Bill McCulloch, ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee. I developed an intense suspicion and dislike for John Dean then, because I just didn’t like the way he operated. And I was shocked when the Nixon people took him over to the White House. [Thomas M. DeFrank, Write It When I’m Gone: Remarkable Off-the-Record Conversations With Gerald R. Ford (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2007), p.96]

Here is what a former DOJ Organized Crime Strike Force attorney recently wrote me about Dean:

In that capacity, I had one of my mob informants placed in protective custody at the Fort Holabird safe house where he got to know John Dean, Jeb Stuart Magruder, Chuck Colson and Herb Kalmbach.

My informant, who was a made member of the Mafia, spoke highly of Colson and Kalmbach as decent “stand up guys.” On the other hand, he considered Dean and Magruder to be totally untrustworthy weaklings. Of Dean, he said, “That guy would steal the silver dollars off his dead mother’s eyes.”

Here is what the New York Times reported that Virginia Bar Association charged — subornation of perjury, destruction of evidence, obstruction of justice and embezzlement — on February 6, 1974, when Dean was disbarred:

The disbarment action was brought by the Virginia State Bar, which charged that Mr. Dean had been guilty of unprofessional conduct by withholding evidence, inducing a witness to commit perjury, authorizing payment of hush money to the Watergate burglars and diverting money to his own use. The three Circuit Court judges found Mr. Dean guilty of “unethical, unprofessional and unwarranted conduct as an attorney-at-law violating the code of professional ethics.” They ordered that Mr. Dean’s license to practice law in Virginia be revoked.

Here is what prosecutors said about the impact on trial jurors from Dean’s temporary sentencing:

Moral balancing aside, the realpolitik of the situation was that Dean would not be an effective witness at trial if he got a free ride. His credibility would be substantially diminished by his making a deal with the prosecutors to implicate others only if the prosecutors completely forgave his own deep involvement. The evident effect of Dean’s prison sentence later, on the jurors at the Watergate cover-up trial confirmed our tactical judgment. As a man who was already serving a long jail term for doing what he testified he had been instructed to do by Haldeman and Ehrlichman, Dean made a measurably greater impression than if he had never been charged or punished for his acts. [Richard Ben-Veniste, Stonewall: The Real Story of the Watergate Prosecution (Simon & Schuster, 1977), p. 107]

The prosecutors never quite got around to mentioning that Dean’s temporary sentence worked a fraud on the jury, since he was set completely free just one week following that trial’s conclusion.

For those who care to look further, documents posted online by the National Archives (see bulk pdf file here) include (i) a February 6, 1974, memo from Peter Rient entitled “Material Discrepancies Between the Senate Select Committee Testimony of John Dean and the Tapes of Dean’s Meetings with the President,” which details some 19 such instances; (ii) a November 15, 1973, memo to the File from Peter Rient and Judy Denny, explaining that Dean never accused Nixon of any wrongdoing over the course of a month’s meetings with prosecutors until after he was terminated, “thereby dramatically changing his prior stance”; and (iii) the July 1973 Watergate Special Prosecution Force letter submitted to Judge Sirica in connection with Dean’s sentencing.

Details about all of these matters, Comey’s and Dean’s, are easily ascertainable by journalists interested in objective reporting. What is so disturbing is the realization that the mainstream media must really still hate President Nixon to continue to make someone like John Dean their hero — and the same is obviously true for President Trump with James Comey.

Geoff Shepard came to D.C. as a White House Fellow right after graduation from Harvard Law School and spent five years on Nixon’s White House staff, including being deputy counsel on his Watergate defense team. See more on his website: www.geoffshepard.com.

Sign Up to receive Our Latest Updates! Register

Be a Free Market Loving Patriot. Subscribe Today!