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Former White House Counsel Discusses Don McGahn's Cooperation With Robert Mueller


Forty-five years ago, Richard Nixon asked this question on a White House phone call.


RICHARD NIXON: What does Dean think about it?

CHANG: What does Dean think about it? That would be White House Counsel John Dean. And in a moment, we're going to ask Mr. Dean about what's happening now. In 1973, Nixon wanted to know whether John Dean should talk with the special prosecutor investigating the Watergate cover-up. Nixon and his adviser John Ehrlichman decided that, yes, Dean should at least, quote, "appear cooperative." Here's Ehrlichman.


JOHN EHRLICHMAN: The smartest thing that he, Dean, could do is go down there and appear cooperative.

CHANG: Dean did far more than that. He became a key witness who helped bring down Nixon. And yesterday, President Trump invoked Dean's name in a tweet - calling him a rat. Trump was on the defensive after a New York Times report said current White House Counsel Don McGahn has been cooperating with Robert Mueller's investigation.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The president just tweeted about this very story. He says the failing New York Times wrote a fake piece today implying that because White House counsel Dan McGann was giving hours of testimony to the special counsel, he must be John Dean-type rat.

CHANG: So let's hear directly from John Dean, who is on the line with us now. Welcome.

JOHN DEAN: Hi, how are you?

CHANG: Very good. Thanks for joining us.

DEAN: Pleasure.

CHANG: Do you think the comparisons between yourself and Don McGahn are valid?

DEAN: I'm not sure that Trump has any understanding of Watergate whatsoever. I had obviously advised my superiors and the president that I was talking to the prosecutors. And what they did not think though - that I would tell the truth.

CHANG: What went through your mind when you saw the president calling you a rat on Twitter?

DEAN: Well, that seems to be a fairly normal sort of invective from the president. He's got a long list of people he tries to insult every day. I noticed he called the special counsel attorneys today thugs.

CHANG: Now, we don't know what McGahn said in these interviews. But having been in a similar situation yourself, what do you think his calculation was for speaking with investigators?

DEAN: Well, when I responded to the president's tweet, my first reaction was that indeed he didn't understand what was going on. He, in a subsequent piece - obviously took about 48 hours to realize they have not a clue what McGahn was doing. But 30 hours is a lot of time. And that was sort of the minimum. I think he probably provided timelines. It suggests he might have been even providing information very close to real time - to things that the prosecutor was very interested in. This is just invaluable testimony. What his lawyer was very clever and smart in doing is making him a witness and not a subject or a target.

CHANG: Well, that's what I wanted to ask you in particular. How much of this decision, you think, to sit down for 30 hours with the special prosecutor - how much of that was in McGahn's self-interest?

DEAN: I think a good bit of it was. The original reporting said that he thought he was being set up by the president to take the hit on any sort of obstruction. That would be a motivator. But, you know, the other thing...

CHANG: We should should say that that was the account portrayed in the New York Times. It's not that Don McGahn has actually confirmed in a quote.

DEAN: No, no. But we have to realize post-Watergate, the White House counsel does not represent the president, per se. It doesn't represent Donald Trump but rather represents the office of the president. And that's a big difference.

CHANG: Yeah, tell us why that distinction matters.

DEAN: Well, if, for example, McGahn is aware of any wrongdoing by the president, he has to really report that, up and out, under the standard code of professional conduct that now exists. So I think it was a smart move in his own interest. And it was certainly the proper representation to tell - explain what was going on regarding the office of the president.

CHANG: And we should note that Don McGahn is not President Trump's personal lawyer. So attorney-client privileges don't come into play the same way in these interviews, as they would with another lawyer.

DEAN: That is correct. There could have been a claim of executive privilege, which is a much fuzzier concept. That's the privilege that was knocked down to get Nixon's tapes. It was not attorney-client. Attorney-client is a little different. And for government-employed lawyers, there is no attorney-client privilege. It can be defeated very easily by a motion in court.

CHANG: I want to play another piece of tape very quickly for you, this is you testifying in front of the Senate Watergate Committee, telling them about a conversation you had with President Nixon.


DEAN: I began by telling the president that there was a cancer growing on the presidency. And if the cancer was not removed, the president himself would be killed by it.

CHANG: Very quickly in the last 20 seconds we have left, when you said there was a cancer on the presidency, were you referring to the Watergate scandal or Nixon himself?

DEAN: The Watergate scandal and the cover-up, it was metastasizing and bound to bring down the president if he didn't take action.


DEAN: He didn't take action.

CHANG: Former Nixon White House Counsel John Dean, thank you very much.

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