Forty-six years ago, President Nixon’s former White House counsel took an oath before a congressional committee and delivered testimony that eventually brought down the president.
On Wednesday, not long after Gordon Sondland, President Trump’s ambassador to the European Union, took a similar oath, journalists and historians alike started comparing Sondland to John Dean, the former Nixon aide who testified nearly half a century ago.
Has Ukraine-gate found its John Dean?— Ken Dilanian (@KenDilanianNBC) November 20, 2019
Feels like John Dean in 1973— Julian Zelizer (@julianzelizer) November 20, 2019
Like Dean, Sondland is an administration insider who delivered damning testimony implicating the president in serious wrongdoing. Like Dean, Sondland appears to be a central figure in a scandal.
Dean’s fateful testimony began with a confession. “I was involved in obstructing justice,” he said of his efforts to cover up a botched attempt to break into the Democratic National Committee offices at the Watergate Hotel at the behest of Nixon’s reelection campaign. “I assisted another in perjured testimony. ... I made personal use of funds that were in my custody.”
But Dean also implicated the president, recounting a meeting where he unsuccessfully urged Nixon to stop the coverup and to come clean himself.
Sondland’s testimony on Tuesday, by contrast, was less contrite. In his opening statement to the House Intelligence Committee, Sondland paints himself as a reluctant participant in Trump’s attempt to condition military aid to Ukraine on that country’s willingness to open up an investigation that could damage Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. “This security aid was critical to Ukraine’s defense and should not have been delayed,” Sondland told the committee, adding that his “goal” was “to do what was necessary to get the aid released.”
But Sondland’s testimony is, if anything, even more damning than Dean’s. Sondland speaks of two quid pro quo bargains that Trump hoped to strike with Ukraine, the aid-for-an-investigation bargain and a related attempt to trade a White House meeting with Trump for such an investigation.
Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani “conveyed to Secretary Perry, Ambassador Volker, and others that President Trump wanted a public statement from President Zelensky committing to investigations of Burisma and the 2016 election,” according to Sondland. “We all understood that these prerequisites for the White House call and White House meeting reflected President Trump’s desires and requirements.”
Yet, while Sondland and Dean resemble each other in that they are political insiders delivering damaging testimony about the president they serve, the Watergate scandal and the Trump Ukraine scandal are playing out in very different ways.
Ultimately, Dean’s testimony proved significant not because he levied accusations about the president but because he speculated — correctly, as it turns out — that Nixon may have recorded damning evidence against himself. Sondland, by contrast, largely confirmed facts we already knew: that Trump sought a quid pro quo arrangement with Ukraine to undercut a political rival.
Who was John Dean?
On the day Dean took his oath before the Senate Watergate Committee, he seemed to be leading a charmed Beltway life. Just 34 years old, Dean had recently finished a nearly three-year stint as counsel to the president of the United States. Contemporary reports of his testimony speak of his expensive suits, his Porsche, and his “beautifully groomed” wife Maureen, who sat behind him during the hearings.
But his career was hardly spotless. He lost his first legal job at a Washington, DC, law firm for allegedly engaging in “unethical conduct” — Dean was accused of competing with one of his own clients for a television station license — although the firm later characterized the reason for his firing as a “basic disagreement over ... the nature and scope of an associate’s activities.”
Dean later described himself as the “desk officer” for the White House coverup of the Watergate break-in. In that role, he shredded incriminating documents and paid hush money to people involved in the break-in.
The most significant portion of Dean’s Watergate testimony, however, involved what happened after he told Nixon that he was no longer comfortable playing this role. Dean famously testified that he told Nixon “that there was a cancer growing on the presidency and that if the cancer was not removed that the president himself would be killed by it.”
During that conversation, Dean told the Watergate Committee, Nixon got up from his chair, walked to a corner of the office, and whispered that he was “probably foolish” to have discussed giving clemency to one of the Watergate burglars. Dean speculated that maybe Nixon moved to another part of the room and whispered because he was recording the conversation and didn’t want this one statement to be picked up by the recorder.
That speculation planted a seed that bore fruit weeks later when Nixon Deputy Chief of Staff Alexander Butterfield testified before the Watergate Committee. Butterfield was asked whether Nixon had a system to record White House conversations and Butterfield testified that such a taping system was installed in the Oval Office.
The Supreme Court eventually ordered Nixon to turn these tapes over to a special prosecutor, and one of the tapes revealed that Nixon discussed using the CIA to obstruct the FBI’s investigation into the Watergate break-in.
Days later, Nixon resigned.
Dean served a brief prison term for his own role in Watergate; he was also disbarred. He’s since reemerged as a vocal critic of the kind of corruption that poisoned the Nixon White House. Indeed, he compared the case Special Counsel Robert Mueller laid out against President Trump to the Watergate scandal in June testimony to the House Judiciary Committee.
Is Sondland the new John Dean?
As discussed above, Dean and Sondland do have much in common. It’s not just that they both testified against a president who appointed them to prestigious jobs. Just as Dean was a central figure in the Watergate coverup, Sondland appears to be an important figure in the Ukraine scandal.
Last month, for example, text messages between Sondland and his diplomatic colleagues revealed them discussing the effort to pressure Ukraine into opening a political investigation. In one of those messages, Bill Taylor, the senior US diplomat in Ukraine, tells Sondland, “I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.”
Sondland, moreover, admitted in his testimony on Wednesday that he told a senior aide to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, “I believed that the resumption of US aid would likely not occur until Ukraine took some kind of action on” a public statement about the investigation Trump sought.
There is, however, one important way in which Sondland’s testimony differs from Dean’s.
Watergate was, in many ways, like a mystery novel. The hearings gathered evidence and they built toward an uncertain outcome. Dean’s speculation about the Nixon tapes inspired a new line of inquiry from Watergate investigators. That led to Butterfield’s revelation, which ultimately led to the narrative’s denouement: the “smoking gun” tape implicating Nixon in obstruction of justice.
The Ukraine scandal, by contrast, began with a smoking gun. Democrats opened an impeachment inquiry into Trump after the White House released a readout of a phone call where Trump sought a quid pro quo deal with Zelensky. There’s very little mystery surrounding the Trump impeachment hearings. We already know that Trump did it.
Sondland and other witnesses have filled in some blanks. The question now is whether Senate Republicans will do something about it.