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Watergate's John Dean To Testify Before House Inquiry


In 1973, John Dean was the star witness in the Watergate hearings. Now, 40 years later, then some, Dean will return to Capitol Hill to testify before a different Congress about a different president. Dean's testimony all those years ago helped lead to Nixon's resignation. Now Democrats are hoping his insights into the Mueller report will boost their case against President Trump. In a tweet last night, President Trump called Dean a, quote, "sleazebag attorney," and he repeated his claim that Democrats are just looking for a do-over on the Mueller report.

Among those doing the questioning of Dean today will be Congressman Steve Cohen. He's a Democrat from the state of Tennessee and a member of the House Judiciary Committee. He's in our studio this morning. Thanks so much for coming in.

STEVE COHEN: Rachel, good to be here from my hometown of Memphis.

MARTIN: Memphis, Tenn. All right, congressman, what are you hoping to learn today from John Dean?

COHEN: How the Nixon obstruction of justice charges parallel the charges that Mueller suggests in his special counsel report and other parallels there might be that he sees, as a student of abhorrent presidential conduct, unconstitutional conduct. And we also have two prosecutors, Ms. Vance and Barbara - I think it's McQuade. And they have knowledge, too, and their understanding of what the - Mueller's suggestions, his 10 or 12 suggestions of possible obstruction of justice and how they see those falling within the legal standards.

MARTIN: May I ask for slightly more specifics on that? I mean, what does it matter what John Dean thinks about the Mueller report? He was the key witness, yes, in the Watergate hearings, but that was a completely different scenario, completely different set of facts.

COHEN: Well, it was a different set of facts, but it was the same activities. Nixon, really, the thing that got him was obstructing justice. And, of course, obstructing of justice that he was most guilty of was not giving over documents to Congress, which this administration is doing also; that's not in the Mueller report. But we've been stymied at getting witnesses that would be the best witnesses - the president's attorney, Mr. McCain (ph), the president's other attorney - sometimes goes by the name of attorney general, Bill Barr - Hope Hicks. And there's another lady that was - refused to comment.

So the president's told people not to come, to not abide by subpoenas. They have done what the president's asked them to do. Mr. Mueller - we'd like to have, and he's been reticent. He may come eventually. But rather than just wait on these people, because time - as Mick Jagger would say - is on my side. Time is not on my side. Time is on their side, and they're trying to run out the clock.

MARTIN: But at the same time, you just admit that the reason you're calling John Dean is because you can't get anyone who actually knows anything. I mean, we should point out some...

COHEN: Well, but John Dean knows a lot. He studied this, as has Ms. McQuade and Ms. Vance. They've spent a lot of times researching and studying, and they're knowledgeable. They're not part of the special counsel's team that investigated. But they have knowledge of the law. They have knowledge of how it is applied to a president. And they have knowledge of the facts situation.

MARTIN: I want to ask, though, about a recent poll by NPR, PBS NewsHour and Marist. This was released just this weekend. And it says that only roughly 20% of Americans polled support impeachment. So are you really representing what most Americans think here?

COHEN: Don't a goodly share on that poll show that they support inquiry into impeachment?

MARTIN: Twenty-five percent said that they support ongoing investigations into the president's behavior, but that's distinct from the question about impeachment.

COHEN: Well, it is, but it's inherent therein. The investigation is obviously into his behavior. My district is very much in favor of impeachment. And I think that you see polls that show 77% of Democrats are in favor of impeachment, and 53% of the electorate - in 2016, that's about what Hillary Clinton - whatever - she got three points better than him. So 77% is close to 40%. So there's a goodly share, and there's a majority of Democrats by far. And this president has, in my opinion, committed impeachable offenses. And I take an oath to support the Constitution.

MARTIN: The speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, has said it's just premature, that it's pointless, essentially, unless you have overwhelming evidence that would change the minds of Senate Republicans. What do you say to that?

COHEN: Nothing will change the mind, probably, of Senate Republicans. That's not a reason to close your eyes to the truth that's put before you by the special counsel's report and by amoluments violations, which are not part of the special counsel's report - by saying the press is the enemy of the people, which is violating the First Amendment, freedom of the press - by trying to get people not to listen to CNN by presidential boycott, which he's encouraged, etc., etc., etc. I think if the senators don't vote for it, they'll feel the wrath of the public, even in red states, for standing by this illegal, abhorrent, unconstitutional actions of the president.

MARTIN: It's my understanding that the ranking member on the House Judiciary Committee issued some guidance about how the hearings today are supposed to go. What can you tell us?

COHEN: He gave about a 4-page memo, longer than Bill Barr's, quote, unquote "summary" of the special counsel Mueller's report, saying we can't say the president's a liar. We can't say the president's committed obstruction of justice. We can't say the president has encouraged perjury. We can't say the president has used his position for his official gain for his family, financial gain, etc., etc. That's part of Jefferson's Manual. It was written for a time when people were not corrupt as this president is. And so we're constrained in what we can say. And we just weren't prepared for a president like this. Jefferson's Manual didn't anticipate it.

MARTIN: Congressman, thanks so much for your time.

COHEN: You're welcome, Rachel.

MARTIN: NPR's Tim Mak covers Congress and was listening in there. So, Tim, Congressman Cohen clearly thinks that there is a path for impeachment. What are you hearing from other members of the House Judiciary Committee, in particular?

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Well, you know, more than half of the Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee, about 13 out of its 22 members, have indicated they want impeachment proceedings to begin. I think both you and the congressman put the finger on the message that they - which is that there's going to be this comparison made continuously between President Trump and President Nixon with this hearing with John Dean.

I also kind of found it interesting about - you know, what Congressman Cohen said about Mueller. He said, quote, "he may come eventually." What's going to be really interesting over the next few weeks is how the House Judiciary Committee deals with - they may subpoena. They may further negotiate with Mueller to get his testimony - that's going to be something I'm watching over the next little bit.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's Tim Mak. Thanks so much, Tim. We appreciate it.

MAK: Thanks a lot. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.