Geoff Shepard: Watergate’s John Dean is a hero to Dems eager to impeach Trump -- but here's the ugly truth

Soon, John Dean will be the Democratic House Judiciary Committee’s opening witness in the majority’s quest to keep the Mueller report at the forefront of the national consciousness. As a former member of President Nixon’s White House staff, Dean has become a mainstream media darling, who is frequently trotted out to assert that some supposed Republican scandal is “worse than Watergate.” He’s hardly on the inside of anything Republican today, but he certainly knows about Watergate, because he played such a central part throughout the scandal’s unfolding.

While Dean’s memorable 1973 appearance before the Senate Watergate Committee was both a dramatic performance and devastating to President Nixon, the deviousness of its orchestration – details of which have only emerged in recent years and still remain largely unappreciated by the American public – is an important part of Dean’s legacy, as well as of our understanding of the efforts to force President Nixon from office nearly 50 years ago.

Dean has become a media hero, not for who he is, but for who he was prepared to testify against. Amazingly, all sorts of legal rules and congressional procedures were ignored in the all-out, partisan attempt to increase Dean’s credibility with the American public. Contrary information, which documents show was well-known to the highly politicized special prosecutors, was kept hidden from the public and from Watergate defense counsel.


Dean – the self-described “chief desk officer” for the cover-up – was the first to switch sides and to alter his recollections in pursuit of personal immunity. The Senate Watergate Committee, looking for dramatic witnesses, readily gave it to him, even after career prosecutors in the U.S. attorney’s office had refused to do so.

Here’s perhaps why: Dean not only played a central role in the cover-up itself (a conspiracy to obstruct justice), he committed a whole series of additional crimes, including (i) rehearsing Jeb Magruder for his false grand jury testimony (subornation of perjury); (ii) destroying documents retrieved from Howard Hunt’s office safe (destruction of evidence); (iii) taking $4,000 of campaign funds from his office safe to pay for his honeymoon (embezzlement); and (iv) improperly disclosing prosecutorial information to Watergate defense counsel (misuse of government information).

John Dean, White House Counsel for President Richard Nixon from July 1970 to April 1973, poses in an undated photo. Courtesy Nixon Presidential Library and Museum/Handout

John Dean, White House Counsel for President Richard Nixon from July 1970 to April 1973, poses in an undated photo. Courtesy Nixon Presidential Library and Museum/Handout

But Dean’s testimony changed, too. In switching sides politically, Dean retained a very prominent and well-connected Democrat, Charles Shaffer, as his criminal defense lawyer. Shaffer and Dean had over a dozen contacts with career prosecutors during the month of April 1973. And Dean’s story continued to evolve, as he sought to make himself into a critical witness: at April’s beginning, he said that he could “deliver” campaign chief John Mitchell and his deputy, Jeb Magruder; it wasn’t until several weeks later that he first began to accuse White House chief of staff Bob Haldeman and domestic adviser John Ehrlichman of any involvement in a cover-up conspiracy. The exact quote from the prosecutor’s hand-written notes of October 10, 1973, is: “Dean becomes antagonistic to Ehrlichman & Haldeman, whereas before he had given impression that H [Haldeman] was clean & was restrained as to E’s [Ehrlichman’s] involvement.”

Most astonishingly, the career prosecutors’ notes make clear that Dean never accused President Nixon of any personal involvement until after he was fired as the president’s counsel on April 30, 1973. Only then did his story change – and not just a little. “On May 3, Dean began focusing on Presidential involvement, thus dramatically changing his previous stance,” the prosecutors’ November 15, 1973 memo reads.

Such changes in a witness’s story are required by law to be shared with defense counsel. But this clearly exculpatory information was never shared with the Nixon team. Why? Perhaps prosecutors felt it critical to increase Dean’s credibility as their principal witness, not to undermine it.

What the prosecutors did do, in this regard, was get trial judge John Sirica to sentence Dean to a one-to-four-year prison term, with incarceration to begin on the first day of the cover-up trial. Thus, Dean could testify – as the leadoff prosecution witness – that he was being punished for his own involvement – and so too should his former colleagues, whom he now accused of being involved with him in the cover-up. That result was very effective testimony and Nixon’s senior aides were convicted on all counts.

Then, but a week after the trial had ended, Judge Sirica, on his own motion, reduced Dean’s sentence to “time served” – setting him completely free after only four months of technical confinement. In actuality, Dean had never spent a single night in jail: he spent his nights in a witness holding facility at Ft. Holabird, Maryland. On most days, he was driven by federal marshals to his dedicated office in the special prosecutors’ suite, where he worked on his book. Amazingly, Judge Sirica and the Watergate prosecutors each bragged in their later books about how this approach (of imposing a harsh sentence and imprisoning Dean before his trial testimony) made him into a much more believable witness. In truth, this worked a fraud on the trial jurors and on the American public – who had falsely been led to believe that Dean was being appropriately punished for his own extensive involvement.

Dean is widely remembered for his devastating July 25, 1973 appearance before the Senate Watergate Committee. But his appearance was little more than a well-staged and carefully rehearsed performance. We now know that Dean’s written statement had been drafted during the course of secret consultations with Samuel Dash, the Committee’s chief counsel. His appearance was deliberately timed for the end of the day, to assure no opportunity for questions or rebuttal.  Furthermore, in direct violation of Committee rules, copies of Dean’s statement had not made available to Committee members in advance of his appearance.

What also is striking, when read today, is that (contrary to breathless media reports at the time) Dean never actually accused President Nixon of personal involvement in the cover-up; the best he could do was to assert his subsequent conclusion that the president must have known more than he was letting on during their meetings.


Moreover, while much was made of Dean’s “phenomenal memory,” a February 6, 1974 analysis prepared by the special prosecutor’s staff details some 19 “material discrepancies” between Dean’s Senate testimony and what was recorded on the White House tapes during his meetings with President Nixon.

John Dean is a convicted felon, sentenced to a prison term of one-to-four-years, and disbarred from the practice of law for the past 45 years – but he remains a media hero, the toast of the liberal Eastern Establishment, because he changed his story of what had happened to save himself and to sink his former colleagues. Fact is, the ugly truth about John Dean is far different from what the American people have been led to believe.