Testimony before Congress this week related to the Mueller report from a key witness during the Watergate hearings raised eyebrows across Capitol Hill and in Western Pennsylvania.
John Dean, the former White House counsel to Richard Nixon who gave some of the most damning testimony in 1973 before the Senate Watergate Committee, testified Monday before the House Judiciary Committee investigating President Donald Trump and Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.
Dean told CNN before he started speaking to Congress that he wasn’t a “fact witness” for the Russia probe but hoped that he could give lawmakers some context and point out similarities between Watergate and now.
“To me, it’s not really necessary to have John Dean there. I don’t see it as particularly useful,” said David Harris, a University of Pittsburgh law professor. “It’s doesn’t really focus on where we should be, which is on what happened here.”
Harris pointed to some 900 formal federal prosecutors, people who have been affiliated with the justice department going back to the Gerald R. Ford administration, who signed a public statement that said if Trump was not the president, there is no doubt that he would be charged with obstruction of justice.
“To me, that’s much more relevant than John Dean and asking if this is the same or different than Watergate, or worse than Watergate. I think that’s beside the point,” said Harris. “There are plenty of other people who can give useful testimony about the seriousness of the allegations and how they compare historically to what other presidents might have been doing.”
Dean has traveled the country recounting Watergate. In 2013, the 40th anniversary of his testimony, he spoke at the Duquesne University School of Law Annual Law Alumni Reunion Dinner.
Bruce Antkowiak, a former federal prosecutor and a law professor at Saint Vincent College, said despite Dean’s connection to Watergate, he didn’t understand what he brought to the table in this case.
“In the case of Watergate, you pretty clearly had a break-in, you had a burglary, you had a crime for which there was a clear connection to try and cover-up who was involved and what happened,” said Antkowiak. “With the current case, that’s been one of the big arguments and concerns. If you begin with the premise that there was no collusion among people within the Trump campaign to influence the election, where’s the obstruction?
“An obstruction of justice requires the obstruction of the investigation of some criminal activity, an underlying crime. The contrast between what happened in the Nixon administration and here is on that basis.”
Of course, Nixon was never impeached. He resigned before that could happen. But according to Harris, that impeachment could still happen here.
“Impeachment is always a political question and never only a legal question,” said Harris. “The real question is whether the political branches of the federal government, the House and the Senate, will take action in form of impeachment or investigation or censure or something else.”