Attorney Jim Robenalt and former White House counsel John W. Dean discuss the parallels to the Watergate scandal through the recently released "Trump Tapes,” and how these revelations could impact the president before the election.
Lawyer 2 Lawyer
James Robenalt is a historian and litigation partner at Thompson Hine LLP. Jim has written four nonfiction books, mostly...
John W. Dean served as White House counsel for President Richard Nixon from 1970 to 1973. During the Watergate...
J. Craig Williams is admitted to practice law in Iowa, California, Massachusetts, and Washington. Before attending law school, his...
Bob Ambrogi is a lawyer, legal journalist, and the publisher and editor-in-chief of LexBlog.com. A former co-host of Lawyer...
This month, a series of excerpts from 18 recorded interviews between investigative journalist Bob Woodward and President Trump for Woodward’s book, Rage, were released. As many of you know, Bob Woodward, who was a young reporter with The Washington Post back in 1972, teamed up with another investigative reporter, Carl Bernstein to report on the Watergate scandal, ultimately leading to numerous government investigations and the eventual resignation of President Richard Nixon.
In his book, Woodward interviewed President Trump on a variety of topics, including the threat of the coronavirus and Black Lives Matter. One of the more controversial revelations was from the recording on February 7th when Woodward asked about the threat of the coronavirus-President Trump responded, “It’s also more deadly than your, you know, your even your strenuous flus. This is deadly stuff.” Meanwhile, on February 27th, during a White House press conference, the president was telling the American public something very different. So did the president knowingly keep this information from Americans?
On Lawyer 2 Lawyer, host Craig Williams and guest co-host Bob Ambrogi are joined by historian Jim Robenalt, litigation partner at Thompson Hine LLP and John Dean, former White House counsel for President Richard Nixon, as they discuss the controversial excerpts from Bob Woodward’s interviews with President Trump, the parallels to the Watergate scandal through these recently released “Trump Tapes,” and how these revelations could impact the president before the election.
Lawyer to Lawyer
Bob Woodward, the “Trump Tapes,” and the Parallels to Watergate
Into: We are in a reform movement ourselves right now trying to figure out how to recast this program but we’re not going to do anything until after the election, because the election is clearly going to influence everything. If Trump is re-elected, God knows what’s going to happen. If he is defeated, we’re in for at least a decade of reform.
There’s plenty of damning stuff in the tapes against Trump, but there’s no senate and no senators to come to him and say, you should resign. In Watergate, it became a smoking gun tape because it came out that he knew about the cover up and instructed the CIA to tell the FBI to turn off the investigation. Once that came out that put the lie to everything he’d been saying and the senators came and said you’ve lost your support. That won’t happen now. Nobody will go to trump and say you’ve lost your support. It’s going to come down to an election.
Welcome to the award-winning podcast, Lawyer 2 Lawyer with J. Craig Williams bringing you the latest legal news and observations with the leading experts in the legal profession. You’re listening to Legal Talk Network.
Bob Ambrogi: Craig, it’s good to see you. This is Bob Ambrogi. I am the former co-host of this show for many years and now I have another podcast called Law Next. I also write a blog called “Law Cites” and I am a columnist for Above the Law and I’m thrilled to be back with you today Craig.
Bob Ambrogi: So this month Bob Woodward’s latest book called “Rage” came out and along with it came out a series of excerpts from 18 recorded interviews between him and President Trump were released. I’m sure as many listeners know, Bob Woodward was a young reporter at the Washington Post back in 1972 who teamed up with another reporter there Carl Bernstein to report on the Watergate scandal, ultimately leading to numerous government investigations and the eventual resignation of President Richard Nixon not to mention the book and the movie “All the President’s Men”.
Bob Ambrogi: Meanwhile on February 27th in a White House press conference, President Trump was telling the American public something quite different “It’s a little like the regular flu that we have flu shots for and we’ll essentially have a flu shot for this in a fairly quick manner.” So did the president knowingly keep this information from the American public?
Bob Ambrogi: For today’s show, we have two guests who really know this stuff inside out. It’s going to be a great conversation. First of all, let me introduce presidential historian and lawyer James Robenalt. He is a litigation partner at Thompson Hine. Jim has written four non‑fiction books mostly on the American presidency, including “January 1973: Watergate”, “Roe v. Wade”, “Vietnam”, and the “Month That Changed America Forever”, which came out in 2015. Jim lectures nationally with John Dean, Nixon’s White House Counsel on legal ethics and the legacy of Watergate. Together they have spoken to tens of thousands of lawyers across the country and one of the most acclaimed continuing education programs there is. Welcome to Lawyer to Lawyer Jim.
James Robenalt: Thanks Bob. Good to see. Nice to you see you to Craig.
During the Watergate scandal, his congressional testimony helped lead to Nixon’s resignation. Dean has written about Watergate in his New York Times bestseller’s “Blind Ambition” and “The Nixon Defense” What He Knew and When He Knew It”. His latest book with Bob Altemeyer “Authoritarian Nightmare: Trump and His Followers” was just released on August 25th, 2020. John Dean is also a regular political and legal commentator on CNN. Welcome to the show John.
John W. Dean: Thank you. I’m not going to say I can see anybody since this is an audio podcast.
John W. Dean: Well, Bob is a terrific reporter. He is basically a shoe leather reporter. He’s tended to work with a writing partner on virtually all of his works. He has sort of a silent partner on this one who he credits fully in the new book. She’s worked with him on the last several, but he goes out and does the shoe leather reporting which he did in this instance going to the White House, interviewing Trump and interviewing a lot of the key players in the Trump Administration. He has a terrific facility to get people to talk to him, which is a gift. I think probably the most exciting part of this book are the recordings he made of Trump.
I’ve read about 100 pages of the new book, got it yesterday afternoon after Jim told me he was enjoying it. So I went out and got it at my favorite independent local bookstore. It’s a good read, but I think that the tapes are the most interesting part in the material we’re going to be discussing today.
Bob Ambrogi: I have to wonder how unprecedented. There seem to be so many parallels between this book about Trump and of course the Watergate era. Jim, is that fair to say, what are you seeing in terms of the parallels between where we are now and where we were way back in 1972?
James Robenalt: Well, John and I actually put together a program when Trump was elected comparing Nixon and Trump, very early in his administration. We found that these guys were both very similar in so many important ways. They’re authoritarian leaders, they hate to lose, they like to attack their enemies, they like to attack the press, and we would list that and do a whole program around authoritarianism and how you deal with people.
John W. Dean: We did that program in the south where it was an interesting test, because Trump had a lot of supporters in our audience and those supporters really didn’t disagree with our analysis. They weren’t as familiar with Nixon. Some of them were. Incidentally, when Jim talks about Watergate and Nixon, he is trained in the basic source documents. He isn’t somebody who’s just gotten it from me. He’s actually listened to God knows how many hours of Nixon tapes and read documents and papers. So he can speak with authority on this subject. I can vouch for him.
James Robenalt: I think that because the stakes are so high here with these tapes of the loss of life and the catastrophe that we find ourselves in that I think Bernstein is right. I mean Watergate was about obstruction of justice, cover-up, a bungled break-in and so forth. The part of the incident that really is the Nixon tapes. The part of the Nixon presidency that is comparable is the deception and the interference with LBJ’s attempt to end the Vietnam War. That had catastrophic consequences. So those two things are more comparable than Watergate and the current pandemic.
John W. Dean: Well, I think trump with his oversized ego and narcissistic demands believed he could con this seasoned reporter. Woodward has done favorable books on a few people who have been the subjects of his book. He did a book on the former head of the Federal Reserve and that was a very favorable book, and Greenspan came out very well in it. But in this instance, Woodward is so much more steeped in the presidency than Donald Trump who doesn’t even have a good newspaper knowledge of how Washington works. He’s just not a reader. He’s not much of a student. He came unprepared. He has done little to prepare himself and I think he thought he could handle Woodward.
It’s like selling condos for him. I’ll just sell him on what we’re doing. Well, it didn’t work, and in fact, it has had the counter exact opposite effect that I think he hoped it would have.
James Robenalt: It is a good question about the morality of Woodward sitting on these tapes. A lot of people have argued this point. My view is he was writing a book. It was going to be condensed history in a very short period of time. If he went out when he did, he wouldn’t have gotten the rest of the book and he probably wouldn’t have had a book, and he would have had one news cycle with a tape and that would have been it. So I think from history standpoint, it was better for him to get this done. He knew he was going to get it out before the election. So I think that that was important consideration for him.
I also think that Woodward didn’t know everything that Trump knew. So this stuff was unfolding for Woodward. With Trump, it’s very clear from the prologue. He knew on January 28th almost everything he needed to know about this virus that it’s asymptomatic spread, that China was covering it up that it had already gotten outside of China, and it was deadly. He knew all that. That would become clear to Woodward as he went along, and then you see Woodward trying to coach Trump to a certain extent, get to work on this, get to work on that kind of thing. So it’s an odd mixture. I think history will have a mixed review about sitting on it, but I think it was the right thing to do.
John W. Dean: That’s the reason we did this book. Who are these people who are attracted to this authoritarian personality. There are clear other personality types that he attracts and there is almost a half century of science that looks at these people. I was stunned by the fact during his initial campaign that science was being ignored. I happened to have delved into it over a decade ago and the man who was very helpful to me, a fellow by the name of Bob Altemeyer with whom I collaborated on this last book. He and I were talking about it and the fact that nobody was really getting to the source of what was going on. In other words, Trump would have no power, no clout, would not have won the election, but for this large collection of followers that he’s been able to attract.
So we thought this needed to have full attention and that’s what the book is about to explain who these personalities are and how they are not affected by this. They will not be affected by Woodward’s revelations. Literally, Trump figured out within six months of running when he made the announcement on January of 2016 that he said to the press, “I could go out and shoot somebody on 5th Avenue and I wouldn’t lose any voters.” That’s true and he understands that. He literally could do that and not lose any voters including people who are professed Christians who devote their life to evangelical and Christian causes, but they set that aside when it comes to their politics and their policy efforts, they’ll take somebody like trump who’s the antithesis of everything they teach and preach. So he’s got probably the solidest base and the most prejudiced base any modern president has ever had.
James Robenalt: Yeah. John does a great job about this in his new book “Authoritarian Nightmare”. He really points out that people who are evangelicals have agendas, and at the top of their agenda — I wrote about this in January 1973, is “Roe v. Wade” in overturning that. It is an issue so deep and so fundamental to them that they will hold their nose and vote for somebody like Donald Trump who they know is not acting in Christian ways but they believe he could change the Supreme Court and get rid of Roe and do away with abortion, which they consider murder. So it’s a really strong pull.
They also as evangelicals have been taught their whole life to follow authority and not to question things. So they’re kind of locked and loaded to become followers of an authoritarian person like Donald Trump. As long as they think he’s going to accomplish their goals, they can look the other way about him, because sinners are sinners, we’re all sinners, he can be forgiven. There are great chapters in John’s book about this.
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Bob Ambrogi: Welcome back to Lawyer to Lawyer this is Bob Ambrogi. I’m joining in today with Craig Williams and our guests today are lawyer and historian Jim Robenalt, who’s a litigation partner at Thompson Hine, and John Dean, the former White House Counsel for President Richard Nixon, and together they do a CLE program, very popular CLE program on legal ethics uh in the wake of Watergate.
I wanted to ask you that. That’s a fascinating topic to me, and I wonder what it is, how it is that Watergate has anything at all to do with legal ethics. Jim, could I throw that your way?
James Robenalt: Yeah. We start with explaining that to people that when john testified before the senate in ’73, he pointed out all these lawyers that got involved and got on the other side of the line and his question was how could these lawyers get involved in crime. So after that, the ABA through a guy named Bob Kutak who John knew started to change the rules. They changed him from the model code to the model rules, and the model rules included what is really the John Dean rule lawyer for an organization, what do you do if you have a client who’s committing crime or fraud in an organization, who is your client, who do you need to report to, how do you report up the chain, and when can you go beyond the attorney-client privilege to report out, which John did as a lawyer without this rule, and they codified that. It took a decade and a half for that rule to become commonly accepted across the United States. So we really spend a lot of time talking about that.
John W. Dean: We’ve also discovered in doing this probably in maybe 35 maybe even 38 states now, probably 150 to 200 of these programs, that the law differs, the Code of Conduct differs ethically from state to state, and these rules are kind of balkanized where one state may have a strict and very workable Code of Ethics where another state has all but overpowered it with the confidentiality rule giving the lawyer no leverage. So we’ve kind of decided that we’re actually in a big mulling state right now that what to do and how to present this program, because we’ve learned so much about what’s not working.
We’re a little disappointed with the way the rules have panned out and it certainly played out in a kind of ugly way during the impeachment trial of Trump where people went on the floor, lawyers went on the floor of the senate in front of the Chief Justice and dissembled. It was really kind of sad. So we are in a reform movement ourselves right now, trying to figure out how to recast this program, but we’re not going to do anything until after the election, because the election is clearly going to influence everything. If Trump is re-elected, God knows what’s going to happen. If he is defeated, we’re in for at least a decade of reform and we have a lot of suggestions if that’s the case.
John W. Dean: I suspected it. I’m the guy who told the senate I thought I was taped and that started the investigation that got to Alex Butterfield who said to Mr. Butterfield, Dean thinks he was recorded. That’s absurd. And Butterfield said no, it’s not. It’s very likely he was. That of course changed the whole dynamics.
John W. Dean: I suspect there are many smoking guns in the Trump closet.
Woodward, if he had one that is more dynamic and dramatic than what he’s already released, I doubt it. I think he’s put out his best stuff so far and it’s pretty damning. the Trump tapes are very different than uh the Nixon tapes. Nixon’s were done surreptitiously. Only Nixon and Haldeman were aware. His key aides like Henry Kissinger and his top domestic advisor John Ehrlichman had not a clue. I didn’t until the very end have a clue when his behavior suggested he’s recording this that I thought to include that in my testimony and other actions he took.
But Trump, he’s very out front about it. That’s the difference in the personalities of the men. Nixon was not a demagogue. He was, if you will, a closet authoritarian. Really if we didn’t have the tapes of Nixon, we wouldn’t know the extent of his authoritarianism. Trump however wears it. He is an authoritarian in the Rose Garden and on the South Lawn and on any soapbox you’ll give him with a camera.
James Robenalt: And Craig, there’s not going to be a smoking gun per se in the Trump tapes for this reason. There’s plenty of damning stuff in the tapes against Trump, but there’s no senate and no senators to come to him and say, you should resign. In Watergate, it became a smoking gun tape, because it came out that he knew about the cover-up and instructed the CIA to tell the FBI to turn off the investigation. Once that came out, that puts the lie to everything you’ve been saying and the senators came and said, you’ve lost your support. That won’t happen now. Nobody will go to Trump and say, you’ve lost your support. It’s going to come down to an election. So there won’t be a smoking gun like there was in Nixon’s time.
James Robenalt: Yeah. We actually do a three-hour CLE, we call the Nixon Court, because John was involved in vetting the justices when Powell got on and Rehnquist got on as White House Counsel, and he’s written a beautiful book called “The Rehnquist Choice”, really good book that shows Nixon was thinking of putting a woman on the court that sort of thing, but very true. What you’ve said is right. Nixon put four people on the court into his first term. Two of them became chiefs, Berger and then Rehnquist, and they dominated that court for 36 years. So it’s the most important thing a president does by far.
Trump now has put two on, and if he wins again, he will put two more on. So he’ll be like Nixon in that respect. Certainly, Sotomayor cannot last another four years. I don’t think Breyer will either. So I think —
Bob Ambrogi: You mean Ginsburg.
James Robenalt: Yeah, I’m sorry. You’ve got seven to two. That will be such a dominant court. Roe will fall and a lot of things will happen. So this is extremely consequential right now in terms of the Supreme Court.
John W. Dean: Well, that is again a subject of a CLE, which we’ve converted, but the long and short story is that probably the most lasting lesson of Watergate is it changed the focus of the presidential press coverage where presidents were once given the benefit of the doubt they now pretty much are assumed to be guilty. Trump should have realized that and he should realize that today, and he shouldn’t call him the enemy of democracy for doing what is probably a very vital job, and it was one of the lasting impacts of Watergate. We’re not so sure about the lasting impact on lawyers and we’re re-examining that ourselves.
James Robenalt: Well, he’s going to face some serious criminal charges I think in New York, and john and I’ve talked about this. I think one of the reasons he’s trying to hold on to power so desperately right now is I think he’s very concerned about what’s going on and what happened privately, nothing to do with him being president. His actions as president are not going to be the subject of any criminal indictment in my view, but I think recently there’s been a lot written which I agree with that when he goes out and campaigns he’s not doing that within the scope of his employment as a president. That’s him personally doing that.
In these campaign rallies where he’s letting people come in without mask and having issues like Herman Cain passing away as a result of coming to one of these things. I mean that is very close to criminal endangerment. So I don’t know if that will ever surface at the end of the day, but I think it’s a really serious problem and he has that on top of all the financial and other fraud issues that are going to raise their head if he’s not in office.
Bob Ambrogi: Will we ever see his tax returns? That’s what I want to know.
John W. Dean: We will.
John W. Dean: Well, I don’t think he can keep them buried too much longer. I suspect that Vance, the Manhattan DA, has largely seen them. so I think that’s what they want them formally for evidentiary purposes, and I think they’ll get them. He’s stalling. It’s going to run out sooner rather than later.
James Robenalt: Craig, there’s one scenario that people talk about. If Trump loses and accepts it and doesn’t have civil war, one scenario is he resigns before the end of his term and has Pence pardon him, but as you know that only goes to federal crimes that doesn’t go to all these state crimes and state proceedings. So he may still do that to protect himself from all the federal issues, but I think he’s in a world of hurt once he loses this election in terms of what’s coming.
John W. Dean: Well, some think he moved to Florida with the thought that DeSantis wouldn’t extradite him to New York, which will be an interesting fight to see who wins that battle.
John W. Dean: Well, I would just tell anybody who’s curious about all these people who support Donald Trump and why they do, I thought it was an explanation that voters needed before they went to the polls where they should put their focus and where they should not waste their time. So that’s why I did the “Authoritarian Nightmare: Trump and His Followers”. It’s at a bookstore or Amazon near you. Hopefully, it will educate voters because I think this is probably the most important election in my lifetime.
James Robenalt: Craig, Jim here, I will add that my book “January 1973” has a website january1973.com, but our website for the Watergate continuing legal education program is watergatecle.com. And as John says, we have right now a program called Lawyer as Whistleblower that we’ve done a couple different times, but we’ll be back after the election one way or the other to continue talking about what we’re talking about, and hopefully, reform and hopefully getting the attention of the ABA too on some of these rules.
Bob Ambrogi: Well, let me just take a interject here to thank both of you for your time and being with us today, and your thoughts and I look forward to reading both of your books as well. So I really appreciate it.
James Robenalt: Thank you.
John W. Dean: Thank you guys.
James Robenalt: Keep up your good work.
Bob Ambrogi: And Craig, thanks for having me on for this cameo appearance I guess this week. I really appreciate it and good to talk to you.
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Lawyer 2 Lawyer is a legal affairs podcast covering contemporary and relevant issues in the news with a legal perspective.
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