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On June 3, 1973, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein signaled the end of Richard Nixon’s presidency with a big scoop in the Washington Post. They reported that ex-White House counsel John Dean had “told Senate investigators and federal prosecutors that he discussed aspects of the Watergate cover-up with President Nixon or in Mr. Nixon’s presence on at least 35 occasions” and that he was planning “to testify under oath at the Senate’s Watergate hearings, regardless of whether he is granted full immunity from prosecution.”

I don’t think too many observers realized at the time that the jig was up, but Woodward and Bernstein had the goods.

One of the strongest charges against Mr. Nixon that Dean has made to investigators refers to a meeting Dean said he had with Mr. Nixon shortly before the sentencing of the seven Watergate defendants March 23, Dean said that Mr. Nixon asked him how much the defendants would have to be paid to insure their continued silence, in addition to $460,000 that had already been paid, the sources said.

Dean, the sources reported, maintains that he told Mr. Nixon the additional cost would be about $1 million, and Dean also claims the President replied there would be no problem in paying that amount.

On May 1, 1974, Nixon was compelled to release most of the transcripts of his secret recordings, including a tape which confirmed that John Dean was telling the truth about Nixon’s willingness to pay $1 million in hush money. On May 9, 1974, impeachment hearings began in the House Judiciary Committee.

What people couldn’t really imagine on June 3, 1973 is what the effect would be of having members of Nixon’s inner circle testify against him. Certainly, John Dean’s testimony before Congress captured the nation’s attention and, once their existence was revealed, created an unstoppable momentum for the release of the Nixon tapes.  People can be forgiven for not knowing what the future would bring, but we have this precedent now to help imagine our near future.

When Robert Mueller brings his case, however he brings it, it will not be the end of the story. He has built his case by interviewing nearly everyone in Trump’s inner circle, many of whom have become cooperating witnesses and many others of whom have doubtlessly opted to tell the truth rather than risk perjury or obstruction of justice charges. Their information is locked in FBI transcripts and grand jury testimony, and the individuals can be called before Congress to testify.

When the time comes, the witnesses against Trump won’t be members of the special counsel’s office. The witnesses will be people like former White House counsel Don McGahn and firsthand witnesses like Rick Gates and Michael Flynn.

This will make it a lot more difficult for the White House to discredit the factual case. Now, it has been
reported that the White House really has no plan for how to react to Mueller’s charges, whenever or however they come. The basic thought in the West Wing is that they’ll just follow the president’s lead. For Republicans on the Hill, this isn’t much to work with.

For [Rudy] Giuliani, letting Trump guide the response post-report may not be ideal, but “I don’t think there’s anyone in the world that can stop Donald Trump from tweeting,” he acknowledged. “I’ve tried.”

The dearth of communication about the probe has left the president’s top lieutenants on Capitol Hill anxious about the fallout, according to multiple congressional GOP sources. “We haven’t heard from the White House at all on this. You’d think there’d be more of an effort to have a coordinated response,” one senior Republican aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to damage the aide’s relationship with the White House, told me. “Members want to help, but can’t if they’re not getting any information.”

The whole way this is being discussed lacks imagination. The Mueller revelations won’t be rebutted by a clever set of counterpoints that help win a 24-hour news cycle. The revelations will provide the context for hearings and a guide to calling witnesses. The Republicans will be forced to explain why it’s not a serious offense to commit campaign finance violations, to dangle pardons or clemency before witnesses, to encourage people to perjure themselves or otherwise obstruct justice. They’ll watch the president’s lies fall like dominoes based on the say-so not of Fake News reporters and a biased Deep State, but based on the testimony of former right-wing heroes.

And all of that is before we get into the actual meat of the story, which is the degree to which Trump lied about his business ties with Russia and the extent to which his campaign coordinated with the Russians to exploit the hacked emails.

The idea many have is that the Republicans will have little trouble brushing all of this off, but I don’t see that as a sustainable position for them. What brought Nixon down was the testimony of his own people, and that’s what ultimately will bring Trump down, too.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at