John Dean is very familiar with the Trump administration's declared war on leaks. Dean, who was President Richard Nixon's White House counsel, says Nixon's battle against leaks proved costly and led to the Watergate scandal.
Dean revealed the former Republican president's involvement in the attempted cover-up and pleaded guilty to his own role.
While Dean has made comparisons between the current White House and the Nixon administration, he told NPR's David Greene that the leaks about President Trump appear to be more personal in nature. Leaks under Nixon pertained to potential strategic decisions in Vietnam, he said, but leaks about Trump have been "regarding his attitudes towards the national security community, which has not been a particularly healthy relationship."
"I think that there is some disagreement with the Trump presidency and Trump's qualifications to be president," added Dean, who has been critical of Trump.
How the Trump administration faces an uphill climb in fighting leaks, without firm law in place to target leakers
The [George W. Bush White House] assembled about a half a dozen statutes that kind of built the equivalent of what the United Kingdom has, [which] is an Official Secrets Act. We have never done that. We've considered it and assumed it would not bear up under scrutiny at the Supreme Court because of the First Amendment.
Why comparing current Russia investigations to Watergate is still valid, even if it's not quite "Watergate 2.0" (the White House has denied any wrongdoing)
There are comparisons because first of all, Watergate was about influencing an election, the '72 election. ... The echoes I hear are there is clearly a cover-up in the White House. If you did not want to have all this suspicion about what they're doing, you'd have everybody who was involved come into a room and say, "OK, I want sworn affidavits. I want to clean this up. I don't want to have this hanging over my administration, and I want it done yesterday."
Well, that's exactly the opposite of what they're doing. So this is very similar to — this is the pattern in Watergate. The firing of [FBI Director James] Comey to ask to him to stop the investigation of [former national security adviser Michael] Flynn was not unlike Nixon sending the CIA or the FBI to get them to cut off the investigation. There are echoes, and during Watergate, we wrote what you shouldn't do. We wrote the book on it. And Trump doesn't even seem to know what happened.
What kind of conversations seem to be happening at the White House about the Russia investigations
There has been a change in tone in the last few days. They're not quite as aggressive in trying to discredit the investigation. Maybe they've figured out that rather than trying to fight everything, to try to get the investigation over. ... I tried the same thing [with Watergate] to get it over, and it led to the cover-up of the cover-up, which went on for another year-plus.
Nicole Hernandez adapted this interview for the Web.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
President Trump is pressuring the Justice Department to go after those who leak classified information. And he is certainly not the first president to be annoyed by leaks. In the '80s, Ronald Reagan even joked about his frustration.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
RONALD REAGAN: I was going to have an opening statement, but I decided that what I was going to say I wanted to get a lot of attention. So I'm going to wait and leak it.
GREENE: But to understand the modern war between president and leaker, you really have to go back to President Richard Nixon and Daniel Ellsberg, a military analyst who leaked a secret Pentagon analysis about U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
They came to be known as the Pentagon Papers. President Nixon learned they had been leaked to The New York Times from then-White House adviser Alexander Haig. This conversation between the two of them was released years later.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
RICHARD NIXON: Did we know this was coming out?
ALEXANDER HAIG: No we did not, sir.
HAIG: There are just a few copies of this...
NIXON: Well, what about the...
HAIG: ...Full-volume report.
NIXON: But what about the - let me ask you this though, what about the - what about Laird? What's he going to do about it? Is he...
HAIG: Well, I...
NIXON: Now, I'd just start right at the top and fire some people. I mean, whoever - whatever department it came out of, I'd fire the top guy.
CHANG: The war on leaks proved costly for Nixon. In fact, it led to the Watergate scandal, at least according to our next guest.
GREENE: Yeah, John Dean was White House counsel to President Nixon. He pled guilty to his role in the Watergate cover-up. I asked him whether the leaks from the Trump administration are different from what we've seen in the past.
JOHN DEAN: There had been national security leaks out of the Trump administration, and Nixon dealt primarily with national security leaks. What happened is that some of the positions he was contemplating in Vietnam often ended up on the front page of either The New York Times or The Washington Post. And that would preclude his options. And that, he felt, was quite unfair and not good for the country. Trump's leaks, some have come through the national security community, but they've been regarding his attitudes towards the national security community, which has not been a particularly healthy relationship.
GREENE: You're saying the difference is perhaps more personal - that under Nixon's time, it was exposing decisions about national security that were being discussed. In this case, this is revealing, like, the president's personal views about people who are working for him.
DEAN: Well, for example, no better example are the heads of state conversations.
GREENE: Oh, these are the full transcripts of Trump's calls with world leaders that were given to reporters, yeah.
DEAN: That's an extraordinary national security leak and very personal. I think that there is some disagreement with the Trump presidency and Trump's qualifications to be president.
GREENE: You wrote that the law is not really on a president's side. It is tough to prosecute the leakers. It's even more difficult to go after the news media using the law. Is there any reason to think that Trump will find more success here?
DEAN: Well, you know, it's interesting. The Bush II administration assembled about a half-a-dozen statutes that kind of built the equivalent of what the United Kingdom has - is an Official Secrets Act. We have never done that. We've considered it and assumed it would not bear up under scrutiny at the Supreme Court because of the First Amendment.
GREENE: So you're talking about cobbled together during the Bush years. And President Obama, you know, as we know, was very active in trying to go after leakers. But there is no firm law in place that makes it easy for any president to target leakers.
DEAN: That is correct. That is correct.
GREENE: You wrote that when your former boss, President Nixon, started going after leakers, that that was the precursor of Watergate. What do you mean by that?
DEAN: Well, he authorized, for example, in three different taped, recorded conversations that he was ordering and wanted a break-in at the Brookings Institute.
GREENE: And this, we should say, is a think tank in Washington that some consider to be left-leaning.
DEAN: Yeah. That word got down that break-ins were something the president thought were OK. So that's where the very early origins of the kind of mentality that would result in a Watergate were first formulated.
GREENE: Well, yeah, in March, you said you were already hearing echoes of Watergate - that you were seeing this from the Trump administration. Although, you said said it's not quite Watergate 2.0. Is that still your assessment?
DEAN: I think that is.
GREENE: But why do you make the comparison to Watergate? I mean, it's - has anything nefarious really been proven when it comes to Trump?
DEAN: Well, there are comparisons because, first of all, Watergate was about influencing an election - the '72 election. The Russiagate (ph), for purposes of this conversation, it too has to do with influencing an election. The echoes I hear are - there is clearly a cover-up in the White House. If you did not want to have all this suspicion about what they're doing, you'd have everybody who was involved come into a room and say, OK, I want sworn affidavits. I don't want to have this hanging over my administration, and I want it done yesterday.
Well, that's exactly the opposite of what they're doing. So this is very similar to the pattern in Watergate. The firing of Comey, to ask him to stop the investigation of Flynn, was not unlike Nixon sending the CIA over to the FBI to get them to cut off the investigation. They're echoes. And during Watergate, we wrote what you shouldn't do. We wrote the book on it. And Trump doesn't even seem to know it happened.
GREENE: This president, President Trump, is maintaining that this is a witch hunt and that there's absolutely nothing to find here.
DEAN: Well, we'll see. A very sophisticated investigator in Bob Mueller I don't think would be wasting his time if nothing was there.
GREENE: You famously told Richard Nixon that the Watergate break-in and the cover-up was a cancer on the presidency. Do you think conversations like that are happening right now inside this White House - aides talking to President Trump about what it all means that this is swirling?
DEAN: You know, there has been a change in tone in the last few days. They're not quite as aggressive in trying to discredit the investigation. Maybe they've figured out that rather than trying to fight everything, to try to get the investigation over.
GREENE: Is that a lesson you wish you had learned?
DEAN: I tried the same thing - to get it over. And it led to the cover-up of the cover-up, which went on for another year-plus.
GREENE: Which I guess didn't end the way you wanted it to?
DEAN: No, it did not (laughter).
GREENE: John Dean was counsel in the White House to former President Richard Nixon. Thank you so much for your time today. We really appreciate it.
DEAN: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHRISTIAN SCOTT ATUNDE ADJUAH'S "DESIRE AND THE BURNING GIRL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.