Here’s a historical thought exercise for you: What would John Dean think about Gerald Ford’s 1974 pardon of Richard Nixon? What do you imagine Dean – the onetime White House counsel who famously turned on Nixon and blew the roof off the Watergate scandal – would say?
Ok, I won’t leave you hanging. We actually do know the answer. A couple weeks ago, Dean – who has become a personal friend through our work at CNN – spoke to the class I teach at Rutgers University. We were doing a unit on Watergate and I thought: who better on Watergate than John Dean himself? I asked him, he graciously agreed, and he spent about a half hour Zooming into my class. (By the way, kids: state schools rule.)
Dean gave us a unique and candid insider’s view on history. He responded thoughtfully, and with self-effacing good humor, to questions from my students and me. At times, he surprised us. Dean said that, for all the evil Nixon was capable of, he also had a fundamental human decency. For example, when then-newly elected U.S. Senator Joe Biden lost his wife and child in a car accident in December 1972, then-President Nixon took time to call the relatively unknown Biden and offer sincere condolences.
As we wrapped up our session, I asked Dean the question that opened this column: what did he think of Ford’s pardon of Nixon? I had no idea what he would say. He thought for a moment, and then answered in two parts.
At the time back in 1974, Dean began, he felt the pardon was the right move. We all needed to move on from the Watergate scandal – to end the “long national nightmare,” as Ford would famously put it. And, while Dean had testified against Nixon, he nonetheless wasn’t yearning to see the former President, and his own one-time boss and mentor, behind bars. (Dean also opined that Ford had some self-interest, because he was dogged by constant media questions about whether Nixon should be prosecuted; the pardon ended those questions, and, according to Dean, allowed Ford to move along with his presidency – though the pardon itself became a longer-term political albatross for Ford.)
But then Dean added a coda. Looking back now, nearly a half century later, he has changed his view. He now believes that Ford’s pardon of Nixon was ill-advised because it sent a message to future generations that a president can be above the law, and can escape meaningful consequences for even the most flagrant criminality. Dean drew a straight line from the Nixon pardon to the seemingly countless scandals swirling around, and caused by, Donald Trump, nearly fifty years later. Dean argued essentially that the Nixon pardon created a permission structure for Trump.
My initial reaction, I’ll say candidly, was skepticism. It felt like a stretch. First, are we even confident Trump knows about the Ford pardon of Nixon in the first place? I understand Trump was a sentient adult at the time it happened, but – let’s face it – he isn’t exactly an attentive, reflective student of history. And, even if he is consciously aware of the pardon, it’s not as if Trump carefully considers the import of historical precedent in forging his own path to power. To put it another way: if Ford had not pardoned Nixon, and if Nixon had been successfully prosecuted, would that have meaningfully deterred Trump? Is Trump even deterrable at all?
We can consider a similar dynamic looking forward: how will Trump’s ultimate fate speak to, and impact, future generations? We’ve all heard the common, and sensible, refrain that if Trump escapes justice, then that extends an open invitation to future would-be lawbreaking autocrats. After all, if Trump doesn’t pay a meaningful price, then the next guy might see that and decide to try it himself.
On one level, I’m not so sure. What’s the thought process of our hypothetical, future, would-be Trump imitator? “Hmmm, let’s see, I’m considering doing what Trump did, and all that ever happened to him was he got impeached twice, voted out of office, sued for tens of millions of dollars, put out of private business, and indicted four times. Seems like a breeze, sign me up!”
But Dean’s point, on reflection, isn’t really about direct deterrence. It’s about what we collectively are willing and able to tolerate. Nixon avoided prosecution and prison, and the pardon was met with widespread anger and disappointment – but the world continued to spin on its axis and our democracy carried on. Yet, in another sense, the damage was done. It became a permanent part of our history, and our democratic structure, that a president could break the law and still walk away deeply tarnished but largely scot-free. Consciously or not, Trump has barged down the same path forged by Nixon, hacking away at the boundaries and leaving them even wider than before.
So, to extend Dean’s view, what matters here isn’t so much what happens to Donald John Trump, the individual; what matters is how his prosecution(s) reflect on our democratic process. (This, by the way, is why I’ve been so insistent that, yes, Trump ought to be prosecuted, but no, we cannot make excuses for shoddy prosecutorial practice. Eventually, we’ll need to ask not only whether Trump met a just end, but whether we got there fairly and within our existing prosecutorial norms and ethics.)
There are no easy answers here. The criminal justice process will play out over the upcoming months and years – yes, it’ll all take that long – and we simply don’t know how this ends. Will Trump emerge, triumphant and untouched, like the action hero casually walking away from the conflagration he caused? Or will he wind up on the chow line, in a jumpsuit? I’d guess we end up somewhere in the middle – and there are plenty of available landing spots along that spectrum. But I don’t know. Nobody knows, right now.
The stakes really are bigger than Trump himself, and history will take note. Few people would understand that better than John Dean.
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