As Michael Cohen testifies before the House Oversight Committee on Wednesday about his years as President Donald Trump’s attorney and fixer, many will have another presidential lawyer in mind.
John Dean’s testimony to the Senate Watergate Committee in June 1973 marked a turning point in the investigation. The next year, President Richard Nixon resigned.
“I hope that Michael Cohen will reveal to us the truth about the ongoing criminal enterprise which is the Trump Organization and the Trump presidency,” Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD), an Oversight Committee member, said Tuesday in an interview with ThinkProgress. “We want him to tell us about how they conducted these campaign finance operations, these hush money payments to women, the deceptive and false disclosures that have been made to the government, and the character of the whole business operation.”
Ahead of Cohen’s testimony, Republicans have been quick to paint him as a liar, Raskin said. But, he said, “Their problem is not that he is lying, but that he has stopped lying.”
For Ken Hughes, a Watergate expert with the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, Cohen’s testimony is “immediately reminiscent” of Dean’s, including the attempts to discredit the witness ahead of the hearing.
“The Nixon administration tried to frame Dean as the source of the Watergate cover up, [while he was] more of a point man operating under Nixon’s most powerful aides, and they were guided by Nixon himself,” Hughes told ThinkProgress.
Similarly, in the months leading up to Cohen’s highly anticipated testimony, Trump and his allies have claimed that Cohen acted alone in making hush money payments to women with whom Trump allegedly had affairs. (Last November, The Wall Street Journal reported that Trump played a central role in the payoffs.)
“Nixon was so detail-oriented… He wouldn’t let anything happen that was important to him [without it being] under his control,” Hughes said. “Trump is not detailed-oriented, but he is domineering, and with his personal lawyer, he could get his way.”
In his testimony, Cohen is expected to speak publicly for the first time about Trump’s involvement in the hush-money payments during the 2016 presidential election. Cohen pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations related to the payments last August, claiming he acted “in coordination with and at the direction of” Trump.
Cohen’s testimony could shed greater light on what Trump knew about the payments and when he knew it (another phrase reminiscent of Watergate). It could also reveal more about the inner workings of American Media Inc., which owns The National Enquirer. Its chair, David Pecker, allegedly worked with Cohen on the hush-money scheme.
Cohen also pleaded guilty in November to lying to Congress about a deal to build a Trump-branded development in Moscow. Cohen told the Senate Intelligence Committee in August that the deal folded before the Iowa caucuses in early 2016 and that he did not discuss it with Trump. But in court, he admitted those negotiations extended through at least June of that year, and that he kept Trump in the loop.
Democrats on the committee are likely to press Cohen on whether Trump orchestrated those lies, as BuzzFeed News reported earlier this year. The special counsel’s office investigating Russian interference in the election issued a rare statement after that story ran, saying parts of it were “not accurate,” but it did not go into detail. BuzzFeed’s reporting has not been confirmed by other news outlets.
Hughes cautioned that Cohen’s testimony may not have the same impact on the public as Dean’s did because of how the media have evolved since 1973. At the time, it was rare to see government hearings on television, but the Watergate hearings were widely viewed. Today, there are whole networks dedicated to them, and the novelty has worn off.
“Now we can all watch so much … that I don’t think Cohen’s testimony could have the same impact that Dean’s did because it won’t be all people can look at on network TV for several hours a day,” Hughes said.
Cohen is, however, expected to bring documents to the hearing. And depending on what they documents reveal, Hughes said Cohen’s testimony could be a watershed moment of Dean-esque proportions.
Hughes noted that Dean’s testimony didn’t immediately change everything.
“Even though Dean’s testimony was enormously credible, for a lot of people the president was not proven guilty until his own tapes proved him guilty,” he said. “[But] Cohen could have tapes. Cohen could have documents in which Trump incriminates himself, so that would have an enormous impact.”
Robert Dallek, another presidential historian, also took note of the Dean parallels.
“The closest that people have come to this is John Dean,” Dallek told ThinkProgress. “It was pretty sensational.”
But Dallek urged caution, saying that he doesn’t believe Cohen’s testimony will change many minds.
“I think what it’s going to do is deepen the animus towards Trump and confirm the feelings that so many people already have that he is unqualified to be president, and has a criminal past,” he said. “This is, I think, exciting but there’s been so much [reporting] about Trump’s skullduggery and his administrative corruption.”
But Dallek did note another parallel to the Nixon era: Trump will be in Vietnam for a meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Wednesday. In 1974, as the Watergate scandal came to a head, President Nixon took a 10-day foreign trip in an effort to distract from domestic issues.
“We’re in the midst of something,” Dallek said Tuesday. “But it’s not the final act of the play.”