Director James Comey’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee twice brought forth a plea from the former Director of the FBI that if President Trump has tapes he should release them. “I won’t have hurt feelings,” he wryly commented.
In his testimony before the Senate Select Committee on Watergate in June 1973, John Dean made a similar request. “I don’t know if a tape exists, but if it does exist, and if it has not been tampered with, and if it is a complete transcript of the conversation that took place in the President’s office, I think this Committee should have that tape because it would corroborate many of the things this Committee has asked me.”
Not quite as punchy as “Lordy, I hope there are tapes,” as former Director Comey put it in his testimony, but remarkably similar.
Like Trump, Nixon had signaled that he may have taped John Dean during a meeting he had with him on April 15, 1973, in the President’s office in the Executive Office Building. The meeting was a tense encounter, as Nixon knew that Dean had a lawyer and was cooperating with prosecutors on whether the President and his men had been engaged in a cover-up over the Watergate investigation.
Dean had made it clear to his superiors, Bob Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, that he was talking to prosecutors. “It is hard to put the toothpaste back in the tube,” Haldeman told Dean when he phoned Dean, knowing that Dean was about to meet with his lawyers and Department of Justice lawyers running the Watergate investigation.
Nixon, recognizing that Dean was breaking with the White House, called him in on the evening of Palm Sunday, April 15, 1973. The purpose of the meeting became clear to Dean – the President wanted to try to get Dean to testify in a way that would not implicate Nixon. Referring to a critical meeting that Nixon had with Dean on March 21, 1973, in which the young White House Counsel warned the President there was a “cancer growing on his presidency,” President Nixon, his ubiquitous lawyer’s yellow pad in hand, asked Dean a series of leading questions.
“You know when I told you we could get a million dollars [to continue to pay the convicted burglars to remain silent] I was just kidding?” Nixon probed. Dean replied, “No, sir, I didn’t think that but I take your word.”
Then bizarrely Nixon got up from his chair and walked over to a remote corner of the EOB office and whispered, “I was wrong to promise clemency for [Burglar E. Howard] Hunt when I spoke with Chuck Colson, wasn’t I?” Dean responded: “Yes, Mr. President, that would be considered an obstruction of justice.”
The exchange prompted Dean to think, for the first time, that maybe the President was taping this conversation. He thought Nixon walked away and whispered so his comments would not be picked up by tape recorder, wherever it was hidden.
This was a critical, next-to-last meeting between the two men, where many aspects of the cover-up were discussed, so Dean made sure to include it in his long prepared statement to the Senate Watergate Committee.
Later, at literally the last minute, Dean included a reference to his suspicion of being taped at the end of his Senate prepared statement. He did this to add credibility to his statements—surely if he thought he was taped and if he called for the tape to be produced, it would be easier for listeners to believe what he telling the truth.
Critically, Dean had no idea there was a huge taping system in the White House, not only in the Executive Office Building but the Oval Office and Camp David. Few knew about its existence.
But this testimony about one conversation in the EOB was critical to what happened next.
The investigators for the Senate, including Scott Armstrong who later co-wrote a book about the Supreme Court, “The Brethren,” with Bob Woodward, asked Alexander Butterfield, a presidential aide, in a private vetting session if there might be tapes as John Dean had suggested. Butterfield came clean. “I’m sorry you asked,” he told the stunned investigators, “but, yes, there was a taping system that taped all presidential conversations.”
That revelation blew the top off of the Watergate investigation. Now it would not be Dean’s word against the President, but tapes would show who was lying and who was telling the truth.
The Senate called Butterfield as a witness the next working day, July 16, 1973, and the world found out about the White House Tapes. A massive fight was then on – could the President keep the tapes private under his Executive Privilege or could the Senate and Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox obtain the tapes through the courts.
Cox was fired by Nixon, spectacularly, in what was known as the “Saturday Night Massacre,” when he refused to back down on his subpoenas for the tapes.
The United States Supreme Court eventually ordered Nixon to turn over the tapes—which he did at the end of July 1974.
Two weeks later, he was forced to resign.
Whether former Director Comey knows of this history or not, he clearly was taking a page from John Dean’s playbook in asking for President Trump to release the tapes. This statement bolsters his credibility and shifts pressure to the President to put up or shut up about alleged tapes. It is a masterstroke. Let’s see where it leads.
James D. Robenalt is the author of January 1973, Watergate, Roe v. Wade, Vietnam, and the Month That Changed America Forever. www.january1973.com. He also lectures nationally with John Dean on Watergate and legal ethics. www.watergatecle.com.