John Dean

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It’s understandable that news outlets must pay mind to the President-Elect’s every tweet and one-liner, but maybe his surprising comments, like yesterday’s “insurance for everybody” boast, shouldn’t be taken so seriously. These off-the-cuff remarks seem to me the impetuous, empty promises of a rich clown.

The manic changes in position are, however, a warning sign: Someone who’s behaved in such a seriously unwell manner will now control the full arsenal of the Oval Office, a peerless amount of power, even if a feckless, opportunistic Congress pushes back on certain items. No one in the world can do more damage.

Nixon White House Counsel John Dean, no choir boy himself when it comes to ethics, fears Trump’s capacity for unleashing ill on the world may go unmitigated by his shame-free personality and traditional checks and balances. He might seem like the last person who should talk, except that he’s probably right. From a Dean interview by McKay Coppins of the Atlantic:

“I used to have one-on-one conversations with [Nixon] where I’d see him checking his more authoritarian tendencies,” Dean recalled. “He’d say, ‘This is something I can’t say out loud…’ or, ‘That is something the president can’t do.’” To Dean, these moments suggested a functioning sense of shame in Nixon, something he was forced to wrestle with in his quest for power. Trump, by contrast, appears to Dean unmolested by any such struggle.

Unchecked, Dean worries, these neo-Nixonian instincts will only grow stronger once Trump enters the Oval Office—a place where every occupant since Nixon has found new ways to expand his authority and further his reach. “Barack Obama, like most presidents, did not dispose of any of the executive powers he inherited,” Dean said. “Hang on when Trump and his crew fully appreciate the extraordinary powers they will have—it is not only going to be thrilling, but dangerous.” (Dean, who now considers himself an independent, was also strongly critical of George W. Bush’s presidency.)

Those hoping Trump’s presidency will end in a Watergate-style meltdown point to the litany of scandals-in-waiting that will follow him into office—from his alleged ties to Russia, to the potential conflicts of interest lurking in his vast business network. Dean agrees that “he’s carrying loads of potential problems into the White House with him,” and goes even further in his assessment: “I don’t think Richard Nixon even comes to close to the level of corruption we already know about Trump.”

Yet, he’s profoundly pessimistic about the prospect of Trump facing any true accountability while in office. In the four decades since Nixon resigned, Dean says, the institutions that are meant to keep a president’s power in check—the press, Congress, even the courts—have been rendered increasingly weak and ineffectual by a sort of creeping partisan paralysis.•

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Watergate felon John Dean queried by Bill Boggs about the personal ramifications of his wrongdoing.

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