John Dean, former White House counsel to president Richard Nixon; national security expert Malcolm Nance and Congresswoman Barbara Lee discussed presidential accountability at a town hall titled “Nixon to Trump: Perspectives on Presidential Power” on Sunday afternoon at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School.
“I never in my wildest imagination would have dreamed of bringing a former spy and a Nixon attorney to Berkeley, California,” Lee said to the packed auditorium.
John Dean became a household name in 1973 as Americans eagerly tuned in to watch him and other White House staffers testify before a senate committee on live television during the infamous Watergate investigation. Dean was subsequently charged with obstruction of justice and served four months in prison for his part in the Watergate cover-up. Dean has since written multiple books and spoken publicly on the subject of presidential agency.
“There has been a renewed interest in his work,” said moderator Elizabeth Hillman, president of Lee’s alma mater Mills College, while introducing Dean.
Dean spoke primarily on the political climate led by “right wing authoritarians” that elected Donald Trump as president in November, and compared the protracted downfall of his former boss, Nixon, to the first few months of Trump’s presidency. The Watergate scandal ran for a total of 928 days, from break-in to trials, and according to Dean, “hopefully this does not take that long.”
Dean noted that the central difference between the Nixon cover-up, more than 30 years ago, and the ongoing allegations against the Trump administration is the speed of the presses — hailing successive scoops made by the Washington Post and the New York Times.
When asked by the audience what he saw as the main difference between Nixon and Trump, Dean cited each man’s willingness to understand the issues. “Nixon spent days preparing to answer media questions. We know Trump does not,” Dean said.
The panel was later questioned on the possibility of a Trump impeachment. Dean took the audience through the procedural points and expressed his opinion that “Trump is much more dangerous than Pence.” Nance agreed, but with more dire reasoning.
“I have the scary answer,” Nance said. “It’s the atomic weapons.”
The conversation then turned to the 25th Amendment, which states, “In case of the removal of the President from office or of his death or resignation, the Vice President shall become President.” Lee said she has been working in congress to make the amendment more adaptable, but still needs more cosponsors.
Lee warned that budgets created by the Trump administration are an attempt at “deconstructing the public sector,” but reassured the audience that she and her colleagues are working to prevent this from happening. Lee spoke of efforts to remove chief strategist Steve Bannon from the White House.
“We do not live in a bubble — we’re leading,” Lee said.