You would think – or at least hope – that the person who serves as President of the United States would be supportive of anyone who cooperates with federal authorities to bring criminals to justice. After all, Article II of the US Constitution expressly charges the President with enforcing our laws: “he shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.”
But not, apparently, Donald Trump. We saw this with his tweet on Sunday morning, in response to a New York Times article about White House counsel Don McGahn, who was interviewed several times by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team.
He wrote, “The failing @nytimes wrote a Fake piece today implying that because White House Councel Don McGahn was giving hours of testimony to the Special Councel, he must be a John Dean type ‘RAT.’ But I allowed him and all others to testify - I didn’t have to…”
“A John Dean type ‘RAT’”?! Nowhere in the Times article did the reporters or any of the sources they interviewed mention the word “rat.” All the article said was that McGahn was cooperating with the special counsel – and with Trump’s permission. And according to sources close to McGahn, the Times wrote, McGahn was hoping to avoid a fate similar to Richard Nixon’s White House counsel at the time of Watergate: John Dean.
So why would Trump reach for such an ominous term to characterize the way (in his view) the Times piece described McGahn’s motivation? Whatever Trump’s reasons, it’s striking how effectively the word “rat” telegraphs the choices available to someone, like McGahn, who cooperates with the special counsel – even with the President’s assent, as he points out.
You are a rat, or you are loyal. Because Trump values loyalty to him above all else – including any responsibilities that civil servants like McGahn may have to the American people or White House.
Indeed, this loyalty principle – and invoking the term “rat” – eerily recall the motif of crime bosses. Former Mafia kingpin John Gotti used that word “rat” to describe his former associate Sammy “the Bull” Gravano, who had testified against him.
Interestingly, former FBI Director James Comey famously likened Trump to the head of the Gambino crime family (Gotti) for Trump’s alleged demand of loyalty from the then-FBI director.
So exactly what did Dean do that would lead Trump to cast him as a “RAT”?! Well, Dean played a crucial role in helping both Congress and Watergate prosecutors understand the full scope of the criminal conspiracy involving Nixon and his top aides surrounding the break-in to the Democratic National headquarters and the cover-up that followed.
Dean’s testimony before Congress detailed that Nixon had been involved in the cover-up of the Watergate break-in. Dean later testified in the federal trial against former Nixon officials involved in the Watergate cover-up that led to the conviction of several, including former US Attorney General John Mitchell.
And Dean did this knowing the government would not offer him full immunity for his own wrongdoing in connection with Watergate. Consequently, Dean pleaded guilty to one count of obstruction of justice in exchange for the government not pursuing additional charges against him. At the time of his guilty plea, Dean noted he could have escaped conviction on “legal technicalities” but remarked that would have been a “shallow victory.” Dean served four months in prison and was disbarred.
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To me, and countless others, Dean is far from a rat: He is a patriot. And any president should want this behavior from any of his employees.
Dean didn’t have to work with federal investigators. He could have, like other Nixon associates, stonewalled them and declared the investigation was a “witch hunt.” Yep, Nixon called the Watergate investigation a witch hunt just like Trump calls the Mueller investigation a witch hunt.
Trump suggesting the Times is casting Dean as a rat for working with the government doesn’t tell me anything new about Trump. It simply confirms that he acts and sounds like a crime boss, clarifying for all involved the lens he’s using to assess their actions.