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The Monday Night Massacre: Current Parallels To Nixon Administration

SCOTT SIMON, BYLINE: When acting Attorney General Sally Yayes was fired by President Trump earlier this week, Twitter bristled with the hashtag #MondayNightMassacre. It was named after the Saturday night massacre of 1973 when President Richard Nixon fired the independent Watergate special prosecutor, and his attorney general and deputy attorney general resigned.

John Dean, who'd been White House special counsel, had already been fired and began to testify about what he knew and when in that scandal. Mr. Dean pleaded guilty to orchestrating hush money payments, served a short prison term and provided testimony against some of the marquee names in the Watergate scandal. Disbarred from the practice of law, Mr. Dean has been an investment banker and author and is considered a kind of expert on presidential abuse of power. John Dean, thanks for being with us.

JOHN DEAN: Thank you.

SIMON: Recognizing that all analogies are imperfect, do you see any between 1973 and 2017?

DEAN: Too many. I see, first of all, similar-type personalities in the Oval Office. Nixon was clearly an authoritarian-type personality, but had we not had the tapes, only those of us who dealt with him probably would have known about it and the world at large wouldn't because he was shy. Donald Trump is right out there. He doesn't hide any of his authoritarian proclivities, if you will. And Nixon was - his moral compass was sometimes questionable. I really wonder, so far, if Mr. Trump has one. I'm waiting to see it.

SIMON: Should Sally Yates, the acting attorney general, have resigned, saying that she just couldn't carry out President Trump's order, or make him fire her, which is what happened.

DEAN: Yes. I've scratched my head on that one because the way it was handled was so brutal. The press release that came out of the White House was a White House statement the likes of which I'd never seen, calling her action a betrayal of the Department of Justice and that she was weak on borders and weak on immigration - I mean, just uncalled-for attacks against the woman.

SIMON: Well, and let me ask this - especially within a couple of weeks of the inauguration, isn't a new president entitled to an attorney general with whom he or she is in accord?

DEAN: Well, he also asked Papen (ph) to ask her to stay on as the acting attorney general. She had been the deputy attorney general. And the problem is that when there is a transition, to run the department during the interim period, you need somebody who has Senate confirmation, which she did. Most of the other assistants who had been confirmed by the Senate had left. That's why when they decided to fire her, they had to find somebody who had Senate confirmation, and they went to the Eastern District of Virginia to find a U.S. attorney who had been confirmed. So I think what Mr. Trump had in mind was trying to make a strong statement, as he is wont to do - is to always be sort of the tough guy in any of these confrontations he has.

SIMON: You were the foremost singing bird or bean-spiller of your time.

DEAN: (Laughter).

SIMON: So when you see accounts of President Trump's theoretically confidential phone calls with foreign leaders appear in the press, who's leaking that information?

DEAN: Well, it's a very small group that has access to those transcripts. The people who would have a transcript of one of those conversations is probably just a handful of people in the National Security Council, which hasn't even been fully staffed out. So that - you can bet that leak came from the White House. And I - I'm wondering if it's one of the leaks where the staff thinks, well, this is the way we will get Mr. Trump to behave in a little bit more civil manner. They seem to find that if they put it on television or it gets out there, he learns about it. If they try to talk to him about it, he sort of brushes them off by putting it out in public, they got their message through. John Dean - he's the author of "The Nixon Defense: What He Knew And When He Knew It," among many other books. Thanks so much for being with us, Mr. Dean.

DEAN: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.