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John Dean On The Transition To A Bush Administration

December 20, 2000

Former White House Counsel and Watergate figure John Dean joined Law Chat on Wednesday, December 20 to discuss legal issues related to the transition of power to President-elect Bush, and whether Independent Counsel Robert Ray will indict President Clinton after he leaves office. Dean joined the chat via telephone from Los Angeles. provided a typist. Law Chat is produced with FindLaw. The following is an edited transcript of the chat:

CNN Moderator: Welcome to FindLaw Chat, John Dean. We are pleased to have you with us again.

John Dean: It's always a pleasure to visit with you all.

CNN Moderator: Although Mr. Bush has been working on a transition plan for several weeks, will the shortened period of official transition time affect his ability to form a new government?

John Dean: I don't think there's any question that he's been handicapped with the loss of 36 days. Typically, a new president has about 74 or 75 days to prepare his new administration. Losing the number of transition days that Bush has lost has got to affect the results.

Question from Sim: How frustrating is it that there are people trying to undermine the legitimacy of President-elect Bush?

John Dean: I'm sure that Mr. Bush understands, given the closeness of the election, that he is going to have a lot of people who question his legitimacy as president. There is no question that he will have to spend a lot of time and effort dealing with those who feel disenfranchised by the last election. We've already noticed in his public statements that he is concerned about this legitimacy, and he is certainly making -- although subtle -- efforts to enhance his legitimacy.

If we go back to 1960, when JFK narrowly defeated Richard Nixon, you will see similar efforts by Mr. Kennedy to make sure that all Americans felt he was their president. He did this by bringing a number of Republicans into his otherwise Democratic cabinet. So, I think that Mr. Bush will have to work very hard at assuring all voters that he is their president.

Question from reasonable: How will Bush unite the country when the Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court are both bitterly divided?

John Dean: It's going to be very difficult to unite the country philosophically. But that does not mean that Mr. Bush cannot effectively govern. One of the most immediate situations he will be confronted with are the divisions within his own party. We've already seen signs that the right wing of the party is flexing its muscle, and that muscle is real. Without the right, Mr. Bush would have never gotten the nomination. So he will have to pay attention to their demands.

Indeed, it is difficult to think of a president who is going to be as tested on his campaign pledge, as a uniter and not a divider, as Mr. Bush is going to be. Only time is going to tell if he can succeed. My own feeling is that the nation itself is not as divided as the tribes within the Beltway.

Question from paradocs: Mr. Dean, lacking a mandate, what chance does Bush have of pushing tax cuts?

John Dean: The early indications are that he can get a number of his tax cut proposals adopted. The question is whether he can get them all adopted. I think that the economy will dictate whether that is possible or not. We don't know the nature of the conversation he had with Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan two days ago. But we do know that the Federal Reserve did nothing with interest rates. Obviously, if the Federal Reserve thinks a large tax cut is coming, they will not be playing with interest rates. It's very early to predict how all this will shake out. But I don't think Bush will have any trouble getting parts of his tax cut adopted by the Congress.

Question from reasonable: Mr. Dean, I think polls have always shown that a tax cut is not the priority on the American agenda. Why would this be a priority for President-elect Bush?

John Dean: Frankly, I'm a bit mystified as to why the president-elect keeps talking about his tax cut. I can only surmise that he has a certain sensitivity on the issue, because of his father's position -- read my lips, no new taxes. It appears that he wants to take the posture that he is going to honor his campaign pledge. The mystery is that we all know he was not elected because of that pledge. So, I am confused as to why he might think it a priority item.

Question from Quinn: Do you think that Mr. Bush will get any kind of abortion law passed?

John Dean: The president himself has a number of law-making powers through executive orders to affect abortion laws. For example, there are now very loose restrictions on the use of fetal tissue, which has been very important in medical research. It is possible that Mr. Bush, through executive order, may change that. Obviously, that will be very upsetting to the medical community, but will satisfy some of his following that has strong feelings on the abortion issue.

However, as to general changes in the law through the Congress, I doubt that such a divided body could ever agree on such an incendiary issue. I just finished reading a fascinating book on abortion politics. It is Richard North Patterson's new novel called "Protect and Defend." It is a story of a new president selecting a new chief justice with the abortion issue entering the middle of the confirmation proceeding. I just reviewed it for the New York Times book review -- check it out.

CNN Moderator: Aside from tax cuts, which issues might or should President Bush focus on in the first few months of his presidency?

John Dean: If anything might be discerned from the divided vote in the last election, it is the American public's feeling that a host of new laws are not called for. Clearly, the American public felt that matters like public education and social security were transcending issues for both political parties. While there is an agreement as to the need to address these issues, there is no agreement as to precisely how the issues should be addressed. I would suspect that Mr. Bush's priorities will be education, social security, and then matters like prescription drugs for the elderly. He will be searching for the best ways to implement programs in these areas.

Question from KATT: Do you believe Clinton will be indicted after he leaves office? If so would Bush consider pardoning him?

John Dean: As those who have read my article on the subject may know, after sifting through all of the available evidence -- statements by former independent counsel Ken Starr and new statements by independent counsel Robert Ray -- there is little doubt in my mind that Mr. Ray is going to indict the former president.

I say that, both based on the fact that Mr. Ray has now made it clear that his grand jury has targeted Mr. Clinton, and a grand jury target is very seldom not indicted. In other words, a prosecutor does not go through the exercise of bringing witnesses before a grand jury if he does not believe he has a good case that the grand jury will approve. So, based on these facts, it appears that Mr. Clinton will be indicted.

The most likely charges will be perjury and obstruction of justice. I say that because we have public statements by two judges. One officially, Judge Wright in Arkansas, making a formal declaration that the president had lied. Informally, we have a federal circuit judge who wrote a book about the Clinton impeachment proceedings, Judge Richard Posner, who also declared that the president had lied. In short, it will be very difficult for independent counsel Ray not to proceed with his case.

As for the pardon, a story in the Washington Post yesterday had a representative of Mr. Bush saying that Mr. Bush would not pardon Mr. Clinton, because Mr. Clinton had not asked for a pardon. I cannot at this time read that as any kind of definitive position by Mr. Bush on this subject. We will have to wait until the issue has arisen, and all the attendant media attention it will provoke, to appreciate whether or not a Clinton indictment is going to exacerbate the partisanship in Washington. If it does, and if it gets ugly, then there is a very good likelihood Mr. Bush would, like President Ford before him -- with Richard Nixon -- seriously think about a pardon.

The unknown is whether or not Mr. Clinton will take out a sheet of paper before he leaves office, and write out his own pardon. It is a very simple process, and my reading of the law -- as someone who has studied this rather limited body of juris prudence -- is that the president would have complete power to pardon himself. Of course, the independent counsel could challenge that action in court, and the case would ultimately go to the U.S. Supreme Court, but it is difficult to believe that the conservative majority of that court could deny the clear powers that the Constitution has granted the president of the United States.

CNN Moderator: What challenges might the new attorney general face?

John Dean: The new attorney general will not have the same types of problems that were so explosive for Janet Reno. For example, there is no independent counsel law in existence, thus the new attorney general will not be confronted with calling for the appointment of independent counsel.

Also, the fact that the president and the Congress are all of the same party should make matters run more smoothly. There will not be the same type of adversarial relationship between Capitol Hill and the White House, which can make it very difficult for an attorney general.

I would guess that the most controversial matters that might arise for a new attorney general will be the selection of judges for the federal judiciary, as well as the potential for nominees to the Supreme Court. These are legislative undertakings that are handled by the Department of Justice. In addition, there is always the potential for a federal crime being committed that is a high visibility matter. But generally speaking, the new attorney general should have less controversy than the incumbent he or she will be replacing.

CNN Moderator: Do you have any final thoughts to share with us today?

John Dean: I must say that given the fact that we're having a total change of power within Washington, and the fact that we have such a divided electorate, is going to make Washington-watching very interesting. It is both a great opportunity for the new administration, as well as a potential for great problems. We all obviously must wish the new administration the best.

CNN Moderator: Thank you for being with us again today, John Dean.

John Dean: Thank you.