How to Kill a Presidential Scandal
Republicans smothered the Iran-Contra affair. The same might happen with Trump and Russia.
A mysterious intrusion at the Democratic National Committee, an obstructive and besieged president, fears of an incipient constitutional crisis. It’s been easy to draw parallels between Watergate and the Trump-Russia scandal.
This isn’t entirely surprising. For decades, Watergate has been the touchstone whenever a scandal wafts through Washington. There’s been Chinagate and Plamegate, Bridgegate and Emailgate, and many others besides. But these comparisons have become particularly fervid lately. Historians of the Richard Nixon era and former Watergate prosecutors and protagonists are again cable news mainstays. Discussions about potential impeachment proceedings, should the Democrats retake the House in November, inevitably glance backward to the dark final days of the Nixon administration.
But the lessons of Watergate, through real, are overstated. And its persistence in our collective imagination reveals a particularly American tendency: our bedrock optimism, and—even in this era of cynicism—trust in the equalizing force of our political institutions. In Watergate, “the American system worked,” as Carl Bernstein said. Americans stared down an unprecedented modern threat to their democracy and won.
But this is an overly optimistic scenario. In truth, the other great political scandal of the last half-century—the complex set of crimes known as Iran-Contra—parallels President Donald Trump’s alleged coordination with Russia to skew the 2016 presidential election much more closely and offers us greater insight into how the scandal will likely unfold in the future. And if Iran-Contra’s lessons have been oddly forgotten, we might want to consider why. Because there, the perpetrators succeeded.
“The bottom line in Iran-Contra is: Cover-ups can work,” James Brosnahan, a prosecutor in the independent counsel’s Iran-Contra investigation, told me in a phone interview. “And that’s what we should be worried about here.”
Iran-Contra involved a feast of malfeasance. The initial crime was the Reagan administration’s illegal provision of military aid to anti-communist Nicaraguan guerillas known as the Contras. Separately, top administration officials ordered the illegal sale of anti-tank and surface-to-air missiles to Iran, in a series of (failed) exchanges aimed at the release of American hostages held by Iran-linked terrorist groups in Lebanon. Administration figures, led by National Security Council staffer Oliver North, then illegally used the proceeds from these Iran transactions to purchase more weapons for the Nicaraguan Contras. Finally, officials illegally falsified a presidential directive ordering the Iranian arms sales, and—in a cover-up of the preceding crimes—Cabinet and other top administration officials illegally obstructed investigators, lying to Congress and prosecutors in the process.
This was a scandal that could have taken down a presidency. When details of Iran-Contra exploded into public view in 1986, even President Ronald Reagan’s own chief of staff, as well as other Cabinet officials, feared that impeachment might be forthcoming.
In Iran-Contra, Reagan administration officials illegally conspired with multiple foreign regimes to alter U.S. foreign policy. In Iran-Contra, part of the scandal revolved around inappropriate—and often illegal—dealings with a hostile, expansionist foreign power, a destabilizing force in its near-abroad and a sponsor of terror. In Iran-Contra, powerful administration figures lied to federal investigators about their relations with foreign officials from this hostile country. Perhaps this rings a bell.
The parallels to Trump-Russia don’t end there. In Iran-Contra, the independent counsel investigating the scandal, Lawrence Walsh, was a deadly serious Brahmin lawyer with a sterling Republican pedigree; he nevertheless faced withering criticism from members of his own party, just as special counsel Robert Mueller has as he investigates Trump and his circle. Congressional Republicans attacked Walsh’s team for its purported partisan bias, clamoring for the resignation of key investigators, and railed against the probe’s purported waste and corruption. They even demanded that an investigation be opened into Walsh’s (spurious) improprieties.
Walsh’s team was “a hotbed of Democratic activist lawyers,” thundered Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, repeatedly, during the yearslong probe. In Walsh’s own account, Dole was a key figure in undermining public trust in the special counsel’s office and in thwarting its activities. Today, Trump cronies such as Reps. Devin Nunes and Jim Jordan play a similar role.
Iran-Contra investigators were nothing more than “highly paid assassins,” Dole said. It was “the biggest witch hunt since Salem,” read placards at the 1992 Republican National Convention—echoing Trump’s own favorite term for the Mueller investigation.
The most powerful man in the world agreed. The whole thing was nothing but a “big witch hunt,” said then-President George H.W. Bush, who faced serious questions—and potential criminal liability, thought Walsh—regarding his own behavior during this time, when he was Reagan’s vice president.
Walsh, the Mueller of yesteryear, spent seven years fleshing out what was in essence a conspiracy to defraud the United States, only to see powerful political interests, whose fate sometimes depended on killing the investigation, bulldoze their way through a potential constitutional crisis.
Eleven people were convicted of Iran-Contra-related crimes, but all the principals walked away unscathed. The conviction of John Poindexter, a Reagan-era national security advisor, was overturned on appeal in 1991, as was that of Oliver North. (A judge ruled that congressional immunization of Poindexter and North in exchange for their testimony interfered with their later prosecution; Reagan himself encouraged both men to seek immunity, perhaps for this purpose.) A former CIA officer involved with the scandal had his case dismissed when Bush’s attorney general refused, in a highly unusual maneuver, to declassify material deemed necessary for the defense by the trial judge.
But the investigation’s real deathblow came on Christmas Eve, 1992, when Bush pardoned five officials connected to the affair, including Robert McFarlane, another Reagan-era national security advisor. Most shocking of all, however, was Bush’s pardon of Reagan-era Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, whose trial had not even begun yet. Walsh believed Weinberger had withheld key, incriminating notes to investigators for years that showed that administration officials—including, potentially, Reagan himself—knowingly broke the law, and thus forestalled impeachment hearings.
The prosecution of Weinberger presented “a true test of the applicability of the rule of law to the political upper crust,” wrote Walsh in Firewall, his book on Iran-Contra. There was, at the time of Bush’s action, “no precedent for granting a pardon to block the trial of an indicted person—let alone the trial of a president’s colleague or a trial at which the president might be called to testify.” But now there is.
Iran-Contra provides a gift to Trump officials—a normative, legal, and political precedent—for what the president himself has been telegraphing for months: that he will pardon his allies caught up in the Mueller probe.
And why wouldn’t he? There have been pitifully few consequences for individuals implicated in Iran-Contra. George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, and Reagan-era Attorney General Ed Meese are all venerated Republican elder statesmen. Dole was the most senior Republican official at the 2016 RNC in Cleveland. Meese—“an architect of the cover-up,” in Walsh’s estimation—was just feted at Trump’s Supreme Court nomination announcement regarding Brett Kavanaugh.
Elliott Abrams, who pleaded guilty to lying to Congress as part of the Iran-Contra probe, worked in the George W. Bush administration and was very nearly Trump’s deputy secretary of state. Poindexter got a job under George W. Bush with the Defense Department. In early 2017, McFarlane reportedly worked with Michael Flynn, then the national security advisor, on a shady proposal to finance nuclear power plants in the Middle East. Oliver North—who nearly rode his newfound Iran-Contra “celebrity” with the far-right into a Virginia Senate seat in 1994—is now the president of the National Rifle Association.
If the system fails during the Trump-Russia investigation, it certainly won’t be on Mueller’s shoulders alone, and Iran-Contra shows us why. The rot goes far deeper than Trump himself.
On the evening of George H.W. Bush’s 1992 Christmas Eve pardons, Walsh held a hastily convened press conference in his hometown of Oklahoma City. Bush’s action, Walsh said at time, “demonstrates that powerful people with powerful allies can commit serious crimes in high office—deliberately abusing the public trust—without consequences.”
As Walsh recalled, “near the end [of the press conference] one reporter asked, ‘Is the message here if you work for the government, you’re above the law?’”
“That,” he replied, “depends on the president you work for.”
Zach Dorfman is a senior staff writer on national security and cybersecurity for Aspen Digital, a program of the Aspen Institute, and a senior fellow at Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. Twitter: @zachsdorfman