Democrats with dreams of impeachment should consider how Iran-Contra turned out

Oliver North testifies before the Senate’s Iran-Contra committee, 1987.
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Watergate has emerged as the preferred historical scandal for understanding the Trump administration in its first sixth months. There are plenty of good reasons for this, but they come with an unfortunate side effect: The Watergate fixation feeds the fantasies of liberals and the left.

The Watergate parallel can serve as a salve, holding out the promise that Trump’s administration — with all its vulgarity, disrespect for the rule of law, and questionable foreign entanglements —will be truncated in the same way Nixon’s was. As a check against the idea that all of the scandals must result in President Trump’s downfall, Trump’s opponents should start paying attention to another case of presidential malfeasance with a far more ambiguous resolution: Iran-Contra.

Unfolding five years into Ronald Reagan’s presidency, around the same point in the second term that Watergate began choking the Nixon administration, Iran-Contra had it all: a wild cast of questionable characters, serious violations of law, secretive foreign partnerships, an extensive cover-up, and a web of orders and directives that traced all the way to the White House.

But in the end, not only did Reagan survive the scandal but so did most of the 14 indicted administration officials, thanks to administration stonewalling and a stack of presidential pardons. As it turns out, the executive is remarkably well equipped to defend itself against investigation, even when pitted against a dogged independent prosecutor.

All the makings of a scandal that could end a presidency

Like most sprawling international scandals, Iran-Contra is complicated. But the crux of it was this: The Reagan administration sold arms to Iran in exchange for the release of seven hostages and $30 million — only $12 million of which made it into US government coffers. Administration officials used the missing money to secretly fund the Contras, right-wing rebels attempting to overthrow the leftist government in Nicaragua.

As Iran was under an arms embargo (one that the US was vigorously pressing other nations to abide by), and as Congress had explicitly prohibited the US government from funding the Contras, and as Reagan had vowed not to negotiate with hostage takers, this operation had the makings of a presidency-ending scandal.

Enter Oliver North, who made things — well, even worse. North was a lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps and, more importantly, a staff member on the National Security Council during Iran-Contra. He was responsible for knitting together the network of backchannel and underworld figures who would carry out the massive operation, which involved several countries, including Lebanon, Israel, Iran, Nicaragua, Honduras, Panama, and Portugal.

When the scandal came to light, North and his assistant Fawn Hall — briefly famous because of this role — held a “shredding party,” destroying or altering as many documents related to Iran-Contra as they could get their hands on.

When news of the scandal broke in November 1986, the Democratic-controlled Congress quickly became involved. The hearings that followed traced the orders back through the upper ranks of the administration, circling very closely around but never touching Reagan himself, whose role in the scandal may never be fully known.

Congress wasn’t the only one investigating the scandal. Lawrence Walsh had been named independent counsel in December 1986. Thanks to the now-expired Ethics in Government Act, instituted after Watergate, Walsh had a significant degree of independence. He was selected by a three-judge panel, not the Department of Justice, giving him genuine independence from the administration. And the law made it more difficult to remove an independent counsel, requiring “good cause.” That independence seemed to have an effect: By the end of the investigations, the secretary of defense, two national security advisers, the assistant secretary of state, and 10 others would be indicted.

And yet Iran-Contra did not bring the Reagan administration to a sudden halt (though it did take a toll on the president’s poll numbers, which plummeted from 63 percent in late October 1986 to 47 percent by December). While 11 of the 14 indictments turned into convictions — for such crimes as conspiracy, perjury, and obstruction — most slates were wiped clean either through the appeals process or through a raft of pardons issued by Reagan’s successor, George H.W. Bush. (Imagine how imminent Trump’s fall might seem if a raft of top officials were not only indicted but convicted.)

Bush, for his part, had been implicated in the scandal as Reagan’s vice president, having withheld (for example) subpoenaed diary entries that indicated his full knowledge of the arms-for-hostages deal. And Reagan left office with sky-high approval ratings: 63 percent approved of the job he was doing, higher than any postwar president at the time.

Reagan kept himself one step removed from the wrongdoing

Why didn’t this massive conspiracy of lawbreaking and executive overreach have any real consequences?

Reagan’s safeguard was plausible deniability. What the president knew and when he knew it was far from clear. Indeed, it remains far from clear, though the notes of Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger show Reagan was better informed than he let on. (It’s worth noting that Reagan’s denials were plausible only in the legal sense — only 14 percent of Americans believed he was telling the truth when he said he hadn’t traded arms for hostages.)

But Reagan stuck to his denials. His testimony before Congress and as a defense witness in later trials was littered with the phrase “I don’t recall.” (In a 1990 deposition, Reagan said, “I can’t remember,” or, “I don’t recall,” 88 times.) And while it’s tempting to attribute this to the early stages of his Alzheimer’s disease, Reagan had notes that he could have used to fill in those blanks — notes whose release he strenuously blocked.

Other officials were saved by the lack of documents. All that shredding, itself a crime, meant that whatever evidence existed was turned into mulch well before hearings and trials were held. The administration also refused to declassify materials that would have strengthened prosecutors’ cases.

Oliver North was saved, at least for a while, by the power of the uniform. Testifying before Congress, North donned his full dress uniform, the starched olive-green jacket studded with ribbons and medals, and offered a just-following-orders defense. While he would eventually be convicted — it was overturned on appeal — he became a darling of right-wing media (which he remains).

But more than anything else, it was the power of the executive that saved Reagan administration officials from consequences. Bush’s Christmas pardons, issued after his failed 1992 bid for reelection, should be considered one of the biggest scandals of the modern presidency: a president using his pardon power to stop an independent counsel from prosecuting officials indicted in a scandal he himself was part of. Yet neither Reagan nor Bush has been tarnished by Iran-Contra the way Nixon was by Watergate.

For opponents of the Trump administration who pin their hopes on impeachment or resignation, Iran-Contra should be a sobering precedent. Stonewalling, destruction of evidence, conveniently muddied memories — all worked to shield the Reagan administration from the consequences of its bad acts.

Even the appointment of Robert Mueller to investigate the Trump campaign and administration should arouse only limited optimism. A talented independent counsel, Lawrence Walsh, began immediately digging into Iran-Contra. He worked for six years to piece together the extensive web of deceit and wrongdoing that undergirded the scandal, only to have his work wiped away by Bush’s pardons. Should Mueller last in his position as special counsel — an unsafe assumption — he too could find his efforts similarly thwarted.

A few years after the Bush pardons, Walsh wrote a book about his investigations called Firewall: The Iran-Contra Conspiracy and Cover-Up. In it he argued, “What set Iran-Contra apart from previous political scandals was the fact that a cover-up engineered in the White House of one president and completed by his successor prevented the rule of law from being applied to the perpetrators of criminal activity of constitutional dimension.” Those words are a description but also a warning: The executive can run roughshod over Congress, prosecutors, and even the rule of law itself, and escape without consequences. Those hoping to see justice meted out against a corrupt Trump administration should take note.

Nicole Hemmer, a Vox columnist, is the author of Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics. She is an assistant professor at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center and co-host of the Past Present podcast.

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