When I first came to Washington in the 1980s, one of the first stories I reported on regularly was the Iran-contra scandal. As vice president, the late George Bush was in the thick of it.
In the fall of 1986, while working as an editor at The New Republic magazine, I commissioned a story by two Associated Press reporters, Bob Parry and Brian Barger, about machinations in the Reagan White House. Publication was fiercely resisted by my intellectually imposing colleague Charles Krauthammer and other pro-Reagan editors on the TNR staff. It wasn’t news, they insisted..
When the story was finally published in November 1986, Parry and Barger revealed how the Reagan White House was running a secret network to bypass a congressional ban on CIA support for counterrevolutionary forces in Central America. The Iran-contra scandal exploded that same month. Not only was it news. It was one of the biggest stories of the decade.
Parry and Barger had scooped the entire Washington press corps on the biggest story of the Reagan presidency, not that they got much credit for it. (Parry went on to found Consortium News where he carried on his brand of independent reporting until his untimely death earlier this year.)
One question Parry and I discussed intensely at the time was, what was Vice President Bush’s role? The Reagan White House sought to blame the scandal on Oliver North, a staffer at the National Security Council. That persuaded some of our credulous counterparts at large news organizations, but it struck us as highly implausible.
Parry had been reporting on North’s clandestine activities for two years. I had reported how the CIA created a front organization to make the contras look like an indigenous Nicaraguan movement, not a CIA creation.
We knew that Bush, as a former CIA director, had collaborated with Operation Condor, a network of state sponsored terrorists in Latin America. We knew that Condor operatives had struck in Washington assassinating leftist diplomat Orlando Letelier with a car bomb. It was the first foreign sponsored assassination in the nation’s capital, and it happened on Bush’s watch as CIA director.
And we knew that Bush’s aide Felix Rodriguez, a former CIA operative, communicated with North. As I wrote in the Los Angeles Times in December 1986, Bush
“acknowledges that he helped a Cuban-American named Felix Rodriguez get a job advising the Salvadoran air force. Rodriquez lived in the San Salvador safehouse from which phone calls were made to North’s office. Bush says that he met three times with Rodriguez, and that one meeting was attended by [U.S. ambassador to El Salvador Edwin] Corr and North. Yet Bush says no one told him that Rodriguez was working in the contra resupply operation.”
The days I would write “the vice president lied.” Back then, we let the readers draw their own conclusions. This week, in Washington, we were supposed to write something, “the loving father of five could be parsimonious in his candor.”
Suffice it to say, Bush lied. He knew all along Felix Rodriguez was working on the illicit resupply network. And he knew a lot more than that about the CIA’s covert machinations to deceive Congress and the American people.
I thought of Bush’s dissembling during his state funeral this week. The ceremony highlighted—and sometimes exaggerated–the difference between the 41st and 45th American presidents. The temporary absence of President Trump’s manic style from the airwaves, made Washington hearts grow fonder for Bush’s one term in office.
The stylistic differences between Bush, the starchy scion who often seemed ill- at-ease on camera,and Trump, the blustering blowhard, who lives to Tweet, are profound. But a few substantive similarities cannot be ignored.
Bush, like Trump, ignored the law when it suited his purpose. And Bush, like Trump, wielded the presidential pardon power to protect himself from accountability.
Official Washington has long worried Trump will short-circuit the investigation of Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller by pardoning his associates convicted, accused or merely suspected of crimes. Trump has stoked those concerns saying as recently as last month that the idea of a pardon for his former campaign manager Paul Manafort was “not off the table.”
Nothing could me more harmful to Trump’s presidency, say his critics. In July 2017 Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff said on ABC News This Week that Trump would discredit himself if he granted pardons to targets of Mueller’s investigation.
“The impressions the country, certainly, would get from that is the president was trying to shield people from liability for telling the truth about what happened in the Russia investigation or Russian contacts,” Schiff said.
I’d heard such words before. Special Prosecutor Lawrence Walsh said pretty much the same thing 26 years ago when President Bush pardoned Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger, two other people, and three top former CIA officers on Christmas Eve 1992. The men were facing, or had pled guilty to, charges related to the Iran-contra affair.
At the time, Dewey Clarridge, former chief of the agency’s European division, was under indictment for misleading Congressional investigators about a missile shipment to Iran in 1985.
“President Bush cannot escape the appearance that he wished to avoid the public airing of facts about Iran/Contra that would have occurred at trial,” Walsh said in his report to Congress. To Newsweek, he said, “It’s hard to find an adjective strong enough to characterize a president who has such contempt for honesty.”
Rule of Lawlessness
Like the Trump-Russia affair, the forgotten Iran-contra scandal was, at its core, a struggle about the rule of law and the presidency. In the late 1980s, as today, the term “constitutional crisis” was occasionally invoked in Washington. Like Trump, Bush was threatened by what his collaborators might say about his own involvement in a conspiracy to evade the law.
The three CIA officials that he pardoned played leading roles in the scheme to bypass Congress by funding the contras with the sale of arms to Iran, which was also illegal. The three men effectively led a covert operation against Congress and the American people. For their trouble, Bush gave them a pass.
Bush pardoned Clair E. George, the deputy director of operations, who had been convicted of two felony charges of perjury and misleading Congress about both the contras and the Iran initiative.
His pardon saved Clarridge from going to trial, and spared Alan D. Fiers, chief of the agency’s Central American task force, who had pled guilty and turned state’s witness.
What is the similarity between Trump and Bush?
The evidence increasingly indicates show that Trump assisted, wittingly or unwittingly, a Russian GRU operation operation to influence the 2016 election. Bush certainly played a leading role in, what amounted to a CIA covert operation against the Congress and the American people.
While Trump threatens to pardon the perps who could implicate him in a criminal activity, Bush actually did it. His reputation did not suffer much.
The differences between Trump and Bush are real. The reign of a racist grifter can make one nostalgic for the rule of a ruthless gentleman. But the both men embodied the same problem: a presidency unbound by law or the Constitution.