President Ronald Reagan holds up a copy of the Tower Commission report on the Iran-Contra affair, while posing for photographers after his nationally televised speech from the Oval Office on Aug. 13, 1987.

President Ronald Reagan holds up a copy of the Tower Commission report on the Iran-Contra affair, while posing for photographers after his nationally televised speech from the Oval Office on Aug. 13, 1987. Ron Edmonds / AP file photo

Why the Russia Investigation Could Be More Like Iran-Contra Than Watergate

Complexity, partisanship, and a strong presidential narrative insulated Ronald Reagan from meeting the same fate as Richard Nixon, and those factors could also protect Donald Trump.

As Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election heats up with guilty pleas and plea bargains, there is growing speculation about where this will all end. It might be time to start thinking more about Ronald Reagan than Richard Nixon, and that should give Democrats some pause.

Although Watergate culminated with a dramatic “smoking gun” tape that exposed the guilt of the president in obstructing justice, with a bipartisan consensus quickly forming that President Nixon needed to step down, the Iran-Contra scandal, which involved illegally selling arms to Iran to finance right-wing militias in Nicaragua, fizzled despite shocking revelations about the conduct of the Reagan administration.

Complexity, partisanship, and a strong presidential narrative insulated Reagan from the long-term effects that could come with a scandal as large as Iran Contra. Will the same thing happen again?

Iran Contra unfolded shortly after the midterm elections of 1986, when Democrats retook control of the Senate, and news reports started to reveal a secret shadow operation that had been conducted by high-level officials in the administration to free hostages in Lebanon by selling arms to Iran. The investigations that followed were conducted on several fronts. The conservative Republican Senator from Texas, John Tower, headed a presidentially-appointed commission that looked into how the administration handled its national security decisions. Congress set up a joint House and Senate committee, chaired by Hawaii Democratic Senator Daniel Inouye and Indiana Democratic Congressman Lee Hamilton, that drew massive television ratings in the summer of 1987 when they dragged Reagan officials before the cameras. Hamilton offered a stern warning during a television interview early in the process, predicting that if the committee found evidence that Reagan knew about and approved the diversion of funds: “It is likely if that occurred--and let us emphasize the ‘if’—that if it occurred, you would have a demand for impeachment proceedings.” CNN enjoyed a 70 percent increase in its audience share against the major shows of the period. Investigative reporters throughout the nation were hot on the trail of the story. Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh undertook a multi-million dollar investigation that wouldn’t conclude until 1992.

The collective findings from these investigations were shocking. They showed that top officials in the executive branch had circumvented the will of Congress. Reagan had authorized a plan from National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane to sell arms to Iran despite an embargo, then considered a state sponsor of terrorism that was in the middle of a brutal war with Iraq, in exchange for assistance in releasing American hostages who were being held hostage in Lebanon by Hezbollah. Although several Reagan officials, such as Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, had opposed the plan, they were outflanked by McFarlane as well as CIA Director William Casey. The news contradicted the president’s insistence that he would never negotiate with terrorists. Reagan defeated President Jimmy Carter in 1980 criticizing him for being soft with the Iranians; now he had sold them weapons.

When the exchange was revealed in a Lebanese newspaper in November 1986, Reagan initially denied the report, but later admitted it was true. He justified his about face by claiming that he wanted to appeal to moderates within the Iranian government in order to undercut support for the Ayatollah Khomeini. “My purpose was ... to send a signal that the United States was prepared to replace the animosity between [the U.S. and Iran] with a new relationship.” Polls showed that not many people believed the president. The president’s advisors avoided using the term impeachment. Chief of Staff Donald Regan recalled: “It was a no-no word ... You never used the word impeachment except to yourself, because that was something no one wanted to even think about, but, as chief of staff, I felt I should at least look that beast in the eye to see, you know, were we going up here to another Watergate.”

Then the plot in what was called the “Iranian thing,” thickened. Investigators working for Attorney General Ed Meese discovered that much of the money from the sales had been diverted by Lt. Colonel Oliver North, working for the National Security Council with the approval of McFarlane’s successor, Admiral John Poindexter, to provide assistance to the Nicaraguan Contras, right-wing rebels who fought to overthrow the leftist Sandinista government under Daniel Ortega. Congress had passed legislation between 1982 and 1984, the Boland Amendments, explicitly prohibiting any kind of assistance to the Contras. As a result of the revelation, Poindexter had to resign and North was fired.

During the investigations that followed, there was never clear evidence that Reagan had known specifically about the diversion of funds to the Contras, but many people around him did. Fourteen people were indicted with different crimes related to the investigation, including North and Poindexter. McFarlane had pled guilty to four misdemeanor charges involving withholding information from Congress. There was pretty strong evidence that Vice President George H.W. Bush, who was going to run to succeed the president, had known as well.

Yet in the end not only did Reagan avoid impeachment and Bush win election against Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis in 1988—but the president’s legacy remained intact. Reagan ended his second term with strong approval ratings and a historic accomplishment, the signing and ratification of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces agreement with the Soviets, that cemented his place in history. His approval ratings, which had declined by 20 percentage points to 43 percent during the five most dramatic months of Iran-Contra, climbed back up to 63 percent by December of 1988. Most of the presidential rankings continually place Reagan in the top ten of Commanders-in-Chief. He remains a model, for both parties, of what a leader can achieve. Part of the reason that Reagan and his reputation survived the scandal was that it broke toward the last part of his second term.

But more was at work that explains the fizzle, all of which remain relevant today. The absence of a “smoking gun” was essential. Since there was no piece of evidence that directly implicated Reagan in the illegal assistance to the Contras, it was impossible to prove that the president knew what had happened. Throughout the proceedings, Reagan liked to remind reporters that “there ain’t no smoking gun” to keep the temperature dialed down. Rather, the story that most Americans heard revolved around unscrupulous advisors doing bad things without the president’s clear knowledge—not unlike what we know so far about the Russians and the 2016 election. The majority report of the congressional committee investigating the scandal, who said the Reagan’s policies revealed “pervasive dishonesty” as well as “deception and disdain for the law,” also admitted that “all of the facts may never be known” about the president’s direct involvement. The irony, as the sociologist Michael Schudson has argued, is that Watergate probably saved Reagan since the scandal raised the bar so high for what was needed to prove culpability in a presidential investigation.

Although the historian Malcom Byrne found that Reagan’s involvement was much more extensive than was thought at the time, it was true that Congress never discovered an impeachable offense. He came to be known as the “Teflon President” to whom nothing would stick. After the smoking gun tape in Watergate, anything short of hearing or seeing the president do wrong does not suffice. With President Trump, the legacy of Watergate might have the same effect.

Partisanship was a powerful force in limiting how much political support the president would lose as a result of what happened. While some Democrats like Speaker of the House Jim Wright had no appetite to launch a full-blown impeachment process, a large number of Republicans stood firmly behind the president. In July, Reagan complained to one Republican senator, writing in a letter that: “Every Republican president was investigated, Ike for the Sherman Adams affair, Dick [Nixon] for Watergate, Jerry [Ford] for CIA and now my own lynching.”

The congressional committee’s minority report, authored by Wyoming Republican Representative Richard Cheney and seven other Republicans, blasted the Democrats instead of the administration. The minority report said that the bottom line was despite some mistakes in judgment, “there was no constitutional crisis, no systematic disrespect for ‘the rule of law,’ no grand conspiracy and no Administration-wide dishonesty or cover-up. In fact, the evidence will not support any of the more hysterical conclusions the Committees’ Report tries to reach.”

Cheney and his allies likewise insisted that “Congressional actions to limit the president in this area therefore should be reviewed with a considerable degree of skepticism. If they interfere with the core presidential foreign policy functions, they should be struck down.” From their perspective, the entire process had been a partisan witch hunt. The administration had tried to do the right thing to fight communism, despite a stubborn Democratic Congress that was weak on defense.

Iran-Contra also fizzled because President Reagan and his supporters succeeded in shaping the broader narrative about what had happened, framing it as justified aggressive action to check communism. White House Communications Director Patrick Buchanan explained:  “President Reagan drew the line in the dirt and told the Communists they would not be permitted to establish a Soviet beachhead on the mainland of the Americas. Make no mistake. That is what the furor in Washington is all about, not whether technicalities of the law were circumvented.” And if North “ripped off” the Ayatollah to help the Contras, Buchanan said—“then God Bless Colonel North.”

With Democrats focusing on each piece of evidence that they could gather to prove wrongdoing, Republicans waved the American flag and spoke proudly about what a patriotic deed North and his colleagues had done. Democrats were seeing red about what the administration had done whereas Republicans were seeing red, white and blue. In the middle of the televised hearings, Republicans kept turning their attention toward the issue of congressional interference in Reagan’s foreign policies rather than the deal-making. When North testified before Congress in August 1987, he used the weapon of patriotism to his advantage. Decked out in his military garb, North refused to apologize for what he had done. The nation went wild for this soldier—Ollie-Mania they called it—when he defended his actions. On the second day of his “boffo stint,” wrote Washington Post television critic Tom Shales, North “was raring to go, and went. After some procedural wrangling between his lawyer and the committee counsel had ended, North looked up eagerly and said, ‘Whose turn?’ It was a Rambotic gesture, like a hero in a war movie standing with guns akimbo, looking the on-rushing enemy squarely in the kisser and shouting, ‘Come on, come on, let’s see what you’ve got!” Time magazine praised the “bravura performance.”

When he testified, fifty-five million people turned in—five times more than the popular soap opera General Hospital. North dismissed the coverage of the scandal as “bombastic and outrageous.” Reagan, who had shown remorse early in the scandal, would start taking a more defiant stand. After McFarlane plead guilty to withholding information from Congress and the indictments came against several other players including North and Poindexter, in March 1988, Reagan told reporters: “He just pleaded guilty to not telling Congress everything it wanted to know. I’ve done that myself,” he said as he let out a small laugh. “I still think Ollie North is a hero,” Reagan said a few days later.

Though the Independent Prosecutor’s investigation continued after Reagan finished his term, conservative media outlets like the Washington Times blasted Lawrence Walsh as a runaway, overzealous prosecutor who was not accountable to anyone. “Lawrence Walsh’s seven-year, $40 million-plus witch hunt is a case study in prosecutorial abuse and excess,” Senate Republican leader Robert Dole said in 1994. Walsh did produce a number of high-level indictments but it took a long time and as politics shifted to other issues, his findings didn’t have much of a political impact. Standing on his own, there are limits to what the most effective prosecutor can accomplish against an administration. In 1992, President George H.W. Bush pardoned the six most prominent figures on Christmas, including Weinberger. In a written statement, Bush said that the men had “already paid a price” that was “grossly disproportionate to any misdeeds or errors of judgment they may have committed” and that Weinberger was a “true American patriot.” Oliver North ended up doing conservative talk radio and hosting a television show on Fox News.

The evidence that we have thus far from the Russia investigation seems familiar from the perspective of 1987. It is not clear that there is any smoking gun evidence that Trump was behind the multiple contacts that have been exposed between campaign officials and Russians. This might be enough to save him. It is unlikely that such evidence will emerge given the way that Russian operatives seem do their business: indirectly, through third parties, and through shadowy and complicated deals.

Most important, partisanship will probably be an even more powerful force in 2018 than in 1987. Republicans now control Congress, a conservative media propagates a Trumpian point of view, and the red electorate won’t budge. All of this will lend support to the president’s efforts to discredit the investigation, and prevent Republicans from seeing any “there” there with the findings. Notwithstanding all the enthusiasm about each piece of news coming from Mueller’s investigators, it is hard to imagine a Republican Congress doing anything with this information.

The biggest ray of hope for Democrats who believe that President Trump did something wrong, either in the election or obstructing the investigation, is 2020. Unlike with President Reagan, Democrats have one big political decision-making moment ahead of them if Mueller discovers more potential crimes, and that is the ability to mobilize and persuade the electorate that a different person is needed in the White House.