By David Kurlander

On the eve of President Biden’s inauguration, President Trump granted clemency to 144 people, including his former chief strategist Steve Bannon. Notably, Trump did not pardon himself, his family, or his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani. White House Counsel Pat Cipollone and former Attorney General Bill Barr discouraged Trump from these defensive pardons, arguing that the strategy could look like an admission of culpability in the former president’s upcoming impeachment trial. President George H.W. Bush faced a similar dilemma between legal self-protection and the appearance of guilt during his final month in office. Unlike Trump, however, Bush went forward with six pardons linked to his own alleged complicity in the Iran-Contra Affair.

By the time that Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush squared off for the presidency in 1992, Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh had been investigating the Iran-Contra Affair for six years. The convoluted scandal—in which the Reagan administration approved the dubious funding of right-wing Nicaraguan Contras with money from dubious arms sales to Iran—had lingered for Bush’s entire presidency. Walsh, a former Eisenhower Deputy Attorney General who turned 80 in 1992, had already led lengthy prosecutions of several principal orchestrators of the scheme, from Colonel Oliver North to Vice Admiral John Poindexter, much to Bush’s frustration. 

After a year of relative quiet following North’s 1991 conviction, Walsh and his prosecutorial team zeroed in on a series of hitherto-undisclosed notes by Reagan’s former Secretary of Defense, Caspar Weinberger. Some of the notes came from a January 7, 1986 meeting of Reagan’s closest advisors—including then-Vice President Bush—and concerned some of the Iranian missile sales. Weinberger, who was opposed to the arms deal, wrote “VP favored.”

A federal grand jury initially charged Weinberger in June 1992 but didn’t make the “VP favored” line public. But when they added another charge (obstruction of Congress) just a week before the presidential election in November, they included the line front and center. Bush had never before publicly acknowledged that he had supported the machinations.

Weinberger’s trial was set for January 1993. Bush could have potentially been called as a witness, or perhaps even faced legal consequences himself. Unsurprisingly, the press positioned the revelations as an October Surprise, and Bush’s poll numbers dropped precipitously. Clinton aide George Stephanopoulos said, “George Bush was as deep in the loop as you can get on Iran-Contra. This is the smoking gun.” The following Tuesday, Clinton won the presidency. 

Bob Woodward animated the day following Bush’s loss in his ever-useful Shadow: Watergate and the Legacy of Five Presidents. According to Woodward, Bush’s Attorney General Bill Barr met with the President in the Oval Office, where Bush angrily railed against Walsh (“He’s abused his power!”) and the two commiserated over their temptations to fire the Special Prosecutor. In his 2001 Miller Center oral history, Barr pushed back on Woodward’s characterization of Bush’s emotional state following the pardon. “Woodward said in his book that he bellowed at me. He didn’t even raise his voice. He just said that he felt it cost him the election.” 

To make matters for Bush worse, his aides uncovered that he also had some previously-undisclosed diary entries touching on the 1986 Iran-Contra meetings that had been kept in a White House safe. The entries were less explosive than Weinberger’s “VP favored” scrawling, but his years-long delay in turning them over to Walsh put him in an ever-more precarious position.

As Bush’s lame duck December wore on, he beckoned Barr and the rest of his legal team to talk through pardoning Weinberger and other Iran-Contra defendants. Barr saw the pardons as a rebuke of Walsh. He argued that Bush should pardon not only Weinberger and McFarlane, but also four other high-profile Iran-Contra figures: Undersecretary of State for Central America Elliott Abrams and three former CIA officials. “In for a penny, in for a pound,” Barr told Bush. The President agreed. “Extending the pardons to others might shield the president…it would stick it to Walsh more completely,” Woodward summated. 

On December 22nd, Bush dictated to his diary, “The pardon of Weinberger will put a tarnish, kind of a downer, on our legacy.” In the Christmas Eve pardon announcement for all six men two days later, however, Bush gave a strong denunciation of Walsh’s aggressive prosecution and wrote with soaring prose about changes in the geopolitical climate between 1986 and 1992: “The last American hostage has come home to freedom, worldwide terrorism has declined, the people of Nicaragua have elected a democratic government, and the Cold War has ended in victory for the American people and the cause of freedom we championed.” 

President-elect Clinton was busy in Little Rock announcing his final round of cabinet picks—including the ill-fated nomination of Zoe Baird as Attorney General. Alerted of the pardons,  Clinton offered a measured (and retrospectively a bit ironic) criticism: “I am concerned about any action which sends a signal that if you work for the government you’re above the law, or that not telling the truth to Congress under oath is somehow less serious than not telling the truth to some other body under oath.”

Where Clinton exercised restraint, both Weinberger and Walsh went for the jugular. Weinberger held a news conference where he attacked Walsh with FDR Attorney General Robert Jackson’s famed credo: “The most dangerous power of the prosecutor is that he will pick people he thinks he should get.” 

Walsh called his own intense presser and appeared in the evening on the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour. Walsh publicly revealed the existence of Bush’s diary for the first time and tied its revelation to the Weinberger pardon: “He is pardoning a person who committed the same kind of misconduct that he did.” When host Robert MacNeil pressed Walsh on Bush’s liability in the matter, Walsh responded immediately, “He is the subject now of our investigation.” 

Walsh ultimately didn’t have the momentum to pursue any further political or legal censure of Bush. But when Walsh finally released the Iran-Contra Report in 1994, he reserved particularly strong words for Bush’s pardons and his obfuscation of the diary. 

Washington Post columnists Robert Novak and Rowland Evans dismissed as an “outrageous canard” the idea that Bush pardoned the Iran-Contra figures for his own protection. “Bush will never again run for office,” they wrote as Bush was preparing the pardons. “Politically, he is untouchable.” Yet even if Bush just wanted revenge against Walsh and mercy for his predecessor’s officials, his “downer” pardons left behind the lingering questions of integrity that he feared. 

Clearly, President Trump’s integrity train has already departed the station. But as we track the upcoming impeachment trial and criminal prosecutions against the former president, Bush’s decision to get out in front of Walsh’s investigation will offer an intriguing historical counterfactual to Trump’s decision to forgo defensive pardons. 

 For more on the later years of the Iran-Contra investigation, read Walsh’s memoir, Firewall: The Iran-Contra Conspiracy and Cover-Up. To learn more about Caspar Weinberger, check out his book about the Reagan years, Fighting for Peace: Seven Critical Years in the Pentagon.

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