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The Iran Contra Precedent


As Jamelle Bouie says, Reagan et al. showed that stonewalling and brazening it out works:

The particular twists and turns of Iran-contra don’t mirror the Russia scandal’s. The politics, however, do. As with Trump and Russia, the White House itself was defiant. “Admiral Poindexter and Colonel North put their careers on the line to protect our country,” Pat Buchanan, then serving as White House communications director, said at a rally in Miami in December 1986. “If Colonel North broke any rules, he will stand up and take it as the Marine he is. But I say, if Colonel North ripped off the ayatollah and took some $30 million to give to the contras, God bless Colonel North.”

Most Republicans outside the administration also stood firmly behind the Reagan administration, even in the face of clear wrongdoing. “I don’t want you prosecuted,” Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah said to North during the colonel’s testimony before a House and Senate select committee on the scandal in 1987. “I don’t. I don’t think many people in America do. And I think there’s going to be one lot of hell raised if you are.”

The minority report of the select committee — written by its Republican members, including Dick Cheney, then representing Wyoming — was dismissive of claims of malfeasance. “The bottom line,” it reads, “is that the mistakes of the Iran-contra Affair were just that — mistakes in judgment, and nothing more. There was no constitutional crisis, no systematic disrespect for ‘the rule of law,’ no grand conspiracy, and no Administration-wide dishonesty or cover-up.”


Barr — who recommended pardons for key actors in Iran-contra as attorney general for George H.W. Bush in 1991 and who ruled out charging a president with obstruction in an unsolicited June 2018 memo — also determined that the “evidence developed” during the investigation “is not sufficient to establish that the president committed an obstruction-of-justice offense.”

Instead of ending in drama like Watergate, the Russia scandal is likely to fade away like Iran-contra. There is still a report to read — reportedly more than 300 pages long — but President Trump has already declared victory. He is now a little less damaged ahead of his re-election campaign, a testament to how belligerence, shamelessness and partisanship can undermine any attempt to hold a president or his allies accountable for wrongdoing.

The idea that Trump could end up like Nixon is to ignore how the Republican Party has transformed.

I can understand the frustration of people who think that not impeaching Trump means that presidents won’t be held accountable. The obvious problem is that impeaching Trump and not even getting a majority to convict isn’t “holding him accountable,” and creates zero disincentive for future presidents not to misbehave. There are many constitutional mechanisms that don’t work under modern partisan norms, and impeachment/removal is one of them.

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