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As press and cable media scramble to cover President Trump’s antics surrounding presidential pardons — including the possibility that he could use the pardon to interfere with the Special Counsel’s investigation of Trump himself — we would do well to acknowledge that this scenario has played out previously.  In 1992, after he had lost his re-election bid to Bill Clinton, President George HW Bush issued pardons to former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and five others  — ending all then pending criminal prosecutions related to the Iran-Contra Scandal:

President Bush granted Christmas Eve pardons to former Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger and five other former government officials Thursday, wiping out all pending criminal prosecutions in the Iran-Contra case.

In an angry statement, the Iran-Contra independent counsel, Lawrence E. Walsh, accused Bush of “misconduct” and declared that the pardon was part of the cover-up that “has continued for more than six years.”

And in a potentially explosive revelation, he said it was recently discovered that Bush himself kept personal notes on aspects of the arms-for-hostages affair. He said prosecutors have been denied access to some of them “despite repeated requests” and added ominously that this “will lead to appropriate action.”


Bush said he felt the independent counsel's investigation had outlived any justification it had when it was convened by a panel of federal appellate judges six years ago at the recommendation of then-Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III.

In Los Angeles, Reagan said he was pleased by the pardons.

Obviously, the Special Prosecutor in that case, Lawrence Walsh, was not pleased, and in a subsequent 1993 report he continued to assert that HW Bush may have been trying to clean his own tracks as well:

The Iran-contra prosecutor suggested in a report Monday that President George Bush pardoned Caspar Weinberger because Bush might have been called as a defense witness in a trial of the former defense secretary and subjected to “searching questions” about his conduct.

In a broad assault on Bush for granting executive clemency to Weinberger, who was pardoned along with five other Iran-contra figures, Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh accused the former president of misusing his constitutional authority to stop a public airing of the facts behind the indictment of Weinberger.

As some commenters have noted, part of the problem — again —  were Democratic leaders who were not eager for any meaningful confrontation:

Lawrence Walsh, the independent counsel handling the matter, had been gradually closing the circle on the affair, and increasingly the evidence was suggesting that Bush 41 himself had been at the center of it. He had, Walsh learned, withheld his personal diaries from investigators and made statements which were at least seriously misleading. By issuing the Iran-Contra pardons, Bush threw up a roadblock…on a road that headed straight to himself.

True to form, the Democrats hardly raised a serious objection to the pardons. They were focused on the incoming administration and eager to avoid anything that would distract from the coup with which Clinton hoped to launch his presidency: a major healthcare initiative.

After seven years, Walsh ended his investigation with a comprehensive report, concluding among other things that President’s Bush’s pardon, the Reagan/Bush administrations’ success at hiding evidence, and the running of the statute of limitations had foreclosed the possibility of successful criminal prosecutions:

Iran-Contra prosecutors have concluded that former President Ronald Reagan created an atmosphere that allowed the arms-for-hostages scandal to flourish and that former President George Bush was not, as he has claimed, uninformed about the affair while serving as Reagan's vice president, sources said Saturday.

. . . . The report, expected to be made public later this month, alleges that Reagan set the stage for top aides–principally then-Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III–to compose a false account of events that shielded high-ranking officials from accountability in the scandal.

Bush, according to these sources, is accused of lying when he repeatedly claimed he was “out of the loop” in top-level deliberations about the deal, in which U.S. arms were shipped to Iran to free American hostages in the Mideast. The report describes him as fully aware of the initiative, the sources said.

. . . . 

Regarding Bush's role as vice president, the report is understood to cite a note written by former Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger in 1986 that Walsh did not obtain until last year. The note, made public in connection with Weinberger's 1992 indictment, confirms that Bush was present at a White House meeting at which the hostage deal was discussed in some detail, and says that Bush supported the swap even though Weinberger and then-Secretary of State George P. Shultz argued against it.

The report accuses Weinberger of deliberately concealing his notes taken at National Security Council meetings, including the note concerning Bush. The report is also said to rebuke Bush for granting full pardons last Christmas Eve to Weinberger and five other former government officials, an act that wiped out prosecutions still pending in the Iran-Contra case.

* * * * *

The overall relevance and strength of this precedent to the current Trump affair is debatable because the underlying facts do differ in some important respects.  Nonetheless, as the country considers presidential pardon powers, and the ability of a sitting president to use such powers to impede or end an investigation that may implicate the president himself, it is just bizarre that this relatively recent example is largely missing from public discussion.  I raise it here both for your information and because I presume that the Trump crowd will be citing to it in the not too distant future.  At minimum, any competent news coverage of these issues should include this recent, close example.

Btw, and for what it is worth — I noticed this list of notable Presidential pardons in the NYT article covering HW Bush’s pardon announcement discussed above:

Thomas Jefferson, elected in 1800, pardoned all those convicted of violating the Alien and Sedition Acts enacted two years earlier. The Act expired in 1800, and was later found unconstitutional.

Abraham Lincoln, in 1863, and Andrew Johnson, in 1868, proclaimed amnesty for Confederate soldiers.

Andrew Johnson, in 1869, pardoned Dr. Samuel A. Mudd, the doctor who set John Wilkes Booth's broken leg after Mr. Booth assassinated President Lincoln.

Warren G. Harding, in 1921, pardoned Eugene V. Debs, a Socialist who was jailed for sedition, and dozens of others jailed under World War I seidtion and espionage laws.

Richard M. Nixon, in 1971, commuted the prison term of Jimmy Hoffa, the former president of the teamsters' union, on the condition that Mr. Hoffa not resume union activities.

Gerald R. Ford, in 1974, granted a full pardon to Mr. Richard M. Nixon, who had resigned the Presidency because of the Watergate scandal.

Jimmy Carter, on the first day of his Presidency in 1977, proclaimed amnesty for those who evaded the draft during the Vietnam War. President Ford, earlier, had offered a more limited amnesty for the Vietnam War resisters.

Ronald Reagan, in 1989, pardoned George Steinbrenner 3d, the owner of the New York Yankees, who had been convicted on illegal contributions to Mr. Nixon's 1972 re-election campaign.

George Bush, in 1989, pardoned Armand Hammer, the chairman of Occidental Petroleum, who had pleaded guilty to making illegal contributions to Mr. Nixon's 1972 re-election campaign.

  • June 7, 2018