What the White House Can Learn From Iran-Contra
With two congressional committees and a Justice Department special counsel already investigating possible ties between Donald Trump and his advisers and the Russians who meddled in the presidential election, as well as the circumstances behind the recent firing of FBI Director James Comey, the Trump presidency is already in grave danger. And unlike other presidential scandals, the Russia controversy has occurred in the early days of the president’s first term, before the chief executive and his team have fully adjusted to the pace and pressure of the job. Partly as a result, the White House’s response to the scandal has thus far been a model of ineptitude.
Every time President Trump makes another controversial comment or sends a tweet that contradicts the White House’s own messaging, the trust the American people have in this administration diminishes. Trust is still the coin of the realm in American politics, and this administration has a rapidly dwindling reserve. Already some Republicans have begun repeating former Republican Sen. Howard Baker’s infamous question about Watergate: “What did the president know, and when did he know it?” Trump should thus consider how Ronald Reagan responded to another scandal that threatened to upend a presidency: Iran-contra. President Reagan understood that he had to take tangible, often dramatic steps to improve the transparency of his administration and restore the public’s trust.
When it became clear that the Iran-Contra scandal was spinning out of control, Reagan established his own bipartisan investigative board to get to the bottom of the controversy, led by three widely respected Washington insiders—former Republican Sen. John Tower, former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, and former Secretary of State and Democratic Sen. Edwin Muskie. While an independent counsel and two congressional committees conducted their much slower and more deliberate investigations, the White House hoped the bipartisan “Tower Commission” would quickly determine what went wrong, and how to fix it.
Reagan also turned to a widely trusted public servant named David Abshire to coordinate the White House response to the controversy, freeing the rest of the staff to go about the daily business of governing. Abshire had a long and distinguished career as an Army officer during the Korean War, as assistant secretary of state, and as the U.S. ambassador to NATO, the post he held when he was called home from Europe to help save the Reagan presidency. He was also a co-founder of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and the former chairman at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress, where we both work.
Thirty years later, Iran-Contra has largely faded from the public consciousness, but, like the crisis facing the current administration, it featured possible criminal wrongdoing by senior White House officials and widespread questions about the complicity of the president in a coverup. In November 1986, two Lebanese newspapers revealed that the United States was secretly selling arms to Iran during the Iran-Iraq War. Members of Reagan’s national security staff sought to use these weapons to secure the release of American hostages held by Iranian-backed Hezbollah, a direct violation of American policy against negotiating with terrorists. Subsequent reporting revealed that, even worse, the funds generated by these sales were illegally funneled to the Contras in Nicaragua, a rebel group whose human rights abuses so scandalized Congress that direct U.S. support was prohibited by law.
Early on President Reagan flatly denied that his administration had traded arms for hostages, calling the charges “outlandish.” Few believed him and the public’s perception was correct: at the foolish suggestion of National Security Adviser Adm. John Poindexter, Reagan also gave a televised press conference and again lied to the American people. When evidence revealed the falsehoods, many commentators concluded that Ronald Reagan would have to resign in disgrace. That Reagan not only survived this crisis but went on to have a very successful end to his second term, is a testament to his commitment to setting the record straight no matter the political cost, and to the efforts of Special White House Counselor David Abshire.
Abshire understood that the fundamental problem facing Reagan was a trust deficit. Americans believed that there had been a coverup; anyone from the White House who claimed otherwise was assumed to be complicit. Reagan was deeply committed to changing that perception, so, in early January 1987, he gave Abshire carte blanche to coordinate a transparent White House response to the Iran-Contra probes. Abshire had direct access to the president, commanded White House resources, and could speak on behalf of the president on Capitol Hill, without interference from a White House staff that appeared ethically compromised. He secured Reagan’s promise not to hide behind “executive privilege,” and to get out all the facts.
In its February 1987 report the Tower Commission unanimously concluded that attempts were made to trade arms for hostages, and there was evidence of a diversion of funds to the Contras. Importantly, the commission found no evidence that Reagan was personally aware of the illegal diversion. Those responsible had already been fired, including Poindexter and NSC staffer Lt. Col. Oliver North. Both men had felony convictions related to the scandal overturned on appeal and several other officials cooperated with investigators or were later pardoned by President George H. W. Bush.
Reagan accepted the Tower Commission’s findings, and publicly took full responsibility. “A few days ago, I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intensions tell me that was true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not,” Reagan said in a March 4 speech. “As president, I cannot escape responsibility.”
At that moment Reagan’s presidency turned the corner. When he left office two years later, his approval rating had risen by 18 percentage points. It is hard to imagine that the contemporary hagiography of Reagan would have been possible without this seminal effort to regain the public trust.
This is the challenge that President Trump faces today. Like Reagan, he forcefully denies that his campaign team and administration had any improper contacts with Russian agents. Trump insists that there has been no effort to influence investigations into those contacts, his firing of the FBI director notwithstanding. As was the case with Reagan, however, the news that continues to pour from a leaky administration makes his denials difficult to accept at face value. The longer Trump continues to respond to this crisis by complaining on Twitter, obfuscating, and digging in his heels, the worse his situation will become. Trump must take action to address the trust deficit before it becomes insurmountable. He needs to find an honest broker—someone like David Abshire—to begin a credible accounting of his actions and those of his subordinates, and to take responsibility for any mistakes.
It is worth noting that Ronald Reagan was not the first president to ask for David Abshire’s help in trying to rescue a sinking presidency. In May 1973, he was asked to join President Nixon’s team and help fend off impeachment in the aftermath of Watergate. Abshire, a West Point man and lifelong public servant of unimpeachable integrity, politely declined. The lies and half-truths that continued to pour from the Nixon White House simply overshadowed his sense of duty. “I just don’t think [Nixon] he is telling the truth,” Abshire told his family at the time.
That is what happens when reserves of trust run dry—public servants with credibility and integrity to spare are no longer willing to risk having it squandered by a profligate president. There is no Chapter 11 to save a president from that kind of bankruptcy.