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.