Part IV: Protect Others, Protect Yourself
Only one true presidential pardon of another president has occurred in U.S. history (see our previous post for details). But presidents have found ways to help other presidents—and even themselves—using the powerful presidential pardon. One of the most famous cases of this is that of President Bush I and the Iran-Contra Scandal.
The Iran-Contra Scandal occurred in 1985-87, during the Reagan administration’s second term. Reagan wanted to fund the impecunious Contras of Nicaragua, terrorist groups that opposed the socialist Nicaraguan government; he believed that the government in place was a threat to the U.S.’ economy and security.
Funding the Contras was barred by Congress by 1984, so Reagan allegedly set up a covert method of funding. Under the guise of rescuing American hostages, the U.S. sold weapons to Iran despite an arms embargo. Some of this money was used to secretly fund the Contras.
Fourteen members of Reagan’s administration were charged in connection with the scandal, and eleven were convicted. Reagan himself was investigated but not charged.
Why Bush Pardoned Them
President Bush I is widely believed to have pardoned the Iran-Contra conspirators in order to protect himself. Bush was Reagan’s vice president, and a diary he kept during the controversy and finally relinquished to prosecutors in December 1992 revealed that he knew more about the scandal than previously believed.
Lawrence Walsh, a prosecutor who had been investigating the case since the mid-1980s, had been trying to get his hands on the diary for years. He was about to take Caspar Weinberger, who served as the Secretary of Defense during the scandal, to court. One key piece of evidence was a notebook Weinberger kept that hinted that Bush knew about the Iran-Contra dealings. Thus, Bush would have likely been called to serve as a witness and perhaps faced further legal complications due to the scandal.
The trial was supposed to start on January 5, 1993. President Bush pardoned Weinberger and five other officials on December 24, 1992. Doing so neutralized any case Walsh could have presented against him, thereby effectively pardoning the president from any potential litigation. So, although Bush was never charged with a crime in connection with the scandal, he also made sure that he never would be via the pardon.
Presidential pardons, due to their lack of restrictions, are a common source of debate. Although President Trump has not been charged with a crime and had not attempted to pardon himself, he has already issued quite a few pardons. What does his history of pardons say about the possibility of a self-pardon? Find out in our next post.
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