Bill Barr knows how to cover up the crimes of a Republican president. We know, because he’s done it before.
The week of Christmas, 1992, George H.W. Bush was on his way out of office. Bill Clinton had won the White House the month before, and in a few weeks would be sworn in as president.
But Bush’s biggest concern wasn’t that he’d have to leave the White House to retire back to Connecticut, Maine, or Texas (where he had homes) but, rather, that he might end up in a federal prison. Independent counsel Lawrence Walsh was closing in fast on him, and Bush’s 1986 diary was a key to it all.
Walsh had been appointed independent counsel in 1986, to investigate the Iran-Contra crimes of the Reagan administration.
Did the plot start in the spring of 1980 during the Reagan vs. Carter election, as a way of having the Iranians hold the hostages long enough to humiliate President Carter and cost him the election? Did Bill Casey do it all himself as campaign manager, or, like with Nixon in 1968, did the presidential candidate or his former-CIA chief VP candidate participate?
Iran’s president during the time of the hostage crisis, Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, wrote for the Christian Science Monitor in 2013 that:
“Ayatollah Khomeini and Ronald Reagan had organized a clandestine negotiation, later known as the ‘October Surprise,’ which prevented the attempts by myself and then-US President Jimmy Carter to free the hostages before the 1980 US presidential election took place. The fact that they were not released tipped the results of the election in favor of Reagan.”
Or was the Iran-Contra conspiracy limited, as Reagan and Bush insisted (and Reagan confessed on TV), to later years in the Reagan presidency, in response to a hostage-taking in Lebanon? Who knew what, and when?
Walsh had zeroed in on documents that were in the possession of Reagan’s former defense secretary, Caspar Weinberger, who all the evidence showed was definitely in on the deal, and Bush’s diary that could corroborate it.
Weinberger was preparing to testify that Bush knew about it and even participated, and Walsh had already, based on information he’d obtained from the investigation into Weinberger, demanded that Bush turn over his diary from the campaign.
Bush was panicked. And he only had three more weeks of safety in office.
So Bush called in his attorney general, Bill Barr, and asked his advice.
Barr, along with Bush, was already in trouble. The iconic New York Times writer William Safire referred to him not as “Attorney General” but, instead, as “Coverup-General,” noting that in another scandal — having to do with Bush selling weapons of mass destruction to Saddam Hussein — Barr was already trying to cover up for both Bush, himself, and his friends.
On October 19, 1992, Safire wrote of Barr’s unwillingness to appoint an independent counsel to look into Iraqgate:
“Why does the Coverup-General resist independent investigation? Because he knows where it may lead: to Dick Thornburgh, James Baker, Clayton Yeutter, Brent Scowcroft and himself. He vainly hopes to be able to head it off, or at least be able to use the threat of firing to negotiate a deal.”
Now, just short of two months later, Bush was asking Barr for advice on how to avoid another very serious charge in the Iran-Contra crimes. How, he wanted to know, could they shut down Walsh’s investigation before Walsh’s lawyers got their hands on Bush’s diary?
In April of 2001, safely distant from the swirl of D.C. politics, the University of Virginia’s Miller Center was compiling oral presidential histories, and interviewed Barr about his time as AG in the Bush White House. They brought up the issue of the Weinberger pardon, and Barr’s involvement in it.
Turns out, Barr was right in the middle of it.
“There were some people arguing just for [a pardon for] Weinberger, and I said, ‘No, in for a penny, in for a pound,’” Barr told the interviewer. “I went over and told the President I thought he should not only pardon Caspar Weinberger, but while he was at it, he should pardon about five others.”
Which is exactly what Bush did, on Christmas Eve when most Americans weren’t checking the news. The holiday notwithstanding, the result was explosive.
America knew that both Reagan and Bush were up to their necks in the Iran-Contra crimes, and both could be facing prison time as a result. The independent counsel had already obtained one conviction and three guilty pleas, and two other individuals were lined up for prosecution. And Walsh was closing in fast on Bush himself.
So, when Bush shut the investigation down by pardoning not only Weinberger, but also the five others involved in the crime, destroying Walsh’s ability to prosecute anybody, the New York Times ran the headline all the way across four of the six columns on the front page, screaming in all-caps: BUSH PARDONS 6 IN IRAN AFFAIR, ABORTING A WEINBERGER TRIAL; PROSECUTOR ASSAILS ‘COVER-UP.’
Bill Barr had struck.
The second paragraph of the Times story by David Johnston laid it out:
“Mr. Weinberger was scheduled to stand trial on Jan. 5 on charges that he lied to Congress about his knowledge of the arms sales to Iran and efforts by other countries to help underwrite the Nicaraguan rebels, a case that was expected to focus on Mr. Weinberger’s private notes that contain references to Mr. Bush’s endorsement of the secret shipments to Iran.” (emphasis added)
When a Republican president is in serious legal trouble, Bill Barr is the go-to guy.
For William Safire, it was déjà vu all over again. Four months earlier, referring to what was then called Iraqgate (wherein Bush was selling WMDs to Iraq), Safire opened his article, titled “Justice [Department] Corrupts Justice,” by writing:
“U.S. Attorney General William Barr, in rejecting the House Judiciary Committee’s call for a prosecutor not beholden to the Bush Administration to investigate the crimes of Iraqgate, has taken personal charge of the cover-up.”
Safire accused Barr of not only rigging the cover-up, but of being one of the criminals who could be prosecuted. “Mr. Barr,” wrote Safire in August of 1992, “could face prosecution if it turns out that high Bush officials knew about Saddam Hussein’s perversion of our Agriculture export guarantees to finance his war machine.” He added, “They [Barr and colleagues] have a keen personal and political interest in seeing to it that the Department of Justice stays in safe, controllable Republican hands.”
In August and September, Barr had succeeded in blocking the appointment of an investigator or independent counsel to look into Iraqgate. In December, he helped Bush shoot down another independent counsel, Lawrence Walsh, and eliminated any risk that George H.W. Bush would be prosecuted for his Iran-Contra crimes.
Walsh, wrote Johnston for the Times on Christmas Eve, “plans to review a 1986 campaign diary kept by Mr. Bush.” The diary would be the smoking gun that would nail Bush to the crimes.
“But,” noted the Times, “in a single stroke, Mr. Bush swept away one conviction, three guilty pleas and two pending cases, virtually decapitating what was left of Mr. Walsh’s effort, which began in 1986.”
And Walsh didn’t take it lying down.
The Times report noted that, “Mr. Walsh bitterly condemned the President’s action, charging that ‘the Iran-contra cover-up, which has continued for more than six years, has now been completed.’”
Walsh added that the diary and notes he wanted to enter into a public trial of Weinberger represented, “evidence of a conspiracy among the highest ranking Reagan Administration officials to lie to Congress and the American public.”
Walsh had been fighting to get those documents ever since 1986, when he was appointed and Reagan still had two years left in office. Bush’s and Weinberger’s refusal to turn them over, Johnston noted in the Times, could have, in Walsh’s words, “forestalled impeachment proceedings against President Reagan” through a pattern of “deception and obstruction.”
Barr successfully helped Bush decapitate the investigation into that president’s crimes.
Will he use the same technique to protect Trump?