William Barr Supported Pardons In An Earlier D.C. 'Witch Hunt': Iran-Contra

Jan 14, 2019
Originally published on January 14, 2019 7:44 am

This won't be the first time that William Barr, President Trump's nominee to become attorney general, will be involved with what's been called a "witch hunt."

Barr, who is scheduled to go before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday for his confirmation hearings, ran the Justice Department once before, under President George H.W. Bush.

Back then, the all-consuming, years-long scandal was called Iran-Contra. On Dec. 24, 1992, it ended when Bush pardoned six people who had been caught up in it.

"The Constitution is quite clear on the powers of the president and sometimes the president has to make a very difficult call," Bush said then. "That's what I've done."

Then-Attorney General Barr supported the president's decision in the Iran-Contra case, which gave clemency to people who had been officials in the administration of President Ronald Reagan, including former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger. He had been set to go on trial to face charges about lying to Congress.

To the man who led the Iran-Contra investigation, however, the pardons represented a miscarriage of justice.

"It demonstrates that powerful people with powerful allies can commit serious crimes in high office, deliberately abusing the public trust without consequences," said Lawrence Walsh, the independent prosecutor in the case, at the time of the pardons.

Barr said later that he believed Bush had made the right decision and that he felt people in the case had been treated unfairly.

"The big ones — obviously, the Iran-Contra ones — I certainly did not oppose any of them," Barr said as part of the Presidential Oral History Program of the Miller Center at the University of Virginia.

"I favored the broadest pardon authority," Barr said. "There were some people just arguing just for Weinberger. I said, 'No — in for a penny, in for a pound.' "

As Washington prepares for Barr's confirmation hearings on Tuesday, this controversy from 1992 has begun to feel very familiar.

Today's Justice Department also is running a high-stakes investigation into the current administration: Whether Trump or his campaign coordinated with the Russian attack on the 2016 election. The president's onetime aides also have been caught up in it.

Trump, meanwhile, calls the investigation a "hoax" and a "witch hunt."

And there also has been talk about whether Trump might pardon some of those people — or even, potentially, himself.

Would Barr support pardons again?

Barr's track record raises questions about whether he'd support the president if he elected to use his pardon power down the line in the Russia investigation.

Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort is awaiting sentence following a conviction and a guilty plea. The president hasn't ruled out a pardon for him or others.
Alexandria Detention Center via AP

"His view of the pardon power and in what circumstances in which it ought to be exercised is an extremely relevant issue, particularly because of the widely publicized accounts that the president has considered pardoning a number of people," said attorney Michael Bromwich, who worked on the Iran-Contra team.

Bromwich had left the team by 1992 but he remembers the reaction to Bush's pardons.

"The office had developed evidence over the course of many years suggesting that there had been a high-level conspiracy to obstruct the investigation ... designed to protect, first President Reagan, and then-Vice President — and ultimately President — Bush."

Democrats are expected to press Barr on Tuesday about his views on the ongoing Russia investigation, about which he has been critical.

Barr submitted a legal memo to the Justice Department explaining why he thought special counsel Robert Mueller didn't have a legal basis on which to investigate Trump for possibly obstructing justice, and Barr also has criticized the special counsel's office in the press.

Barr's supporters say now that he wasn't in full command of the facts of the case when he wrote his memo, well before he'd been nominated to return to the Justice Department.

Now that he is, Barr has pledged to let Mueller complete his work, said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., the incoming chairman of the Judiciary Committee.

What's more, Graham said this week after meeting the nominee, Barr and Mueller are personal friends — Mueller attended the weddings of Barr's children.

The quality of that relationship should reassure Democrats in Congress and others that Barr isn't going to go back into the Justice Department and blow up the special counsel's office in order to protect Trump, Graham suggested.

Moreover, Graham told reporters, Barr does not believe the Russia investigation is a "witch hunt."

That doesn't address the question of pardons, however.

Trump's onetime personal lawyer Michael Cohen has been sentenced to three years in prison. His former national security adviser Michael Flynn is awaiting sentence after pleading guilty. And so is Trump's former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort.

Trump has said pardons in the Russia case are not off the table, and people including former prosecutor Carrie Cordero have taken notice.

"All the different statements he makes about whether somebody is a good guy, or somebody is a 'rat' — and his constant commentary on the ongoing investigation that the special counsel is conducting — indicates that he certainly is considering the use of pardons in this case."

That's why Cordero, now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, said pardons may be another key issue at Barr's confirmation hearing.

"The fundamental issue for the next attorney general — and for Congress to explore, and for our time — is whether or not the Trump administration is using executive authorities in an appropriate way or an abusive way," she said.

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Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is headed back to the U.S. after an extensive trip to the Middle East. His travels took him to the heart of several ongoing regional controversies. He is returning from this trip a day early because of a death in the family, skipping a planned visit to Kuwait. The controversies that have dogged him during this trip include the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi last October at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Pompeo talked about that this morning when he met with the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. U.S. intelligence believes Salman was behind the killing. We're joined now by NPR's Michele Kelemen who has been traveling with Pompeo. Hi, Michele.


SHAPIRO: What can you tell us about the discussions that Pompeo and the prince had about the Khashoggi killing?

KELEMEN: Well, you know, it was actually the second time that they've met since the Khashoggi killing. I was here in October when we came, and it was kind of an odd picture, all smiles and everything. Today seemed a little bit more subdued though Mohammed bin Salman said he hopes to add some positivity to the discussion. After the meeting, Secretary Pompeo said that he did raise the case of Khashoggi. He again called for accountability for anyone responsible for his death. And he also said that he raised the cases of women activists who have been jailed in Saudi Arabia. Let's take a listen to what he had to say.

MIKE POMPEO: The Saudis are friends. And when friends have conversations, you tell them what your expectations are. And I think the Trump administration has made clear our expectation is that all those involved with the murder of Khashoggi will be held accountable. So we spent time talking about human rights issues.

KELEMEN: What he's expecting is a full accounting of the killing of Khashoggi, some due process for these women that are in jail. But I didn't get the sense from listening to him that he got very far on any of that.

SHAPIRO: Of course, the death of this Washington Post journalist has caused outrage around the world, including in the U.S. Congress where senators, including Republican senators, have said the prince is responsible for the killing. Based on the tape we just heard, it doesn't sound like this visit is likely to address those concerns.

KELEMEN: I don't think so. I mean, it sounds like they're stuck in where they were before. Pompeo himself has never gone on record saying that he endorses this idea that Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince, ordered the killing. In fact, we asked him again today, does he believe the U.S. intelligence assessment? And he just said, I don't comment on the U.S. intelligence assessment.

The other problem that's of concern in Congress, of course, is how the Saudis have waged this war in Yemen. The U.S. has backed the Saudi-led campaign to restore to power a government that was ousted by Iranian-backed rebels. And millions of people in the country are on the brink of famine. And that's another issue that the secretary has been trying to press both sides - the Iranian-backed rebels but also the Saudis, of course - to end this conflict.

SHAPIRO: Just to take a step back, we've been hearing reports from this entire trip, as Pompeo went to Jordan, Iraq, Egypt and more. What has his overarching message been?

KELEMEN: His big message is building up a coalition against Iran. The problem has been, of course, that, you know, he wants to paint this picture of the Middle East as Iran being the destabilizing force, and all the U.S. Gulf partners are the stabilizing force. But when you have things like the war in Yemen or the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, it raises questions about what U.S. partners are doing.

SHAPIRO: And there have also been things that distracted from his message, like the U.S. troop withdrawal in Syria - lots of questions about that.

KELEMEN: Yeah, lots of questions about that. He was trying to reassure everyone that just because the U.S. is pulling out U.S. troops from Syria, that doesn't mean they're backing off in the fight against ISIS or containing Iran. He also had to deal today, for instance, with a tweet from President Trump who said he wanted to devastate Turkey's economy if Turkey goes after the Kurds in Northern Syria. The Kurds have been allies of the U.S. in the fight against ISIS. Turkey sees them as terrorists. Pompeo says he'd like to deal with both sides so that Turkey feels secure from terrorism but also that the Kurds, who backed the U.S. in Northern Syria, also feel secure.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Michele Kelemen traveling with the secretary of state. Thanks, Michele.

KELEMEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.