Reagan, Trump, and the Price of Presidential Impunity

Reagan, Trump, and the Price of Presidential Impunity

Reagan, Trump, and the Price of Presidential Impunity

New evidence of 1980 election shenanigans has implications for the debate on prosecuting Trump.


As former president Jimmy Carter lies on his deathbed in a hospice in Georgia, startling new evidence has emerged supporting the theory that Republicans sabotaged his 1980 bid for reelection by encouraging the Iranian government to hold on to the 52 American hostages in their control. On Saturday, The New York Times published an article by Peter Baker reporting on the claims of a secret deal made by Ben Barnes, a Texas businessman and former lieutenant governor of Texas who was a close friend of the late John Connally, himself a major Texas political figure who had served as governor of that state for three terms and as Treasury secretary in the Nixon administration.

Although Barnes is a Democrat and Connally had been a Democrat who switched to becoming a Republican, the two men were lifelong friends and sometimes business partners. In the summer of 1980, when Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign worried that it would be caught off-guard by an “October Surprise” if the hostages held by Iran were released, Barnes and Connally traveled to the Middle East. As Baker reports, Barnes claims Connally “took him to one Middle Eastern capital after another that summer, meeting with a host of regional leaders to deliver a blunt message to be passed to Iran: Don’t release the hostages before the election. Mr. Reagan will win and give you a better deal.” After returning from that trip, Barnes adds, Connally met with Bill Casey, the chairman of Ronald Reagan’s campaign who later became director of the CIA under Reagan. At that meeting, Connally debriefed Casey about the trip.

After Reagan won the presidency in 1980, he offered Connally a position as energy secretary. Connally, who had been hoping for a higher post such as secretary of state or secretary of defense, rejected the offer. Minutes after Reagan was inaugurated on January 20, 1981, Iran released the hostages. As Newsweek reported in 1991, “Soon after the Inauguration, planeloads of military equipment were going via Israel to Iran—a pattern that foreshadowed the later Iran-contra scandal.” The Iran-contra scandal of 1991 involved a covert and illegal attempt by the Reagan administration in 1985 and 1986 to fund its proxy war against Nicaragua by selling arms to Iran. Part of the plan was to use Israel as a conduit for the sales to Iran.

Speculation about the October Surprise scenario have been rife for decades—most notably made by former Carter national security aide Gary Sick in a 1991 New York Times opinion column and in more detail in a book Sick released later that year. Sick’s column and book were frequently dismissed by critics—notably Steven Emerson and Jesse Furman writing in The New Republic—as a “fabrication.” A 1993 report by a bipartisan task force of the House of Representatives also dismissed the theory. But that congressional report itself was factually flawed on some key matters—notably in its assertion that Casey was not in Madrid in the time of his alleged meeting with the Iranians. Subsequent to the report’s release, documentary evidence emerged supporting the claim that Casey had indeed made a Madrid trip.

The New York Times’ latest reporting on Barnes’s travels with Connally do not settle the October Surprise debate. But they do make a compelling case for reopening the investigation into the matter. Beyond the question of the 1980 election, Barnes’s story is relevant for understanding the larger corruption within the Reagan presidency, including the Iran-contra scandal.

The unsettled matter of the October Surprise also illuminates the much larger problem of presidential impunity. It has direct bearing on the current debate on whether Donald Trump should be indicted for alleged crimes he committed both before and after he became president.

Some pundits, notably the neoconservative David Frum and centrist liberal Michael Cohen, are already casting doubt on the import of Barnes’s testimony. Frum suggests Connally was engaged in “freelance diplomacy” that didn’t have the approval of the Reagan campaign. According to Frum, Connally’s actions were too “reckless” to have been suggested by Reagan or Casey. Cohen also speculates that Connally might have gone rogue. Cohen theorizes, “Casey asked Connally to go on a fact-finding mission to the Middle East to see if he could suss anything out about Iran’s plans with the hostages…and Connally overstepped his mandate.”

But the known facts of the Iran-contra case themselves belie the idea that the October Surprise was too reckless an action for Reagan or Casey. The October Surprise scenario makes sense if we see it as a dry run for Iran-contra. In both cases, you have an illegal covert operation in defiance of basic democratic norms, spearheaded by Casey, and involving Israel and Arab allies as backchannels to Iran.

There is a possibility that Barnes misunderstood what he witnessed in 1980. Connally might indeed have been a part of the October Surprise—but not in the way Barnes suspected. Perhaps Reagan and Casey were using Connally as a back channel to Arab allies rather than to Iran. In this scenario, Connally’s mission was to give allies a heads-up that after the election the United States might green-light arms sales to Iran.

The October Surprise has to be seen as part of the long sweep of election year sabotaging that runs from 1968 (when, as we have long known, candidate Richard Nixon set up a back channel to South Vietnam to sabotage negotiations that he feared would help rival Hubert Humphrey win the presidency) to 2016 (when, as a 2020 Senate report documented, the Trump campaigned welcomed Russian election interference even if it did not actively conspire with the Russian government). It’s not going too far to describe Nixon’s actions as treasonous. The same accusations will stand against Reagan if the October Surprise can be fully verified.

In 2017, K.T. McFarland, who had briefly served as deputy national security adviser early in the Trump administration, was interviewed about contacts Trump adviser Michael Flynn had with the Russian government in the weeks before Trump was inaugurated. According to the FBI report,

Based on her study of prior presidential transitions, McFarland believed the sorts of things Flynn did were not unusual. She cited Richard Nixon’s involvement in Vietnam War peace talks and Ronald Reagan’s purported dealings with Iran to free American hostages during their transitions as precedent for proactive foreign policy engagements by an incoming administration. Most incoming administrations did similar things. No “red light” or “alarm bells” went off in her head when she heard what Flynn was doing.

Over the weekend, Trump was urging his followers to protest if he is arrested by New York prosecutors over alleged hush-money payments to Stormy Daniels. The question of arresting a former president is a thorny one. There are prudential voices, such as Harvard law professor Jack Goldsmith, who urge caution because such an arrest could lead to political divisions. Reporter Wesley Lowery even raises the possibility of violence (as indeed Trump himself seems to be hinting at), although more as a risk we should be prepared for rather than a definitive argument against arresting Trump.

But the history of presidential impunity that runs from Nixon to Reagan to Trump demonstrates that there is an even greater danger in not holding former presidents accountable. Nixon was forced to resign over the Watergate scandal, but received a presidential pardon. His role in sabotaging the 1968 election has never been punished. Reagan went unpunished for Iran-contra, and the existing House and Senate investigations into the October Surprise are flawed. Trump has yet to be charged for his many crimes, which go well beyond payments to Stormy Daniels. This record suggests that if crimes go unpunished, lawlessness will only get worse. The Trump’s presidency’s culminating in the failed coup of January 6, 2021, was no anomaly. It was an outgrowth of a longer toleration of presidential criminality. Unless that tolerance ends, American democracy will remain in grave danger.

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