The Mueller Thread: Iran-Contra and the Benefits of Stonewalling Congress

An unlikely trio: Oliver North, Fawn Hall and Donald Trump.

Source Getty Images; composite by Ned Colin

Why you should care

Because White House stonewalling sometimes pays off.

Based on OZY’s hit podcast The Thread, which delves into surprising connections in history, The Mueller Thread weaves together the strands linking the sprawling investigations around President Donald Trump. With Robert Mueller’s work complete, this will be the final installment — but you can read all of the threads here.

On the evening of Friday, Nov. 21, 1986, a very special party was held at the White House. That night, with Department of Justice officials closing in on him, Oliver North attempted to destroy every document that might reveal the diversion of Iran arms sales profits to aid the Nicaraguan Contras — what would soon become known to all of America as the Iran-Contra scandal.

As the former Marine lieutenant colonel pulled documents from his file drawers in his White House office, his secretary, a 27-year-old part-time model named Fawn Hall, inserted them into the shredder. At one point, Hall later testified to Congress, the shredder became so overloaded that it jammed, and she had to interrupt what the press would later call “the shredding party” to call for help. The Crisis Management Center, Hall said, sent “a gentleman by the name of J.R.” to fix the problem, and the destruction of incriminating documents continued.

The destruction and/or withholding of documents in the Iran-Contra matter did not stop with North and Hall’s shredding party. Over the next few years, officials in the Ronald Reagan administration would repeatedly withhold documents and evidence from Congress and from independent counsel Lawrence Walsh. Perhaps the real scandal or legacy of Iran-Contra is that it worked. 

The true measure of the Iran-Contra scandal was the damage it didn’t do.

With special counsel Robert Mueller having filed his report — and Trump’s Department of Justice deciding how much of it to make public — attention turns to Congress and how it will proceed with investigating, and potentially impeaching, President Donald Trump. We’ve now entered the stonewalling phase.

Despite some early cooperation with the Mueller investigation, the White House is now refusing to produce documents or witnesses to Congress in connection with a variety of ongoing congressional investigations — a hard-line approach that has led to many comparisons to Richard Nixon’s refusal to hand over the famous Watergate tapes, which ended badly for the president after he was overruled by the Supreme Court. But the better comparison might be Iran-Contra and its far better outcome for the stonewaller in chief.

 

Oliver “Ollie” North was the the staff member on the National Security Council behind the massive scheme in which the U.S. sold arms to Iran in exchange for the release of several hostages and about $30 million, with a portion of the proceeds secretly given to the Contras, right-wing rebels attempting to overthrow the Nicaraguan government. North became the face of Iran-Contra thanks to his document-destroying efforts and subsequent televised testimony to Congress in which his repeated invocations of “I don’t recall” became the stuff of legends and late-night comedy routines.

North’s hazy memory and treatment of documentary evidence would come to reflect the Reagan administration’s broader approach to the investigation. As Walsh would later conclude in his Iran-Contra report, both his inquiry and Congress’ were complicated and delayed by the withholding of thousands of “contemporaneous notes and documents” by top government officials, which, had they been produced when requested in 1987, would have allowed the matter to proceed “more quickly and probably with additional indictments.” Years later — after Reagan had served out his time in office and his vice president, George H.W. Bush, was elected to succeed him — Walsh’s persistence would finally unearth notes about Iran-Contra from top Reagan officials like former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and former White House Chief of Staff Donald Regan. Reagan and Bush also withheld entries from their own diaries from investigators.

Walsh’s seven-year probe resulted in the indictment of 14 administration officials, including North and Weinberger. But the true measure of the Iran-Contra scandal was the damage it didn’t do, including to Reagan and Bush, who, unlike Nixon, were largely left to ride off into the sunset (and pardon their own officials like Weinberger). To be sure, Mueller wrapped up in less than two years without any reported interference, but depending on how forthcoming Attorney General William Barr is with Mueller’s findings, Congress may want to go further — particularly after Mueller did not deliver a clear finding on whether Trump obstructed justice. 

The Iran-Contra scandal is often overshadowed by Watergate, but what makes it so significant, as Walsh himself concluded in his book Firewall: The Iran-Contra Conspiracy and Cover-Up, “was the fact that a cover-up engineered in the White House of one president and completed by his successor prevented the rule of law from being applied to the perpetrators of criminal activity.” In short, stonewalling sometimes works.

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