Three presidential scandals are conspicuous for illegality, unconstitutionality, abuse of power, corruption, a lapse in integrity and transparency, and the loss of public trust and confidence in the highest levels of American government: The Teapot Dome Scandal, the Watergate Affair, and the Iran-Contra Affair. While the personal behavior of Presidents has occasionally shocked the nation and, in the case of President Bill Clinton’s affair with a White House intern was scandalous and triggered a series of events that led to his impeachment, his personal acts of misbehavior did not involve the abuse of power in the performance of official duties that marked Teapot, Watergate and Iran-Contra. The Teapot Dome was a bitter reminder of how public officials might abuse their power for self-gain. The Watergate Affair and the Iran-Contra Scandal rose to the level of constitutional crises that threatened fundamental republican values.
The Teapot Dome scandal involved the bribery of President Warren G. Harding’s Secretary of Interior, who became the first Cabinet member in the history of the United States to go to jail for activities in office. The scandal inflicted a severe wound in Harding’s reputation and legacy. In 1921, Harding appointed Albert Fall to the top post at Interior. Although he was a westerner and an advocate of national parks, Fall was not a conservationist and believed that the nation’s resources—including oil– on public lands should be made available to developers.
The navy had taken control, in 1920, of two large oil reserves that had been secured during the Presidency of William Howard Taft, and a third at Teapot Dome, Wyoming, acquired during the administration of Woodrow Wilson. Secretary Fall persuaded President Harding to issue an executive order to transfer the three oil reserves from the Department of Navy to the Department of Oil. Fall had explained that Interior could better manage drainage of oil to adjacent private property.
Fall subsequently leased–without taking public bids–Elk Hills in California to Edward L. Doheny, President of Pan-American Oil Company, and Teapot Dome to Harry Sinclair, head of the Sinclair Oil Corporation, in exchange for a 16 percent royalty. The deal angered conservationists, who convinced Senator Robert M. La Follette to pursue an investigation, which the U.S. Senate undertook under the leadership of Senator Thomas J. Walsh. Walsh, however, did aggressively pursue the inquiry since his views about resources were similar to those held by Secretary Falls.
In the fall of 1923, Senator Walsh launched the hearings. Secretary Fall had left the Harding Administration by this time, frustrated by the fact that he did not wield much influence in Harding’s inner circle. The initial rounds of testimony were rather unrevealing, but in November rumors about Fall’s improved finances began circling. The investigation disclosed that Fall had received $100,000 from Doheny, and $300,000 in bonds from Sinclair. Fall was subsequently convicted of malfeasance of office, charged with a $100,000 fine (which he never paid), and served nine months of a one-year prison sentence. The Teapot Dome scandal damaged Harding’s reputation and, when combined with the corruption in the Veteran’s Administration, significantly tarnished his legacy.
Watergate is the most consequential, recognizable, infamous name associated with corruption and scandal in the history of American politics. The Watergate Affair forced Richard Nixon to resign the Presidency, a historic first, and resulted in the indictment, conviction and sentencing of 20 men linked to the Nixon Administration. Among the most prominent names on that list of 20, were the U.S. Attorney General, John Mitchell; top White House. The cover-up by President Nixon of the break-in and bugging of the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington D. C.’s Watergate office-apartment complex on June 17, 1972, led the House Judiciary Committee to vote articles of impeachment against him, including the offense of obstruction of justice, and was certain to lead to impeachment by the House and conviction and removal by the Senate. Nixon was spared that obloquy by his resignation, and a possible criminal trial by the unconditional pardon that he received from President Gerald R. Ford, who succeeded Nixon to the Presidency.
United States v. Nixon
The House Judiciary Committee voted three articles of impeachment against Nixon: obstruction of justice, abuse of presidential power (including violation of constitutional rights of citizens), and refusal to produce tape recordings of his White House conversations that had been subpoenaed. Six days after the committee released its impeachment report, Nixon released the tapes in compliance with the Supreme Court’s order in United States v. Nixon. Two tapes were particularly damning. In one conversation, President Nixon was heard to order the CIA to shut down the FBI’s investigation of the Watergate break-in, a clear example of obstruction of justice. Nixon said, “And, uh, for that reason, I am perfectly willing to—I don’t give a shit what happens. I want you to stonewall it, let them plead the Fifth Amendment, cover-up or anything else, if it’ll save the plan.” The plan that Nixon referred to was the plan to save the Nixon Presidency. In another tape, Nixon was told that the Watergate defendants would not reveal their connections to the White House, but they wanted “hush-money” to stay quiet. Nixon was heard on tape that he could “get” the money. When the tapes were released, Nixon knew that impeachment “was a foregone conclusion.” He announced his resignation on August 8, 1974, effective the next day.
The name, Watergate, became a synonym for a complex of illegality, unconstitutionality and corruption associated with the Nixon Administration. The scandal brought down the President and spurred some congressional remedies, including enactment of the Ethics in Government Act, which provided a statutory basis for the appointment of a special prosecutor or independent counsel to investigate wrongdoing within the executive branch. But the long-term remedies for Nixon’s abuse of power were short-lived as Congress let the Independent Counsel statute elapse. Critics of President Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon contend that while the act of mercy spared Nixon, it short-circuited the criminal justice system and the possibility of bringing Nixon to justice. It was observed that Ford’s pardon was premature; indeed, there would have been time enough to pardon Nixon after the legal process had run its course. Thus, many wondered what might be done to deter future instances of presidential abuse of power.
If Watergate represented the most impactful presidential scandal in American history, with widespread fallout, it is fair to say that the Iran-Contra Affair constituted the worst constitutional scandal that we have witnessed. Indeed, Iran-contra involved presidential violation of at least seven statutory prohibitions, in addition to constitutional violations, and the exercise of the pardon power that may well have screened a President from punishment. The scandal spanned a period of roughly 10 years, setting it apart from previous scandals as measured by its longevity. From a constitutional standpoint, Iran-Contra was worse than Watergate.
The story of the Iran-Contra Affair begins in Nicaragua. Following the overthrow of the Somoza dictatorship by center-left Sandinistas in 1979, President Jimmy Carter sought a measured relationship based on goodwill. Upon entering the Oval Office, however, President Ronald Reagan reversed the policy and suspended aid to the Sandinista regime. By 1982, the Reagan Administration had implemented a policy of aiding the efforts of the right-wing Contras to overthrow the Nicaraguan government. President Reagan’s enthusiasm for the Contras was exhibited in his public statement: “I’m a contra too!” He liked the Contras to the American colonists who revolted against England. Reagan’s policy ran afoul of his publicly stated goal of merely interdicting the flow of Nicaraguan arms to those in neighboring El Salvador who were friendly to the Sandinistas.
Disclosures about the gap between the Reagan Administration’s public position and its covert operations led Congress to enact the first Boland Amendment, which prohibited the Department of Defense and the CIA from providing any aid or assistance to the Contras. President Reagan continued to pursue means of supporting the contras. He sought aid for the Contras from allies and also simply ignored the prohibitions, as manifested in the CIA’s mining of three Nicaraguan ports. News of these unilateral actions triggered a second Boland Amendment. Like the first ban, these new prohibitions sought to tighten the financial strings by banning all aid, direct or indirect, for a specific one-year period, which applied to “any other agency or entity of the United States involved in intelligence activities.”
Covert Support of the Contras
Despite the blanket prohibition put in place by Congress, a staff member of the National Security Agency, Lt. Col. Oliver North, maneuvered to find ways of supporting the Contras. North created a private network to raise funds from allies and foreign supporters, who contributed to a fund created by North to support the Contras. He and his colleagues, moreover, solicited funds from American citizens, who could be convinced that aiding the Contras was a means of fighting the worldwide communist conspiracy.
North remained in charge of the program to aid the Contras until it was exposed at the end of 1986 and became a major scandal. By that point, North’s efforts were closely linked with efforts of the Reagan Administration to sell Tow Missiles to Iran, without authorization from Congress. Indeed, the sale of American property was hidden from Congress. A portion of the proceeds was diverted to aid the Contras, creating, in effect, the Iran-Contra Affair. The Reagan Administration, despite its public opposition to negotiating with terrorists, was, in fact, selling arms to Iran for twin purposes: to encourage moderates in Iran and to obtain the release of American hostages.
When details of the Iran-Contra Affair leaked in late autumn of 1986, investigations were launched. Congress initiated hearings; an Independent Counsel, Lawrence Walsh, was appointed, and President Reagan appointed Sen. John Tower to investigate the executive branch. Congress filed its report in November of 1987. Lawrence Walsh—Judge Lawrence Walsh—obtained convictions against Lt. Col. North and Admiral John Poindexter for their leading roles in the scandal. Their convictions were subsequently overturned on grounds that their limited immunity granted by Congress in exchange for testimony had been tainted by information given to Congress under the immunity grant.
The final leg of the Iran-Contra investigation stretched into late 1992. Judge Walsh had doggedly followed the trail of evidence that suggested White House approval of the Iran-Contra Affair. Lt. Col. Oliver North had testified to Congress that President Reagan had authorized his activities, but many were less than certain about the veracity of North’s claims. President Reagan had denied authorization of support for the Contras and, indeed, denied knowledge of the program. He later admitted that he had, unwittingly, traded for hostages. Meanwhile, Vice President George H.W. Bush had likewise denied any knowledge of the Iran-Contra Affair. In fact, as a candidate for the Presidency in the 1988 campaign, he consistently answered reporter’s questions with a stock reply: “I was out of the loop.”
A Cover Up?
When Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger left the Reagan Administration he deposited his working papers in the Library of Congress. The papers were made accessible to the public and were reviewed by, among others, journalists and members of Walsh’s legal team. Walsh’s legal staff discovered some of Weinberger’s notes from Reagan Cabinet meetings that reported approval of the Iran-Contra efforts by both President Reagan and Vice President Bush. The pending trial of Secretary Weinberger for his role in Iran-Contra garnered a great deal of media attention. It was clear that Walsh intended to ask Weinberger to verify the accuracy of his notes about the Cabinet meetings. His responses might implicate both Reagan and Bush, and perhaps set the stage for their indictment and potential trial. On December 24, 1992, President Bush, weeks removed from his re- election defeat at the hands of Bill Clinton, granted a pardon to Weinberger for all offenses that he may have committed against the United States during his service as Secretary of Defense. The pardon precluded the trial of Weinberger which, of course, meant that he would not be asked to testify about the accuracy of his notes from the Cabinet meetings. In “Firewall,” his book about his six-year tenure as Independent Counsel investigating the Iran-Contra Affair, Walsh included a chapter on the Bush pardon of Weinberger. He entitled the chapter, “The Cover Up.” The presidential pardon, Walsh explained, had turned the trail cold.