House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) told the top White House lawyer more than two weeks ago that he would not recommend a pardon for former defense secretary Caspar W. Weinberger but would not criticize President Bush for giving him one, according to congressional and White House sources.
Foley's remarks in mid-December to White House counsel C. Boyden Gray came in a phone call that was part of the preparatory work done by Weinberger, his attorneys and the White House to seek support or silence from key Democrats in advance of the formal request to the president for a pardon on Dec. 18.
Another Democrat contacted in the weeks before the pardon, which Bush granted on Christmas Eve, was Rep. Les Aspin (D-Wis.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and President-elect Clinton's choice to be defense secretary.
Aspin, according to an aide, was called twice by Gray and asked "what he thought the reaction of Congress and the press would be to a Weinberger pardon." The aide said yesterday that Aspin "never gave his personal opinion" but only talked about "what he thought others would think of it."
The second call by Gray to Aspin took place after Clinton had indicated he was going to give the Wisconsin legislator the top job at the Pentagon. That call was made to see if Aspin had changed his view on the pardon, a Bush aide said.
Aspin, like Foley, does not take issue with Bush's pardoning of Weinberger, the aide said yesterday. He does, however, disagree with Bush's characterization of the Iran-contra affair prosecutions as being political, the aide said.
An aide to Foley said yesterday that the speaker, who is on vacation, told Gray that "if the president ultimately made the decision, he would not criticize it." But Foley was not told that pardons were being contemplated for others involved in the Iran-contra prosecutions, and "when the others came out it was a shock to him," the aide said.
Bush pardoned not only Weinberger, but also Reagan administration national security adviser Robert C. McFarlane; former CIA officials Clair E. George, Alan D. Fiers Jr. and Duane R. "Dewey" Clarridge; and Elliott Abrams, former assistant secretary of state for Latin American affairs.
Weinberger was to have stood trial Jan. 5 on four counts of lying to congressional investigators and Walsh's prosecutors. Walsh said last week the pardon of Weinberger and the five others completed a coverup of the scandal.
After the pardons were announced, Bush administration sources told the Los Angeles Times of the earlier contacts made with Foley and Aspin, causing some concern among top congressional Democrats, according to party sources. The strong public protests against the pardons by Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Maine) and House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) were somewhat diminished by the White House contact with Foley and Aspin.
One result, White House sources said yesterday, is that the pardons have generated modest criticism. They noted that the nation is also diverted by the holidays and the prospect of a new Democratic presidency.
On Sunday, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said he planned to hold public hearings next spring on the pardon and the elements of independent counsel Lawrence E. Walsh's case against Weinberger as part of the review and re-authorization of the independent counsel law.
Levin said his hearings would not begin until Walsh concludes his current inquiry into why Bush did not disclose to prosecutors until Dec. 11 that he had maintained a diary beginning in November 1986 that contained information relevant to the Iran-contra investigation.
Walsh was scheduled to return to Washington last night to meet with his top lawyers to discuss plans for the Bush inquiry, which is expected to include questioning of the president sometime after he leaves office next month.
Meanwhile, White House aides are searching for additional notes and parts of the diary from 1987 to turn over to the prosecutors, according to sources.
On the day the pardon was announced. Walsh sharply criticized what he called Bush's "misconduct" in failing to turn over his diary when Iran-contra investigators first sought all such documents in the spring of 1987.
White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater has said that Bush's notes would be made public, but not until Walsh provides the White House with a copy of the five-hour deposition Bush gave in January 1988 when he was still vice president.
Sources said Walsh may also ask Bush about references in Weinberger's notes to meetings that Bush attended.