Instead, the current imbroglio recalls the way in which President Ronald Reagan authorized a long list of illegal and improper quid pro quos with other governments as part of what became known as the Iran-contra affair. Reagan wanted to destabilize the socialist government of Nicaragua, using a proxy army known as the contras. When Congress passed a law (which he signed) in 1984 to stop him, he ordered a wide assortment of illegal efforts to keep the contras supplied with weapons and cash, including getting other governments to do so secretly.
Iran-contra teaches us several lessons. Quid pro quos need not be perfectly explicit to break the law or pervert the nation’s foreign policy — offenses that would constitute grounds for presidential impeachment. Yet that does not guarantee that impeachment will happen. Reagan was not impeached, despite legal misdeeds more numerous and grave than any Trump now appears to have committed (we might learn of more). At the time, a Democratic-controlled Congress shunned the path of impeachment out of political calculation — reminding us that the same decision-making process will surely determine Trump’s fate.
Reagan, extreme in his anti-communism, looked for places where he might roll back socialist revolutions. Congress supported him doing so in Afghanistan, but they hemmed him in regarding Nicaragua, which Reagan deemed a “second Cuba” in the Caribbean Basin — a region that he, like other U.S. presidents before him, considered an “American lake” that should remain under U.S. suzerainty. Because Reagan’s aggressive posture in Central America was unpopular, he publicly relented in 1984 when, as he ran for reelection, Congress defunded the contras and forbade any efforts to overthrow the Nicaraguan government. Yet Reagan privately resolved to defy Congress, public opinion and the law by continuing his crusade.
To do so, Reagan initiated a secret, illegal foreign policy alongside his aboveground, legal one. Among other things, he and several national security officials reached a wide range of agreements with foreign governments to gain secret assistance for the contras. Israel gave weapons, Saudi Arabia gave money, Honduras let the contras operate and move weapons within their territory, and Guatemala colluded in falsifying records to conceal the destination of U.S. arms sent to the contras. U.S. officials asked roughly 15 governments to help support the outlawed operation.
Some of these agreements were the subject of remarkably explicit quid pro quos, while others were indirect. Honduras and Guatemala received direct U.S. aid, while the Israelis and the Saudis seemed to gain only strengthened relationships with Reagan and more diffuse goodwill in the White House.
The scandal erupted in the fall of 1986 when the Nicaraguans shot down a contra supply plane and the White House connections to the supply operation quickly came to light. What made this the Iran-contra affair was the nearly simultaneous revelation that Reagan’s team also had been selling weapons to Iran, which Reagan publicly labeled a terrorist state and a dire enemy of America, in a feckless effort to gain the release of U.S. hostages held by Shiite forces amid Lebanon’s civil war. The same personnel had run the two secret operations and had used the proceeds from the sale of arms to Iran to fund the contras. This tangled underground foreign policy greatly alarmed Congress and the public, and special investigations ensued, including the appointment of Lawrence Walsh as an independent counsel.
As the investigation unfolded in the final years of the Reagan presidency, myriad deals made by the administration on behalf of the contras were exposed. They were described in a detailed, comprehensive 1989 stipulation submitted in court by Walsh in the trial of Oliver North, who had coordinated both the Iran and contra initiatives.
Sometimes Reagan and his people had taken care to keep key elements in dealings with foreign leaders strictly oral and in-person — like any intelligent criminals, they worried about leaving a paper trail. Sometimes these negotiations closely resembled acts based in sincerely shared security goals, not grubby transactions at all. To Walsh and his staff, however, such distinctions were not exculpatory. The U.S. government conceded that all these quid pro quos had occurred, whether they were explicit in the record or not.
Reagan had broken laws with abandon. In addition to, in effect, using public assets to purchase indirect sustenance for an activity that Congress had specifically prohibited, he had repeatedly violated the Arms Export Control Act and the National Security Act. Moreover, his appointees blatantly and repeatedly lied in sworn congressional testimony to conceal their actions.
How, in light of this record of determined, illegal behavior, did Reagan avoid impeachment? For one thing, his supporters shrewdly managed perceptions of the scandal, by diverting attention to subordinates like North and by arguing that there was no “smoking gun” implicating Reagan directly in gross impropriety — something like Richard Nixon’s infamous White House tapes. This was effective, if rather absurd, since evidence abounded that Reagan had ordered both the Iran and contra parts of the affair and had been involved in numerous specific elements of wrongdoing.
Equally important, when the scandal ripened, Reagan was entering the last quarter of his presidency, with little capacity to advance his priorities further. Democrats had regained control over both chambers of Congress. Paradoxically, with all the power required for punishment in their grasp, they felt little need to bring Reagan low. Reagan, despite his loss of stature amid the scandal, was well liked by most Americans. Members of Congress knew this. In stark contrast to Trump, Reagan’s very status as president had been unquestionably backed by a solid majority of U.S. voters.
Reagan may also have been aided by the sense that he had pursued his illegal course out of genuine (if senseless) conviction about a Nicaraguan threat to national and global security, not for his personal gain in any sense. Possibly Congress and the public tended to be more forgiving of fanaticism than of venality.
Today, Republicans claim that Trump did nothing wrong because he did not explicitly tell Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that Zelensky must launch a Biden investigation to unlock mysteriously delayed U.S. aid to Ukraine — aid appropriated by Congress. However, the White House’s summary of the key Trump-Zelensky phone call places the quid and the quo — U.S. military assistance to Ukraine and a Ukrainian investigation of fever-swamp allegations against Trump’s political rivals — in almost comical proximity. This quid pro quo would fit quite easily in the parameters established in the 1989 stipulation of quid pro quos undertaken by the Reagan administration. Democrats seem to think they have the fabled smoking gun in this case.
Yet, as with Iran-contra, the decisive consideration will be not whether the quid pro quo was perfectly explicit. The political context and calculations facing Democrats and Republicans alike in the ensuing months will determine the outcome of this unfolding drama.
Like Reagan, Trump has played fast and loose with American assets and security policy. However, while Reagan committed impeachable acts out of zealotry, Trump played the Ukraine card in what seems a crassly political gambit. Yet those who see Trump as a unique phenomenon, a destroyer of Washington norms, might remember that it would be hard for Trump to exceed Reagan in contempt for the rule of law. This also calls into question the widespread nostalgia for a vanished, more restrained pre-Trump Republican Party. We have had leaders before now who created constitutional crises through their manipulation of foreign policy. We will see whether, this time, there is any punishment that fits the crime.