Politics

That Time the Independent Counsel Meddled in an Election

Lawrence Walsh demonstrated in 1992 just how a special prosecutor can insert himself, purposely or not, into a campaign and shape the outcome

To media critics of President Donald Trump, suggestions that independent counsel Robert Mueller may “meddle” in this year’s midterm elections were beyond the pale. But a trip through the history pages reveals just how impactful a special counsel can be on voting.

In 1992, special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh got a grand jury to return a high-profile indictment in the Iran-Contra affair days before the election. Many outside observers believe the timing was no coincidence.

“It may have cost George Bush the election, because he was making up a point a day (in the polls) … Those indictments just ruined Bush’s momentum,” presidential historian Craig Shirley said.

Trump touched off a fury of commentary with a tweet on Tuesday alleging that “the 13 angry Democrats” — a reference to lawyers os Mueller’s staff who have contributed to Democratic candidates — “will be MEDDLING with the mid-term elections, especially now that Republicans (stay tough!) are taking the lead in Polls. There was no Collusion, except by the Democrats!”

Much of the media interpreted Trump’s use of the word “meddling” to mean the same type of conduct that U.S. intelligence services contend Russia engaged in during the 2016 campaign, improper and illegal attempts to influence the outcome.

Trump’s lawyer, Rudolph Giuliani, explained to reporters Wednesday, however, that the president was referring to how Mueller’s team might handle the investigation — particularly when it comes to timing. He said that if Mueller does not wrap up his investigation and file a report by early to mid-September, “he’s clearly doing a Comey.”

That was a reference to former FBI Director James Comey, who came under intense fire — ironically, from Democrats — for reopening, 11 days before the presidential election, a closed investigation of Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s handling of classified information. Many Democrats, including Clinton herself, blame Comey for her defeat.

Mueller’s defenders insisted that it is inconceivable that he would ever take actions designed to impact voting in November.

“Anyone who knows the way Robert Mueller operates knows that he would not have done what Comey did during the election, that he would have handled it very different,” CNN chief political analyst Gloria Borger said on air Wednesday.

Shirley said that is something Borger cannot possibly know.

“Does Gloria Borger have a crystal ball?” he said. “Can she tell the future?”

As for Walsh (pictured above), he had been appointed to investigate the arms-for-hostages deal that occurred during President Ronald Reagan’s administration. White House staffers orchestrated a deal in which the United States shipped arms by way of Israel to Iran in exchange for the release of five hostages and then used proceeds from the sale to fund the Contra rebels then fighting the Marxist government in Nicaragua.

Reagan always maintained he had no knowledge of the deal, as did Bush, his vice president.

Reagan’s defense secretary, Caspar Weinberger — who already had been under indictment — got hit on Oct. 30, 1992, with a new charge of making a false statement. That was just four days before the election. That new charge related to Weinberger’s failure to comply with congressional demands for records related to Iran-Contra.

The indictment contained Weinberg’s handwritten notes from a 1986 meeting in which officials — including Bush — discussed the arms proposal.

The New York Times noted at the time that Walsh could have used any of more than 1,700 pages of Weinberger’s notes to make the case that the former defense secretary failed to comply with the congressional subpoena but seemed to pick the one that was most embarrassing to Bush.

Walsh, who died in 2014 at age 102, insisted in his memoir that he had no idea that the 11th-hour indictment or his reference to Bush’s attendance at the meeting would be so explosive.

“I did not think the quotation would be newsworthy, despite its reference to President Bush,” he wrote, adding, “Although I was not a Bush partisan, I did not want him hurt unfairly.”

Walsh’s critics find that implausible. Former White House counsel C. Boyden Gray co-wrote an article in 2016 excoriating Walsh’s conduct.

“Walsh claimed he was under some unidentified court schedule, but he should have requested an extension, which would have been difficult if not impossible for a judge to deny under the circumstances,” the article stated.

Mike Rappaport, director of the Center for the Study of Constitutional Originalism at the University of San Diego, told LifeZette that Walsh violated Department of Justice (DOJ) guidelines against taking actions that could impact elections.

“What he did was exceedingly improper,” he said. “It could be the worst thing an independent counsel/special prosecutor ever did … It’s hard to imagine any other motivation other than to influence the outcome of the election.”

Shirley, who has written extensively about the Reagan presidency, including the Iran-Contra affair, said there have been suggestions that Walsh even tipped off Democrat Bill Clinton’s campaign that the indictment would be coming.

Related: Angry Trump Warns Mueller Could Interfere in Midterms

Clinton’s behavior in the days leading up to Election Day lends credence to that. According to news reports, Clinton shifted without warning to strident attacks on Bush’s credibility and trustworthiness. At a campaign stop in Kentucky, he said it sent “chills” up and down his spine whenever he heard Bush talk about trust.

Even if the coordination between Walsh and Clinton has not been proven, Shirley said Walsh’s motivations seem unambiguous.

“Lawrence Walsh was pure political,” he said. “He would have indicted Ronald Reagan if he could have.”

A federal judge in December 1992 ended up throwing out the new charge sought by Walsh on grounds that it fell outside the statute of limitations. But by then the political damage was done. Bush was a one-term president, and Clinton was preparing for his inauguration.

PoliZette senior writer Brendan Kirby can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter.

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