Opinion | Garry Emmons

For Russia investigators, lessons from a forgotten election

FILE--President Jimmy Carter, left, and Republican Presidential candidate Ronald Reagan, shake hands Tuesday night, Oct. 28, 1980, in Cleveland, before debating before a nationwide television audience. When Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush face each other for 90 televised minutes in Boston on Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2000, it will be the 18th time the Democratic and Republican presidential nominees have met beginning with the debate between Kennedy and Nixon. (AP Photo/stf) Library Tag 03072004 Ideas Library Tag 10032000 national foreign
AP Photo
Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan shake hands before debating before a nationwide television audience.

It’s happened before — a GOP presidential campaign investigated for having preelection contacts with a hostile foreign power. That earlier episode holds lessons for the current inquiries into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia.

At first glance, the appointment of the dogged Robert Mueller as special counsel to investigate Russian meddling in the 2016 election looks promising for the rule of law. But as history shows, high-stakes congressional and special investigations all too often encounter political and legal snags that subvert such efforts. Both Mueller and the investigating congressional committees would do well to study previous inquiries, in order to protect their own from the same pitfalls.

Exhibit A is the presidential election of 1980. Media accounts, political histories, memoirs, and government officials have confirmed that, during the 1980 campaign, while 52 Americans were being held prisoner in Tehran, Republican campaign officials and intermediaries were in secret contact with representatives and allies of Iran’s virulently anti-American government. The nature, scope, and impact of those 1980 contacts are still debated. What is beyond dispute is that they prompted investigations.


The GOP back-channel message to Iran was simple. The Iranians would be better off with Ronald Reagan, not Jimmy Carter, in the White House, and that holding the American hostages until after the election would advantage Reagan (by depriving Carter of any hostage-release boost at the polls). While it is not fully known what message Trump’s people may have directed to Moscow, this much is clear: The 1980 Republican campaign’s secret outreach to enemy Iran bears troubling similarities to the 2016 Republican campaign’s contacts with hostile Russia.

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While two congressional panels in the 1990s ultimately decided against a verdict of collusion, they also acknowledged their inquiries were vitiated by insufficient staff and financial resources, the disappearance of key documents, and the Republicans’ failure to cooperate.

Not surprisingly, due to these investigative inadequacies, additional evidence — new, suppressed, or overlooked — later came to light. The information was powerful enough to compel the lead committee’s chairman, former congressman Lee Hamilton, to publicly question his panel’s exculpatory conclusions.

The investigations of GOP-Iran contacts in both 1980 and again in the mid-1980s (the Iran-contra scandal), raise red flags for today’s ongoing GOP-Russia inquiries. Some lessons and caveats:

  “Collusion,” as opposed to contacts, may be hard to prove. Absent unambiguous surveillance, documents, or confessions, collusion and quid pro quos often remain in the eye of the beholder. In 1980 and 2016, consider that conversations, by themselves and without quid pro quos, could have produced voluntary action (or inaction) by one side or the other that would be helpful to the nominal adversary.


  The GOP’s 1980 contacts with Iran previewed a decade-long entanglement that included the Iran-contra scandal. When the Iran-contra story exploded in 1986, Attorney General Edwin Meese was forced to appoint a special prosecutor, Lawrence Walsh, a lifelong Republican. Walsh’s six-year investigation was dragged out by legal and political turf battles prompted by the sheer number of overlapping investigations and jurisdictions. But Walsh was also stymied by what he termed “obstruction” and “deception” and a “cover-up” on the part of the George H.W. Bush administration. Finally, in a stunning blow to the rule of law, Bush pardoned six top government officials just before he left office, an action that not only overturned a conviction and three guilty pleas but also effectively placed Bush himself beyond legal jeopardy.

The moral for Mueller? Even if a special counsel can avoid being fired (the fate of Archibald Cox under Nixon), his investigation’s results can disappear with the stroke of a presidential pen.

Possible election interference must always be deeply investigated. If conducted fully and properly, the 1980 election inquiries might have reduced, through heightened vigilance, the likelihood of foreign interference or collusion in future US elections. But that didn’t happen, and here we are.

In 2017, the media and elected representatives need to raise public awareness about the various maneuverings and shortcomings that have plagued previous investigations. The public, in turn, must demand untainted, thorough investigations whose results nobody will dare overturn, not even the president.

In America’s democracy, it is said that citizens get the government they deserve. At bottom, our government, our democracy, is its institutions and processes. The investigations of the 2016 election amount to a stress test of those processes; citizen engagement, therefore, is both required and essential to monitor their integrity and independence. The stakes could hardly be higher: These investigations will give us the outcome—and the country — we deserve.

Garry Emmons is a former editor at Harvard Business School.