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In a recent op-ed in The New York Times, Russia critic Louise Mensch declared, “Never in American history has a president been suspected of collaborating with a hostile foreign power to win an election.” Mensch, a former British MP-turned-journalist, was a 9-year-old Londoner in 1980, so perhaps she gets a pass for overlooking that year’s U.S. election. Not so for us Yanks of a certain age.
Multiple news stories, political histories, biographies and government officials confirm that during the presidential campaign of 1980, while 52 Americans were being tortured and held prisoner in Tehran, Republican campaign officials and intermediaries secretly reached out to representatives and allies of revolutionary Iran’s government. 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.
...Roger Stone and Paul Manafort, key suspects in Trump’s Russia complications, were fresh-faced foot soldiers in the 1980 Ronald Reagan/GOP presidential campaign. Perhaps they began breaking bad in that campaign’s treacherous undercurrents...
That ugly scenario has eerie parallels to the Trump campaign’s strange interactions with Russia. As yet, we do not know what message the Trump people have delivered to Russia. With the Trump campaign’s Russia connections becoming ever more problematic, and as investigations of them begin, it is instructive to revisit the events of 1980.
The 1980 Republican campaign, especially with its outreach to a sworn adversary, bears uncomfortable similarities to the 2016 Republican campaign. How the several investigations of GOP-Iran contacts were conducted, and how the Reagan administration’s entanglement with Iran only worsened over the course of its eight years in office, raise red flags for us today.
As it happens, Roger Stone and Paul Manafort, key suspects in Trump’s Russia complications, were fresh-faced foot soldiers in the 1980 Ronald Reagan/GOP presidential campaign. Perhaps they began breaking bad in that campaign’s treacherous undercurrents — chiefly, GOP campaign manager William Casey's obsession with Iran, and his fear that a hostage release might result in Carter’s re-election.
Whatever they learned from watching Casey, Manafort (later Donald Trump’s campaign manager) and Stone would go on to become premier practitioners of the dark arts of politics — notorious in Washington for their dirty tricks and their client lists of unsavory foreign governments and individuals.
Despite that résumé — or perhaps because of it? — Trump decided Manafort was best equipped to see his failing, underdog 2016 campaign through to the White House.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Manafort and Stone would be among those individuals from the Trump campaign who, in an echo of the 1980 campaign’s outreach to hostile Iran, are alleged to have had foul-smelling contacts with officials and intermediaries of hostile Russia. In 1980, GOP campaign manager Casey saw Iran, however toxic, as potentially useful to his campaign. Did 2016 GOP campaign manager Manafort see Russia the same way?
Allegations and evidence of foreign influence in the 1980 election eventually grew strong enough to force two congressional bodies in the 1990s to examine possible cooperation between the GOP and Iran. While the committees decided against a verdict of collusion, they openly acknowledged their findings were inadequate given a lack of resources, the disappearance of key documents, and the Republicans’ failure to cooperate.
In recent years, new evidence has emerged, powerful enough to cause former Congressman Lee Hamilton, the lead committee’s chairman, to publicly question his panel’s conclusions.
What follows are some takeaways and caveats from the 1980 experience:
Had it been conducted fully and properly, the 1980 election investigation might have reduced the likelihood of any future foreign interference or collusion in U.S. elections. But that didn’t happen, and here we are.
This time, let’s do it right.