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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:
- The GOP’s 1980 contacts with Iran began an eight-year entanglement that included the Iran-contra scandal, which almost brought down the Reagan administration. The GOP’s 2016 back-channel relationships with Russia — and the investigations and controversies that will ensue — could similarly cause prolonged damage to the Trump administration.
- The roadblocks that stymied congressional investigators in the 1990s will likely emerge again, in what promises to be highly partisan Trump-Russia investigations. The experience of the 1990s inquiries reinforces the need today for a special prosecutor, a select committee, or a thorough investigation by the FBI, free of political constraints.
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.
- Collusion and quid pro quos are hard to prove. In 1980, the presumed quid pro quo was an arms deal — weapons sent to Iran in exchange for not releasing the hostages until after the election. Some believe that; some don’t. Absent incontrovertible surveillance data, documents or confessions, collusion and quid pro quos remain in the eye of the beholder.
- In 2016 as in 1980, conversations alone could have produced voluntary action, or inaction, helpful to the nominal adversary. As such, it is impossible to know if collusion or quid pro quos changed election outcomes. But suspicion of election interference must always be investigated. 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.