Iran-Contra Pardons Advice Casts Cloud Over Justice Pick Barr

  • Democrats see parallels with Trump attack on Mueller probe
  • Attorney General nominee criticized independent counsel Walsh

William P. Barr, picked by President Donald Trump to be his next attorney general, advocated for the pardon of six Iran-Contra figures when he held the same position a quarter century ago.

Barr’s advocacy of the 1992 pardons will provide grist for Senate Democrats, who already served notice they will demand that Barr pledge not to interfere with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of possible collusion between Russia and Trump’s presidential campaign to influence the 2016 election.

“William Barr has made statements indicating that he has supported broad use of pardons, a concern given Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation. I plan to ask Mr. Barr about this and other views he has expressed, ” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) , the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee said in a statement.

(Daniel Acker/Bloomberg News)
William Barr with President George H.W. Bush in 1991

Feinstein said in an interview that she disagreed with the Iran-Contra pardons. “Pardons should be clearly thought out and not given en masse, but given with very specific circumstances.”

Trump announced Dec. 7 that he intended to nominate Barr, of counsel to the law firm Kirkland & Ellis, to be the next attorney general.


In 1992, President George H.W. Bush issued Christmas Eve pardons to six ex-government officials implicated in concealing from Congress the Iran-Contra operations. Under the covert operation, the U.S. sold arms to Iran to obtain the release of U.S. hostages and used the profits to fund rebels fighting Nicaragua’s left-wing government. The Iran-Contra scandal rocked the presidency of Ronald Reagan, for whom Bush served as vice president.

Barr, then the attorney general, was among those who advised Bush in December 1992, following the president’s election defeat by Bill Clinton, about a pardon sought by ex-Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger. At the time, Weinberger was awaiting trial on charges of lying to Congress about the Iran-Contra affair.

For Democrats, Barr’s criticism of the independent counsel who investigated the Iran-Contra affair and his advocacy for the pardons contain parallels to Trump’s attacks on Mueller and his implicit threats to issue pardons to people under investigation.

Democrats on the Judiciary Committee will question Barr about his defense — in a 2017 Washington Post opinion piece — of Trump’s dismissal of FBI Director James Comey and criticism he’s leveled at Mueller, said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a former U.S. attorney and state attorney general.

Barr’s advocacy of the Iran-Contra pardons and criticism of the independent counsel who brought those cases “fits the general challenge, which is to really query him very directly and specifically about some of his past statements on that issue, on the special counsel,’’ and other areas, said Blumenthal. “There are very specific commitments that he has to make on protecting special counsels.’’

“Barr’s record on those presidential pardons is very troubling,” Kathleen Clark, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis, said in an email. “It suggests that Barr thought it is okay for people to lie to Congress in order to protect the President’s policies. It does not bode well for the protection of the Mueller investigation.’’

Barr did not reply to a request for comment.

To be sure, there are big differences between the probes of Walsh and Mueller. Walsh was appointed by a special court under the Ethics in Government Act and could only be dismissed for cause. Mueller was appointed by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, because then Attorney General Jeff Sessions had recused himself from overseeing the the probe. Under special counsel regulations, the attorney general could fire Mueller.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, (R-S.C.), in line to chair the Judiciary Committee next month when it reviews Barr’s nomination, dismissed Democratic expression of fears that Barr won’t stand up to Trump.

“He was voice voted three times by the United States Senate for prominent jobs including being attorney general, so he is no less qualified today than he was before,’’ Graham said. “I am very confident he will be a qualified, independent attorney general.”

Barr’s Senate Republican supporters are likely to point to portions of an interview in which Barr praised Bush’s White House counsel C. Boyden Gray for being “very deferential’’ to the Justice Department’s independence as a law enforcement agency. “Basically, he let most of us in Justice do our shtick,’’ Barr said at the time. The White House never intervened in a criminal case, he said.


Barr has said he delivered his 1992 pardon advice after consulting “seasoned professionals’’ in the Justice Department about whether the six officials would have been prosecuted “under standard department guidelines’’ for bringing criminal cases.

“I went over and told the president I thought he should not only pardon Caspar Weinberger, but while he was at it, he should pardon about five others,’’ Barr recalled in a 2001 oral-history interview at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. “There are some people arguing just for Weinberger, and I said, `No, in for a penny, in for a pound.’” Barr said.

In the oral history interview, Barr disparaged the work of the court-appointed independent counsel, Lawrence E. Walsh, who investigated Iran-Contra and who died in 2014.

“He was certainly a headhunter and had completely lost perspective and was out there flailing on about Iran-Contra with a lot of headhunters working for him,’’ Barr said.

John Q. Barrett, a member of Walsh’s staff at the time who teaches law at St. John’s University in New York, said Barr’s 2001 comments, if they reflect what he was really thinking in 1992, suggest “he was poorly staffed and poorly served vis a vis Walsh and Iran-Contra.’’


Bush’s pardons of the six Iran-Contra figures were condemned by Democrats in Congress. Walsh was still investigating the scandal six years after its initial public disclosure.

“The Iran-Contra coverup, which has continued for more than six years, has now been completed with the pardon of Caspar Weinberger,’’ Walsh, said in a statement at the time.

Weinberger had been awaiting trial on charges of lying to Congress to cover up his knowledge of the Iran-Contra affair by denying the existence of detailed notes he had taken during Cabinet meetings about selling arms to the Islamic Republic.

Besides, Weinberger, Duane Clarridge, a former CIA counter-terrorism chief, was also pardoned while awaiting trial on charges of lying to Congress and a commission Reagan had appointed to investigate the Iran-Contra affair.

Bush also pardoned Robert C. McFarlane, Reagan’s national security adviser, Elliott Abrams, a former assistant secretary of state, Clair E. George, a former CIA clandestine service chief convicted of lying to Congress and Alan D. Fiers Jr., a former CIA official.

To contact the reporter on this story: James Rowley in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Cheryl Saenz at; Bennett Roth at