The History of Presidents and Special Prosecutors

The most serious scandal was the Iran-contra affair, in which Mr. Reagan sent missiles to Iran in exchange for help securing the release of hostages held by Hezbollah terrorists and the White House used proceeds to fund anti-communist contra rebels in Nicaragua despite congressional limits. Lawrence Walsh, the independent counsel, prosecuted multiple officials but not Mr. Reagan himself and Congress opted against impeachment.

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Mr. Bush, who served as Mr. Reagan’s vice president, was still fending off the Iran-contra investigation when he took over the White House — and blamed Mr. Walsh for costing him a second term. Four days before the 1992 election, Mr. Walsh issued a new indictment of Caspar W. Weinberger, Mr. Reagan’s defense secretary, that referenced notes undercutting Mr. Bush’s longstanding insistence that he had not known about internal opposition to the hostage trade.

Mr. Walsh’s office denied any political motivation, but the timing convinced the Bush camp that the prosecutor was trying to sway the outcome. After losing the election, Mr. Bush, in one of his last acts, pardoned Mr. Weinberger and five others prosecuted by Mr. Walsh. But shortly before leaving office, Attorney General William P. Barr appointed an independent counsel to investigate whether aides to Mr. Baker, now the secretary of state, violated the law by looking into the passport file of Bill Clinton, Mr. Bush’s challenger. No charges were filed.

Like the Reagan era, the Clinton administration generated a plethora of independent counsels, many of them looking into whether various cabinet secretaries took kickbacks, had improper conflicts of interest or lied to authorities. But the most consequential was Ken Starr’s investigation into the president’s Whitewater land dealings from his time as governor of Arkansas.

While Mr. Starr notched several convictions, he ultimately never charged Mr. Clinton or Hillary Rodham Clinton. But Mr. Starr’s investigation expanded to determine whether the president lied under oath or obstructed justice in a sexual harassment lawsuit to cover up his West Wing trysts with Monica S. Lewinsky. Eventually, Mr. Starr’s report prompted the House Republicans to impeach Mr. Clinton, who was then acquitted in a Senate trial where the defense was led by Mr. Ruff.

After what were seen as the excesses of the Walsh and Starr investigations, both parties happily let the independent counsel law lapse in 1999. But relying on Justice Department regulations, a deputy attorney general named James B. Comey appointed a special counsel to investigate the leak of a C.I.A. officer’s identity during the debate over Mr. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq.


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