William Barr Supported Pardons In An Earlier D.C. 'Witch Hunt': Iran-Contra The former attorney general, nominated to return to run the Justice Department, backed President George H.W. Bush's decision to pardon ex-Reagan officials caught up in an earlier imbroglio.
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William Barr Supported Pardons In An Earlier D.C. 'Witch Hunt': Iran-Contra

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William Barr Supported Pardons In An Earlier D.C. 'Witch Hunt': Iran-Contra

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William Barr Supported Pardons In An Earlier D.C. 'Witch Hunt': Iran-Contra

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

President Trump's nominee for attorney general, William Barr, has his confirmation hearing this week, and the issue of pardons is almost sure to come up. Barr was attorney general under President George H.W. Bush when he pardoned officials involved in the Iran-Contra scandal. Many Republicans at the time felt that investigation was a political witch hunt. NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson has more.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: The investigation ran out of oxygen on December 24, 1992. That's when President Bush pardoned six people caught up in the scandal over trading arms for hostages.

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GEORGE H W BUSH: But the Constitution is quite clear on the powers of the president, and sometimes the president has to make a very difficult call. And that's what I've done.

JOHNSON: To the man leading the Iran-Contra investigation, the pardons of former Bush associates represented a miscarriage of justice. Here's Lawrence Walsh reacting to the news.

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LAWRENCE WALSH: It demonstrates that powerful people with powerful allies can commit serious crimes in high office, deliberately abusing the public trust without consequences.

JOHNSON: But Bush's attorney general, William Barr, went on to tell historians that he supported the idea of pardons - clemency not only for former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, who was about to go on trial, but also for other former officials he thought were treated unfairly.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WILLIAM BARR: The big ones - obviously, the Iran-Contra ones - I certainly did not oppose any of them. I favored the broadest pardon authority. There were some people arguing just for Weinberger. I said, no - in for a penny, in for a pound.

JOHNSON: In for a penny, in for a pound, Barr told interviewers at the Miller Center at the University of Virginia. He favored the broadest possible pardon authority. Now as Barr prepares for Senate hearings to become President Trump's attorney general, that controversy from 1992 feels familiar.

MICHAEL BROMWICH: His view of the pardon power and in what circumstances it ought to be exercised is an extremely relevant issue, particularly because of the widely publicized accounts suggesting that the president has considered pardoning a number of people.

JOHNSON: Michael Bromwich once worked on the Iran-Contra prosecution team. He had left the office by 1992, but he remembers the reaction to the pardons at the time.

BROMWICH: But the office had developed evidence over the course of many years suggesting that there had been a high-level conspiracy to obstruct the investigation that in fact had been ongoing for many years, designed to protect, first, President Reagan, and then vice president and ultimately President Bush.

JOHNSON: If he's confirmed, Bill Barr would once again become the leader of the Justice Department at a time when a criminal investigation is focused on the president and his associates. Trump's onetime personal lawyer Michael Cohen has been sentenced to three years in prison. His former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, has pleaded guilty. And his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort has been convicted by a jury. The president has said pardons are not off the table. Former prosecutor Carrie Cordero has taken notice.

CARRIE CORDERO: Well, all the different statements he makes about whether somebody is a good guy or somebody is a quote-unquote, "rat" and his constant commentary on the ongoing investigation that the special counsel is conducting indicates that he certainly is considering the use of pardons in this case.

JOHNSON: Cordero, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, says the issue will be a key part of Barr's confirmation hearing.

CORDERO: The fundamental issue for the next attorney general, and for Congress to explore and for our time is whether or not the Trump administration is using executive authorities in a appropriate way or in an abusive way.

JOHNSON: Barr has generally advocated for strong executive power, but he's also told senators the Russia investigation is not a witch hunt and that he'd make sure a special counsel Robert Mueller would stay on the job. Barr's hearings kick off Tuesday morning. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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