Before emails, GOP was livid about another 'smoking gun'

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Story highlights

  • Julian Zelizer: FBI director's letter to Congress not the first bit of bad campaign timing
  • Before '92 vote, GOP blasted news of Iran-Contra memo on George H.W. Bush, he says

Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and a New America fellow. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and "The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society." He is the co-host of the podcast, Politics & Polls. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN)Democrats are up in arms about FBI Director James Comey's letter to Congress revealing that he is looking into more emails related to Hillary Clinton. Although the contents of those emails remain a mystery and at this point no evidence indicates new material, news of the letter created an uproar in the final days of the 2016 campaign. Members of Clinton's team have spent the entire weekend scrambling to respond. They have focused on painting Comey -- whom they had praised when he ended the investigation in July -- as a rogue or partisan official undermining a fair election.

Donald Trump and most Republicans are affirming Comey, only weeks after they condemned him for letting Clinton off the hook. What's more, with Trump blitzing the airwaves with speeches about Clinton's corruption, he and the Republicans have found common ground -- previously in short supply -- in claiming that the FBI director did his job, safeguarding the integrity of his agency. Despite reports that Attorney General Loretta Lynch disagreed with his decision, Comey's supporters insist that he had no choice: If he didn't send the letter to Congress and this part of the investigation was leaked, he would be accused of a cover-up.
Julian Zelizer
This isn't the first time late-breaking news about an investigation came right toward the end of a presidential campaign. Another October surprise emerged in the 1992 race, and Republicans were the ones complaining. Their candidate, President George H.W. Bush, was implicated in an investigation into the Iran-Contra scandal when a memo surfaced on October 30, 1992.
The Iran-Contra scandal revolved around the revelation in 1986 and 1987 that members of Ronald Reagan's administration had traded arms to Iran in exchange for help with the release of hostages in Lebanon. Following the revelation of the scandal in 1986, the Department of Justice appointed an independent prosecutor, Lawrence Walsh, a registered Republican. Although Congress had failed to turn up any "smoking gun" connecting these activities to the president himself, Walsh continued with a multiyear, multimillion-dollar investigation. In June 1992, a grand jury indicted former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger on five felony charges, including obstruction of justice.
Then, on October 30, the news got worse. Walsh announced that he found a memo, from January 7, 1986, in which Weinberger noted that Bush, then vice president, knew about the sales of arms to Iran. Bush had always insisted that he knew nothing of this operation. The memo suggested he was not telling the truth.
With Bush locked into a three-way race with Democrat Bill Clinton and independent Ross Perot, CBS anchor Dan Rather started his broadcast that night by telling his viewers: "There is new written evidence tonight concerning what President Bush knew and when he knew about the secret deal" that sent some of America's "best" missiles to Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini.
The Republican campaign understood that this could be a problem. Clinton, who was ahead in the polls even though Bush had enjoyed some momentum in the past few days, instantly raised questions about the "trust and character and judgment" of the Republican. Al Gore, Clinton's running mate, declared the memo a smoking gun. An "angry" Bush campaign, according to CBS reporter Susan Spencer, said the idea that "this somehow contradicts Mr. Bush's assertion that he was not in the loop on the arms sale is pure political hogwash."
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When asked how this would affect the campaign, David Gergen told Jim Lehrer that news organizations were going through "agony" about how to report this story so close to an election. As Jon Meacham notes in his biography on the 41st president, Bush -- who believed that there was nothing new in the memo -- understood that his campaign team was "worried and panicked that this will stop our momentum. Well, it might, but so be it -- (I) told the truth and that's all you can do." He wrote in his diary, "The national press is still hammering away on Iran. A frantic, desperate sinking Clinton tries to rap my character on this issue."
According to Bush biographer Timothy Naftali, "Although the election was already lost, Bush had grown so bitter about how he was being treated by the press and, perhaps, by the fates that he stubbornly believed this indictment -- whose timing may or may not have been politically motivated -- had cost him the election."
Republicans were furious with the last-minute revelation. Weinberger's attorney, Robert Bennett, accused Walsh of playing politics and many Republicans still believe that Walsh's October surprise cost their candidate the election. Indeed, on Sunday, Ari Fleischer, former press secretary for President George W. Bush, tweeted out: "Does anyone remember Hillary/Bill criticizing the independent prosecutor for re-indicting Cap Weinberger 4 days before Bill's 92 election?"
The truth is that there were many other reasons Bush lost. The economy was in a deep recession and the president didn't seem to have much interest in finding a response. Bush's campaign languished while Bill Clinton connected with voters, while Perot mounted a credible third-party challenge on issues such as deficit reduction that cost the GOP votes.
This moment in the 1992 election is a powerful reminder of why neither party really likes when ongoing investigations influence campaigns. When it happened to a Republican, the GOP blasted the incident as unfair.
They were even angrier when US District Judge Thomas Hogan threw out the indictment on December 11, 1992, ruling that it violated a five-year statute of limitations. Hogan also said that Walsh had broadened the charges against Weinberger long after he was permitted to do so. "This is the latest failure by Lawrence Walsh's high-cost, low-result crusade against Republicans," then-Senate Minority Leader Robert Dole noted. A few weeks later, President Bush pardoned Weinberger before he went to trial on the original charges.
For all the historical parallels, it is important to note the differences between yesterday's scandals and today's. Thus far, the Hillary Clinton email investigation has revolved around whether her use of a personal server when she was secretary of state intentionally exposed classified material. There has been no evidence, as Comey revealed, that this occurred.
In 1992, the independent prosecutor and Congress had already uncovered a massive operation at the highest levels of executive power to circumvent congressional law to pursue certain anti-communist policies in Central America.
Comey's vague letter on Thursday simply said that an investigative team was "seeking access to emails that have recently been found in an unrelated case. Because those emails appear to be pertinent to our investigation, I agreed that we should take appropriate steps to obtain and review them."
In October 1992, Walsh shared a memo providing strong evidence that the Republican nominee had not told the truth about his knowledge of a key part of Iran-Contra, one of the biggest national security scandals of the 20th century.
Regardless of the differences, however, Republicans might want to remember what many of them said about their own October surprise in 1992. Given how twisted information and false allegations can circulate in our political-media environment, there is something to be said for investigators staying out of the way, unless there is clear evidence of wrongdoing. We should let voters make their democratic decision without potentially false clouds hanging over the campaign.