Talk of Pardon Discounted by White House
The White House, sidestepping suggestions by two of President Reagan’s political allies, sought Monday to distance Reagan from a proposal that he pardon Rear Adm. John M. Poindexter and Lt. Col. Oliver L. North for their roles in the Iran- contra scandal.
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said the sensitive subject was deemed “not appropriate” for comment, and he said that Reagan told him at midday that he would have nothing to say about it.
The issue of White House consideration of a pardon for Poindexter and North was raised Monday at the Iran-contra hearings by a House committee member, Rep. Louis Stokes (D-Ohio), after one Republican panel member and a former Administration official recommended that action Sunday.
Considered, Rejected It
Fitzwater confirmed that last December Reagan had considered the idea of a pardon to bring about the testimony of the two key figures in the scandal. A week after that consideration, however, the White House announced that the President had rejected the idea.
The subject of pardons is clearly an uncomfortable one for the White House. It revives the memory of President Gerald R. Ford’s controversial amnesty for former President Richard M. Nixon one month after taking office--an action that some political analysts have said contributed to his loss in the 1976 presidential election to Jimmy Carter.
It also raises the potentially explosive specter of a deal in which Poindexter would receive presidential clemency in exchange for taking the brunt of blame for the Iran affair, as he has done in testimony.
Among the President’s aides, there was clear irritation about the emergence of an idea that they fear could only complicate Reagan’s efforts to dislodge his presidency from the morass of the Iran episode. There was particular anxiety that it could become a cause celebre among the most conservative Reagan supporters.
When questioned about Stokes’ reference to a Dec. 16 Oval Office meeting at which pardons were discussed, Fitzwater said that during that month “the White House was considering any number of options for getting the story and getting North and Poindexter to testify, and among those were the granting of immunity and a pardon and ordering them to testify and anything else they could think of.”
North and Poindexter, who directed the diversion of Iran arms sale proceeds to Nicaragua’s rebels, at the time were citing their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination in refusing to cooperate.
Rather than granting a pardon, “The feeling was that granting them immunity was the right way to go,” Fitzwater said. Under the grants of limited immunity that they eventually received from Congress, evidence obtained from their testimony cannot be used against them in any criminal proceedings.
Fitzwater’s statement echoed a Dec. 22 statement by his predecessor, Larry Speakes, who said that White House aides had discussed a pardon but that Reagan had rejected the idea.
When asked whether Reagan would reconsider if North and Poindexter later are indicted on criminal charges--a development considered very likely--White House officials avoided any direct response.
Call by Buchanan
On Sunday, Patrick J. Buchanan, who resigned earlier this year as the President’s director of communications, called for a pardon for North and Poindexter in an article in the Washington Post. Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) also said in a television interview Sunday that he favors the idea, and Rep. Dick Cheney (R-Wyo.), a member of the House investigating panel, said the option should be weighed.
Fitzwater, in giving his reasons for skirting the issue, said: “The main one is there have been no indictments. The second one is it’s just not appropriate. The hearings are still going on.”
When asked whether he was leaving the door open for a pardon at some point in the future, the spokesman said: “I’m not touching the door. I wouldn’t get within 40 yards of that door.”
One White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said a pardon “would be totally contrary” to the approach Reagan has taken repeatedly in encouraging the Iran-contra committees and independent counsel Lawrence E. Walsh to conduct thorough investigations.