President Bush, challenging evidence presented in the trial of former Lt. Col. Oliver L. North, denied Thursday that he took part in any Ronald Reagan Administration effort in 1985 to offer U.S. aid to Honduras in direct exchange for that country's assistance to Nicaragua's Contras.
"The word of the President of the United States, George Bush, is there was no quid pro quo, " the President declared in his first public response to evidence presented at the North trial.
"There has been much needless, mindless speculation about my word of honor--and I've answered it, now, definitively," he added.
Bush not only denied that he personally discussed a quid pro quo with then-Honduran President Roberto Suazo Cordova when they met in Honduras in 1985, but he said that there was no such agreement between the two governments "as far as I know, to my knowledge."
So sweeping and categorical was Bush's denial that it appeared likely to escalate the controversy over his alleged involvement in the deal.
Among the documents presented at the North trial was a 1985 memo signed by then-President Reagan approving the quid pro quo. A subsequent memo discussing the reciprocal deal carried a hand-written notation by John M. Poindexter, then Reagan's national security adviser, saying that "we want VP (Bush) to also discuss this matter with Suazo."
"It's not easy to reconcile those documents with the President's statement," said Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), former chairman of the House Iran-Contra investigating committee.
Since the memos were made public during the North trial, Bush has been dogged by questions about whether he complied with Poindexter's wishes when he traveled to Honduras later in the year.
Sharp questions also have been asked in Congress about why the Reagan Administration failed to provide these documents to the investigating committees. Until Thursday, Bush had refused to answer any questions on grounds that his response might affect the North trial.
But once it was learned that the North jury had reached a verdict, Bush appeared eager to answer, discussing the matter with reporters while bidding goodby to Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney at the diplomatic entrance of the White House. In fact, he made his statement a few minutes before the North verdict was announced.
Specifically, Bush denied that the subject of a quid pro quo was mentioned at his meeting with Suazo. "The records of that meeting demonstrate that there was no quid pro quo, " he said. ". . . No implication, no quid pro quo, direct or indirect, from me to the President of Honduras on that visit."
Indeed, there is no independent evidence that Bush brought up the quid pro quo at the meeting, even though Poindexter clearly wanted the vice president to do so. Then-U.S. Ambassador to Honduras John D. Negroponte, who attended the meeting, has said that no such deal was discussed.
But the President did not confine his remarks to the meeting and members of Congress seemed most surprised by his statement that he had no knowledge of a quid pro quo. Not only do the memos suggest that Bush was informed of Reagan's decision to press for such a deal but congressional investigators long have assumed that such an arrangement existed, since Honduras received expedited economic aid from the United States in 1985 after agreeing to continue assisting the Contras.
In 1985, after Congress cut off direct U.S. aid to the Contras, Honduran officials made no secret of their desire for more economic aid from Washington in exchange for the risk they were taking by providing sanctuary to the Contras along their common border with Nicaragua.
A top investigator for the Iran-Contra committees, who declined to be identified by name, suggested that Bush's categorical denial was based on a narrow definition of what constitutes a quid pro quo between two countries. He suggested that Bush may be defining U.S. aid to Honduras as an "incentive" instead.
Often Draws Distinction
"One person's quid pro quo is another person's normal diplomacy," he noted. "The government has often drawn a distinction between 'incentives' and quid pro quos. "
Both the House and Senate intelligence committees are currently investigating why the congressional Iran-Contra panels never received many of the documents pertaining to the Honduran deal. Bush pledged to cooperate with this inquiry "in every way requested."
The President said that he already had told the congressional investigators to contact A.B. Culvahouse, who was Reagan's White House counsel during the 1987 Iran-Contra investigation, and added: "Hopefully, they can resolve it between themselves."
"I am going to insist that the congressional committees . . . be briefed fully on the confidential cables that bring up every fact of that meeting," Bush added.
Hamilton said that Congress has a responsibility to pursue an explanation because the lesson of the Iran-Contra scandal is that the White House cannot be trusted to volunteer the full truth.