Presidents and Their Prosecutors

WASHINGTON — Two years ago, President Biden joined the world’s most exclusive club. This week, he joined a less exalted club — but, in the modern era, one almost as large.

The appointment of a special counsel to investigate the discovery of classified documents in Mr. Biden’s home and private office makes him the latest occupant of the Oval Office to be scrutinized by a special prosecutor.

Indeed, since the dark days of Watergate, when a special prosecutor’s inquiry drove Richard M. Nixon out of office, every president but one has faced such an investigator looking into them or their associates, the lone exception being Barack Obama. For some, the political damage proved modest. But for others, the investigations came to consume and even threaten their presidencies, at least for a time.

The allegations ranged from the tawdry (an aide supposedly snorting cocaine in a New York nightclub) to the even tawdrier (a president receiving sexual favors from a former intern); from the geopolitical (a White House trading arms for hostages and using the proceeds to finance rebel soldiers) to the cinematic (a candidate suspected of collaborating with Russia to win an election).

Over the years, special prosecutors scrutinizing the White House have looked into accusations of financial corruption, bribery, influence peddling, selling favors and lying to authorities — lots of lying. Here is a selective summary:

Gerald R. Ford

Few remember that Mr. Ford while president was accused of having pocketed maritime union funds laundered through a Michigan Republican organization. Attorney General Edward H. Levi assigned Charles F.C. Ruff, the last of the Watergate special prosecutors, to investigate.

“Ford knew only what he read in the press or watched, with growing anger, as, night after night, the three television networks led their evening newscasts with the shadowy story,” Richard Norton Smith writes in his new biography of the president, “An Ordinary Man,” to be published in April. Mr. Ruff found no crime and cleared him shortly before the 1976 election.

Jimmy Carter

Two special prosecutors were appointed to look at separate allegations of cocaine use by aides to Mr. Carter, including a story that Hamilton Jordan, his White House chief of staff, had snorted cocaine during a night of debauchery at New York’s Studio 54 nightclub. Both special prosecutors wrapped up their inquiries without finding sufficient evidence to file charges.

The post-Watergate frenzy was described as a cautionary tale for highhanded White House officials like Mr. Jordan. “He came in strutting and got knocked silly for his pretensions,” Richard Cohen wrote in a Washington Post column, later clipped and saved by Mr. Jordan’s successor in the next administration, James A. Baker III, who saw it as a lesson.

The most serious scandal for President Reagan was the Iran-contra affair.Credit…Jose R. Lopez/The New York Times

Ronald Reagan

Mr. Reagan’s administration was beset by more than a half-dozen special prosecutors, whose title changed to independent counsels under a 1978 law meant to give them more autonomy. They were looking at some of the president’s closest associates like Michael K. Deaver and Edwin Meese III, but not everything led to charges. After being cleared, Raymond J. Donovan, who had been forced to resign as labor secretary, famously asked, “Which office do I go to to get my reputation back?”

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.

George H.W. Bush

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.

Bill Clinton

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.

George W. Bush

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.

Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the special counsel, never prosecuted anyone for the leak but did convict I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, the chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, of perjury and obstruction of justice during the investigation. Mr. Bush commuted Mr. Libby’s sentence but rebuffed Mr. Cheney’s request to issue a full pardon. More than a decade after the conviction, President Donald J. Trump pardoned Mr. Libby.

Barack Obama

Mr. Obama was the one exception to the post-Watergate pattern — he never faced a special prosecutor during his eight years in office. Still, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. at one point assigned two United States attorneys to lead separate criminal investigations into national security leaks. Mr. Obama’s favorite general, James E. Cartwright, the former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, pleaded guilty to lying to the F.B.I. about his discussions with reporters about Iran’s nuclear program. Mr. Obama later pardoned him.

Donald J. Trump

After seeing how special prosecutors had hobbled so many of his predecessors, Mr. Trump slumped in his chair when he learned that Robert S. Mueller III had been appointed to investigate his campaign’s ties with Russia. “Oh, my God,” he said. “This is terrible. This is the end of my presidency.”

The investigation consumed Mr. Trump’s presidency for two years. While Mr. Mueller found insufficient evidence of a criminal conspiracy between Mr. Trump and Russia, he identified 10 instances of possible obstruction of justice, including the firing of Mr. Comey, then the F.B.I. director. But Mr. Barr, back in a second stint as attorney general, concluded no crimes were committed, and Mr. Mueller’s halting performance testifying before Congress effectively ended the threat of impeachment over the matter.

Now as a former president — and declared 2024 presidential candidate — Mr. Trump faces a new special counsel who is looking into his mishandling of classified documents, and his resistance to returning them, as well as his actions leading to the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol to overturn the election he lost.

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