To understand why Paul Manafort, formerly a peripheral chairman of the Trump campaign, has volunteered to testify in closed session before the House Intelligence Committee, it’s instructive to recall the case of Oliver North and Iran Contra. I had a walk-on part in that great drama. Blink, and you missed me. But if I hadn’t done what I did, the whole mess would never have happened. You doubt it? Read on!
The year was 1984. I was the political counselor of Embassy Tel Aviv, the third man in the Embassy hierarchy. The Ambassador at the time was Tom Pickering, a man who felt himself in no need of political counsel, least of all from me. The important contacts in Israel were his, so I went off in search of Israelis who might be interesting to meet but had not yet risen to the Ambassador’s omnivorous attention. One such was Amiran Nir.
Nir had worked for Shimon Peres’s campaign during the elections earlier that year. A young man on the make, he was, to say the least, not universally admired within Peres’s inner circle. But he was married to the leather-skirted, spiked, and studded daughter of the publisher of Yedioth Ahronoth, one of the most influential newspapers in the country. So a post-election job had to be found for him, preferably as far away from Peres’s office in Jerusalem as possible. That’s how Nir ended up in the Ministry of Defense in Tel Aviv with a title having something to do with terrorism, and an office in which the telephone (at least during my visits) never rang. How obscure was he? If he’d been of the least consequence, Pickering would have gobbled him up. He wasn’t, so he was left to me.
Yitzhak Rabin was Minister of Defense in those days. I spent my Prufrockian public career for the most part just out of the frame, a few seats down the table. But I did get to know Rabin a little (or, perhaps I should say, he came to know me). His memory doesn’t require my validation, but I thought him a great man. I once asked him about Nir. He shrugged. It’s hard now to describe the dismissiveness of that gesture, for which Rabin was well known and which conveyed an almost cosmic level of disinterest.
Unfortunately, Nir was not the sort of man to be shrugged away. He wanted to be a player, and he had heard about a young Lieutenant Colonel on the Reagan White House staff who, by dint of high energy and breathtaking presumption, had managed to wrangle an outsized role in national security policy. Nir wanted to meet Oliver North. I think it fair to say Nir wanted to be Oliver North. I arranged a trip for him to Washington to meet his idol, and so it came to pass that in the vast, beflagged diplomatic reception area of the State Department I made my brief appearance on the historical stage when I (rim shot, maestro, please!) introduced Nir to North and North to Nir. The result: critical mass! (OK, so they probably would have met anyway, but let’s not second guess history or spoil a good story.)
Iran contra was already brewing, but adults in Jerusalem had their doubts. So North maneuvered Nir into the liaison slot. By the time the two of them were through, a host of reputations had been ruined, former officials indicted, the Reagan legacy damaged, and a great deal of incriminating paper work smuggled out of the White House in Fawn Hall’s underwear.
(It’s quaint now to remember how difficult it was in that time of man’s innocence to cover one’s tracks. Ollie and Fawn shredded through the night as the FBI closed in, but still had more than a bra-and-panties’ worth of evidence left when their jig was up. A present-day North would, and probably will, simply throw a thumb drive into the Potomac. But I digress.)
North was convicted on three felony counts. He had armored himself against outrageous fortune by testifying before trial to committees of Congress, admitting his actions but denying his guilt. He outfaced the maundering Congresspeople, who couldn’t lay a hand on him, and since he had immunity for his testimony, his later convictions were vacated and he was free to pollute the airwaves with four decades worth of right-wing bullchat. (I encountered him once more outside his studio cum office in Virginia when he was flogging armored vests. As we were talking, Howard Hunt ghosted by. Watergate meets Iran Contra. Talk about your witness to history!)
Almost forty years have passed. North has aged into a sort of Mustache Pete of right-wing radio, but in Washington the money is better than ever, adult leadership has disappeared, and the way is open for the grifters and dips, the opportunists, the sleazy, and the principle-free. Which brings us back to Paul Manafort.
Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, who has been carrying a lot of water for the Trump White House, has said Manafort can testify “any way he wants.” The charitable explanation for this is that Nunes fears the Trump Administration is collapsing and doesn’t want to give it a shove. There are, of course, other, less-charitable explanations. By the time you read this, Manafort will have testified (in closed session) disclosing some juicy but not actionable behavior of his own, and possible felonies by others. Oliver North won’t really be in the room; he’ll only be there virtually. The good bits will immediately leak, the Trump White House will scream that leaks are the problem, and Manafort, just like North, will have armored himself against any and all prosecutions to come.
The lesson for the rest of us will be that that those who don’t remember history are condemned to make the same mistakes, along, unfortunately, with those who do remember history. But let’s keep our eyes on the ball. The question isn’t what Manafort knew and when he knew it. The question is who inserted him into the Trump campaign as a chairman, and why.