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Context of 'November 18, 1987: Iran-Contra Committee Issues Final Majority Report'

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President Theodore Roosevelt, wielding what will become known as the theory of inherent power, declares that the presidency has a “residuum of powers” to do anything not specifically forbidden by the Constitution. Without asking Congress for its approval, Roosevelt launches the project to build the Panama Canal, sends the US Navy around the world, and sends US troops to the Dominican Republic. In 2009, reporter and author Charlie Savage will write, “Roosevelt’s views… contained the seeds of the imperial presidency that would arise during the first decades of the Cold War.” Roosevelt’s successor, future Supreme Court Chief Justice William Howard Taft, will disagree, and Taft’s presidency will restore some of the limits on presidential power removed by Roosevelt. [Savage, 2007, pp. 17-18]

Entity Tags: William Howard Taft, Charlie Savage, Theodore Roosevelt

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

President Harry Truman, without the approval of Congress, sends US troops to fight in the Korean War. Unlike his predecessor (see December 8, 1941), Truman asserts that he has the inherent right to do so as the commander in chief (see 1787 and 1793). Truman bases his decision in part on a UN Security Council resolution passed three days before—at the US’s behest—approving military aid to South Korea, which was invaded by North Korean troops on June 25. In 2007, reporter and author Charlie Savage will write: “But the permission of foreign states was irrelevant to the domestic legal issue of who got to decide whether the United States would go to war. No president had ever before launched anything on the scale of the Korean War without prior permission from Congress, as the Constitution requires.” Savage will explain why Congress allows Truman to usurp its prerogatives: “[M]embers of Congress, eager to appear tough against Communism and to support a war effort, did nothing to block Truman.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 19; Truman Library, 3/2008]

Entity Tags: Harry S. Truman, United Nations Security Council, Charlie Savage

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The US Supreme Court rules that the federal government cannot seize the nation’s steel mills. In April, President Truman, fearing a nationwide strike that could impact the US war effort in Korea, ordered the seizure of all US steel mills; the lawsuit that resulted, Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer, quickly made its way to the Supreme Court.
Rejection of 'Inherent Powers' Claim - During oral arguments, the justices grilled Acting Attorney General Philip Perlman, demanding to know what statutes he had relied on for his arguments and asserting that the president had limitations both on his emergency wartime powers and on his ability to claim that he is the “sole judge” of the existence of, and remedies for, an emergency. The justices are not convinced by the government’s arguments for the president’s “inherent powers.” They are also troubled by repeated refusals of the government to provide facts and documentary backing for its legal arguments, and its reliance instead on claims of “national security.” The attorney for the steel industry, John Davis, quoted Thomas Jefferson in his argument: “In questions of power, let no more be said of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.” Justice William O. Douglas noted that if the government’s claims were valid, there would be “no more need for Congress.”
Court Rejects Argument - In a 6-3 vote, the Court rules that the president has no inherent power to seize the steel mills. Writing for the majority, Justice Hugo Black states: “In the framework of our Constitution, the president’s power to see that the laws are faithfully executed refutes the idea that he is to be a lawmaker.… The founders of this nation entrusted the lawmaking power to the Congress alone in both good and bad times.… This is a job for the nation’s lawmakers.” In a concurring opinion, Justice Robert Jackson writes, “No penance would ever expiate the sin against free government of holding that a president can escape control of executive powers by law through assuming his military role.” In his dissent, Chief Justice Fred Vinson (see March 1952) argues that “the gravity of the emergency” overrides the Constitutional arguments accepted by the majority of the Court. “Those who suggest that this is a case involving extraordinary powers should be mindful that these are extraordinary times. A world not yet recovered from the devastation of World War II has been forced to face the threat of another and more terrifying global conflict.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 123; Siegel, 2008, pp. 163-164] In 2007, reporter and author Charlie Savage will observe that the Youngstown decision “turned out to be only a pause in the movement toward an increasingly authoritarian presidency.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 19]

Entity Tags: William O. Douglas, John Davis, Hugo Black, Charlie Savage, Fred Vinson, Harry S. Truman, Philip Perlman, US Supreme Court

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Edwin Meese.Edwin Meese. [Source: GQ (.com)]Attorney General Edwin Meese receives a report, “Separation of Powers: Legislative-Executive Relations.” Meese had commissioned the report from the Justice Department’s Domestic Policy Committee, an internal “think tank” staffed with hardline conservative scholars and policy advisers.
Recommendations for Restoring, Expanding Executive Power - The Meese report approvingly notes that “the strong leadership of President Reagan seems clearly to have ended the congressional resurgence of the 1970s.” It lays out recommendations for restoring the power taken from the executive branch after Watergate and Vietnam, and adding new powers besides. It recommends that the White House refuse to enforce laws and statutes that “unconstitutionally encroach upon the executive branch,” and for Reagan to veto more legislation and to use “signing statements” to state the White House’s position on newly passed laws. It also assails the 1972 War Powers Resolution and other laws that limit presidential power.
Reinterpreting the Separation of Powers and the Concept of 'Checks and Balances' - Perhaps most importantly, the Meese report claims that for 200 years, courts and scholars alike have misunderstood and misinterpreted the Founders’ intentions in positing the “separation of powers” system (see 1787 and 1793). The belief that the Constitution mandates three separate, co-equal branches of government—executive, judicial, and legislative—who wield overlapping areas of authority and work to keep each of the other branches from usurping too much power—a concept taught in school as “checks and balances”—is wrong, the report asserts. Instead, each branch has separate and independent sets of powers, and none of the three branches may tread or encroach on the others’ area of responsibility and authority. “The only ‘sharing of power’ is the sharing of the sum of all national government power,” the report claims. “But that is not joint shared, it is explicitly divided among the three branches.” According to the report, the White House should exercise total and unchallenged control of the executive branch, which, as reporter and author Charlie Savage will later explain, “could be conceived of as a unitary being with the president as its brain.” The concept of “checks and balances” is nothing more than an unconstitutional attempt by Congress to encroach on the rightful power of the executive. This theory of presidential function will soon be dubbed the “unitary executive theory,” a title adapted from a passage by Alexander Hamilton in the Federalist Papers. [Savage, 2007, pp. 47-48] Charles Fried, Reagan’s solicitor general during the second term, will later write that though the unitary executive theory displays “perfect logic” and a “beautiful symmetry,” it is difficult to defend, because it “is not literally compelled by the words of the Constitution. Nor did the framers’ intent compel this view.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 50]

Entity Tags: Charles Fried, Reagan administration, Domestic Policy Committee, US Department of Justice, Ronald Reagan, Edwin Meese, Charlie Savage

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The Iran-Contra hearings come to an end after over 250 hours of testimony from 28 witnesses. [New York Times, 11/19/1987] The hearings have been unsatisfactory at best, with the committee saying in a final statement, “We may never know with precision or truth why [the Iran-Contra affair] ever happened.” [PBS, 2000] The biggest wrangle left for the committee is the status of the final report. The committee’s Democratic leaders want a unanimous report. The Republicans demand numerous concessions for such a unanimous report, including the exclusion of critical evidence of an administration cover-up and evidence implicating President Reagan in the Iran-Contra policy decision-making. The committee produces dozens of drafts of the final report, each more watered-down than the previous one, to accommodate Republican demands. The Republicans will get a report almost completely to their liking, but will then pull away and issue their own minority report anyway (see November 16-17, 1987). [Dubose and Bernstein, 2006, pp. 80-81]

Entity Tags: Ronald Reagan, Joint House-Senate Iran-Contra Committee

Timeline Tags: Iran-Contra Affair

The congressional Iran-Contra committee has finally produced a final report, which committee Democrats thought would be unanimous. But committee Republicans fought successfully to water down the report, including the exclusion of evidence proving President Reagan’s involvement in the policy decisions (see August 3, 1987 and After), and then at the last minute broke away and announced their intention to issue a minority report—which was their intention all along. “From the get-go they wanted a minority report,” Republican staffer Bruce Fein will later recall. The official majority report is due to come out on November 17, but a printing error forces it to be delayed a day (see November 18, 1987). The committee Republicans, headed by Representative Dick Cheney (R-WY) and Senator Henry Hyde (R-IL) leak their minority report to the New York Times on November 16, thus stealing a march on the majority. On November 17, all of the committee Republicans save three—Senators Warren Rudman (R-NH), Paul Trible (R-VA), and William Cohen (R-ME)—hold a press conference in which they accuse the majority of staging a “witch hunt” against the president and the administration. The minority report asserts: “There was no constitutional crisis, no systematic disrespect for the ‘rule of law,’ no grand conspiracy, and no administration-wide dishonesty or cover-up.… In our view the administration did proceed legally in pursuing both its Contra policy and the Iran arms initiative.” Rudman calls the minority report “pathetic,” and says his Republican colleagues have “separated the wheat from the chaff and sowed the chaff.” The press focuses on the conflict between the two reports. The Democrats largely ignore the minority report: “This was ‘87,” one Democratic staff member will recall. “We had a substantial majority and the Republicans were trained to be what we thought was a permanent minority party. When they would yap and yell, we would let them yap. It just didn’t matter.” [Dubose and Bernstein, 2006, pp. 80-81]

Entity Tags: New York Times, Bruce Fein, Henry Hyde, Joint House-Senate Iran-Contra Committee, Warren Rudman, Paul Trible, William S. Cohen, Ronald Reagan, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney

Timeline Tags: Iran-Contra Affair

Congress’s joint Iran-Contra investigative committee issues its final majority report. [New York Times, 11/19/1987] The Republican minority has largely refused to join the majority report, which was watered down time and again to entice the Republicans to join in the issuance of a unanimous report (see November 16-17, 1987). Still, the watered-down report finds that the “clandestine financing operation undermined the powers of Congress as a coequal branch and subverted the Constitution.” The Reagan administration had violated a key belief of the Constitution’s framers: “the purse and the sword should never be in the same hands.” Regardless of the majority report’s findings, no significant reforms will come from the Iran-Contra investigation. [Dubose and Bernstein, 2006, pp. 81-82]

Entity Tags: Joint House-Senate Iran-Contra Committee, Reagan administration

Timeline Tags: Iran-Contra Affair

In a 7-1 ruling, the Supreme Court rules that the independent counsel law is Constitutional and valid. The ruling overturns a recent appeals court ruling striking down the law because it conflicts with the “unitary executive” theory of government (see January 1988). The ruling stuns the Reagan administration, who had fiercely argued against the independent counsel law, in part because conservative justice William Rehnquist authors the majority opinion. Only Reagan appointee Antonin Scalia votes in favor of the unitary executive. [Savage, 2007, pp. 46-49]

Entity Tags: Antonin Scalia, US Supreme Court, William Rehnquist, Reagan administration

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

John Yoo.John Yoo. [Source: University of California, Berkeley]In a secret 15-page memo to Deputy White House Counsel Timothy Flanigan, Justice Department lawyer John Yoo, a deputy in the Office of Legal Counsel, reasons that it is “beyond question that the president has the plenary constitutional power to take such military actions as he deems necessary and appropriate to respond to the terrorist attacks” of 9/11. Those actions can be extensive. “The president may deploy military force preemptively against terrorist organizations or the states that harbor or support them,” Yoo writes, “whether or not they can be linked to the specific terrorist incidents of Sept. 11.… Force can be used both to retaliate for those attacks, and to prevent and deter future assaults on the nation. Military actions need not be limited to those individuals, groups, or states that participated in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.” The memo is solicited and overseen by White House lawyers.
Power Derives from Constitution, Congressional Authorization for War - This power of the president, Yoo states, rests both on the US Congress’ Joint Resolution of September 14 (see September 14-18, 2001) and on the War Powers Resolution of 1973. “Neither statute, however, can place any limits on the president’s determinations as to any terrorist threat, the amount of military force to be used in response, or the method, timing, and nature of the response. These decisions, under our Constitution, are for the president alone to make.” (Most experts believe that the Constitution strictly limits the president’s power to declare and conduct war—see 1787).
Power More Extensive than Congress Authorized - Yoo argues further that the September 14 resolution does not represent the limits to the president’s authority. “We think it beyond question” that Congress cannot “place any limits on the president’s determinations as to any terrorist threat, the amount of military force to be used in response, or the method, timing, and nature of the response. These decisions, under our Constitution, are for the president alone to make.” Congress’s “Joint Resolution is somewhat narrower than the president’s constitutional authority,” Yoo writes, as it “does not reach other terrorist individuals, groups, or states which cannot be determined to have links to the September 11 attacks.” The president’s broad power can be used against selected individuals suspected of posing a danger to the US, even though it may be “difficult to establish, by the standards of criminal law or even lower legal standards, that particular individuals or groups have been or may be implicated in attacks on the United States.” Yoo concludes: “[W]e do not think that the difficulty or impossibility of establishing proof to a criminal law standard (or of making evidence public) bars the president from taking such military measures as, in his best judgment, he thinks necessary or appropriate to defend the United States from terrorist attacks. In the exercise of his plenary power to use military force, the president’s decisions are for him alone and are unreviewable.”
'Unenumerated' Presidential Powers - Yoo even asserts that the president has more power than his memo claims: “[T]he president’s powers include inherent executive powers that are unenumerated in the Constitution,” including but not limited to the power to take the country to war without Congressional input. [US Department of Justice, 9/25/2001; Savage, 2007, pp. 121-122]
Memo Remains Secret for Three Years - The contents of this memo are not disclosed until mid-December 2004. [Newsweek, 12/18/2004; Newsweek, 12/27/2004]

Entity Tags: John C. Yoo, Bush administration (43), US Department of Justice, Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ), Timothy E. Flanigan

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Complete 911 Timeline, Events Leading to Iraq Invasion, Civil Liberties

While on a trip to the Middle East, Vice President Dick Cheney gives a frank outline of his view of the president’s powers, and refers to an Iran-Contra document as support for this view. In response to a question about his perspective as a veteran of the Ford administration, which the reporter says “arguably was the point at which presidential power had reached its absolute nadir,” Cheney replies, “Yes, I do have the view that over the years there had been an erosion of presidential power and authority, that it’s reflected in a number of developments.” Cheney lists several examples, including the War Powers Act, Congressional budget controls, the limitations placed on his own 2001 Energy Task Force, and numerous steps to limit the president’s power taken after Watergate and the Vietnam War. Cheney then advises the reporter: “If you want reference to an obscure text, go look at the minority views that were filed with the Iran-Contra Committee; the Iran Contra Report in about 1987 (see November 16-17, 1987). Nobody has ever read them, but we—part of the argument in Iran Contra was whether or not the president had the authority to do what was done in the Reagan years. And those of us in the minority wrote minority views, but they were actually authored by a guy working for me, for my staff, that I think are very good in laying out a robust view of the president’s prerogatives with respect to the conduct of especially foreign policy and national security matters. It will give you a much broader perspective.… I believe in a strong, robust executive authority. And I think the world we live in demands it. And to some extent, that we have an obligation as an administration to pass on the offices we hold to our successors in as good a shape as we found them.… I do think that to some extent now, we’ve been able to restore the legitimate authority of the presidency.” [White House, 12/20/2005]
Nixon Lawyer: Cheney 'Twisting History' - However, former Nixon White House counsel John Dean will call the Iran-Contra document to which Cheney refers “replete with factual and other errors,” a wholesale “twist[ing] of history” that nevertheless “sought to establish extreme standards for presidential powers vis-a-vis Congress.” According to Dean, Cheney believes now, as he did then, “that the Congress—other than writing checks to finance the president’s policies—has no real role whatsoever.” [Dean, 2007, pp. 86-88]
Former Republican Staffer: 'Chasm of Difference' between Then, Now - Former Justice Department lawyer Bruce Fein, who helped Cheney write the minority report and has since parted ways with his old boss, will say there is “a chasm of difference” between Iran-Contra and the secrecy of the Bush-Cheney administration. “Then it was part of the democratic process,” Fein will say in July 2006. “The way you debate the process, it allows for self-correction. This is the essence, the lifeblood of democracy.” Then, the Reagan administration was forced by a Democratic majority in Congress to disclose at least some details of its inner workings. There is no such disclosure today, Fein says. “They think that democracy ends if you win elections.” [Dubose and Bernstein, 2006, pp. 81]

Entity Tags: Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Ford administration, John Dean, Reagan administration

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties, Iran-Contra Affair

Author and reporter Charlie Savage observes that the Bush administration went far beyond the Reagan-era vision of a “unitary executive” (see April 30, 1986). He writes that the administration decided early on—perhaps before taking office in January 2001—to combine the “unitary executive” theory with the older concept of the “inherent powers” of the presidency (see 1901-1909 and June 30, 1950). Savage writes: “The new and improved Unitary Executive Theory said that Congress could not regulate any executive power, but the theory said nothing about the potential scope of such power. When fused, the two theories transformed any conceivably inherent executive power into an exclusive one. The president could do virtually anything, without any check by Congress.” Savage notes that most legal experts from across the political spectrum have roundly rejected both theories, as has the Supreme Court (see June 2, 1952 and June 1988). “The Bush-Cheney administration legal team regularly ignored the existence of such precedents in its secret advisory opinions” (see November 16-17, 1987 and September 25, 2001). The Bush administration also used an unusual reading of Alexander Hamilton’s discussion of the executive branch’s “unity” in the Federalist Papers, article 70, in which Hamilton advocated that the president’s powers should not be limited by a body of lawmakers. As Savage points out, most legal scholars call this reading “extremely misleading,” and note that Hamilton was writing about the Founding Fathers’ decision to have a single president instead of an executive committee. In fact, Hamilton explicitly repudiated the idea of a “unitary executive” in Federalist 69. Savage writes: “Over and over again, the presidentialists’ most important legal writings failed to make any mention of Federalist 69, even as they selectively quoted tidbits of Federalist 70—and quoted them out of context—as proof for their power to act beyond the limits of statutes passed by Congress.” Conservative law professor Richard Epstein calls the Bush administration’s legal theory “just wrong,” and its lawyers’ failure to acknowledge Federalist 69 “scandalous.” Epstein says: “How can you not talk about Federalist 69? All you have to do is go on Google and put in ‘Federalist Papers’ and ‘commander in chief,’ and it pops up.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 124-127]

Entity Tags: Charlie Savage, Richard Epstein, Bush administration (43)

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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