Presidential candidates have a history of meddling in foreign affairs

Op-ed: If Trump courted Russia pre-election, he wouldn't be the only candidate to meddle in foreign affairs.

Hatred of the press may not be the only thing that Donald Trump has in common with Richard Nixon. Going behind a sitting president's back to interfere in foreign policy initiatives could be another, if the full truth ever comes to light about contacts between Mr. Trump's people and the Russians interfering in the U. S. election.

In Nixon's case it may have cost American lives.

In the months leading up to the 1968 election, Nixon worried that a peace initiative undertaken by President Lyndon Johnson to end the Vietnam war would help his opponent, Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Nixon ordered his top aides to do whatever they could to foil the initiative.

Evidence has long existed that prominent Nixon supporters, such as Anna Chennault of the pro-Taiwan lobby and others, pressured the U.S.-supported South Vietnamese regime to stay away from peace talks between Washington and the North Vietnamese — not a huge challenge as the South Vietnamese already were worried that Johnson was abandoning them.

To his dying day, Nixon emphatically denied he had ordered the interference. And there the story lay for decades: strong circumstantial evidence, but no absolute proof. But that all changed last year when John A. Farrell, a journalist and author doing research for the biography "Richard Nixon: The Life," at the Nixon Library, came across hand-written notes of H.R. Haldeman, Nixon's top aide, confirming that Nixon had ordered him to do whatever he could to obstruct Johnson's peace initiative.

In an article published in the New York Times on Dec. 31, Mr. Farrell wrote: "Now we know Nixon lied. A newfound cache of notes left by H. R. Haldeman, his closest aide, shows that Nixon directed his campaign's efforts to scuttle the peace talks, which he feared could give his opponent, Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, an edge in the 1968 election. On October 22, 1968, he ordered Haldeman to 'monkey wrench' the initiative."

Ronald Reagan is another one suspected of going behind the back of a sitting president to manipulate events in his favor during an election campaign.

Suspicions supported by strong circumstantial evidence have long held that during the campaign in 1980 and prior to his inauguration in 1981, Reagan's close advisers, including William Casey, his campaign manager who would become head of the Central Intelligence Agency, met with Iranian officials and persuaded them to delay the release of 52 Americans held hostage in Tehran until after Reagan's inauguration. The hostages were released minutes after Reagan took the oath of office.

Gary Sick, who was the senior staff member on Iran in the National Security Council during the hostage crisis that dominated the last two years of the Carter administration, collected substantial evidence supporting the rumored conspiracy between Reagan's delegates and the Iranians in a deal that led to the hostage release in return for arms shipped to the Iranians.

Mr. Sick's findings were published in in his 1991 book: "October Surprise — America's Hostages in Iran and the Election of Ronald Reagan."

In the book and in an article published at the same time in the New York Times, Mr. Sick acknowledged that for years he had treated the rumors of the deal with the Iranians with disbelief. "I had worked in and around the Middle East long enough to be skeptical of the conspiracy theories that abound in the region," he wrote.

"In the course of hundreds of interviews in the U.S., Europe and the Middle East, I have been told repeatedly that individuals associated with the Reagan-Bush campaign of 1980 met secretly with Iranian officials to delay the release of the American hostages until after the Presidential election," he wrote. "For this favor, Iran was rewarded with a substantial supply of arms (with U.S. authorization) from Israel."

(Later, the Reagan administration's illegal transfer of U.S. weaponry to Iran via Israel in return for the release of Americans seized as hostages in Lebanon was an essential part of what became known as the scandalous Iran-Contra affair. Another of Mr. Sick's books, "All Fall Down: America's Tragic Encounter With Iran," is considered a classic on the subject.)

Today, Mr. Sick is a senior research scholar at Columbia University's Middle East Institute and adjunct professor at the School of International and Public Affairs. In 1991, he acknowledged that the story of Reagan's interference "is tangled and murky and it may never be fully unraveled."

Last week, I asked him by email if the story had become any less murky in the 26 years since.

"The bottom line is that there is a lot of circumstantial evidence that such contacts took place. But there is no smoking gun that would absolutely confirm that Casey and co. directly sought to delay the release of US hostages," he replied. "I continue to hope that we will someday get the full truth of what happened. ... If the Nixon confirmation [48 years later] is a reliable indicator, we may still have a number of years to go."

He may be right on the Reagan story. I doubt it will take that long to get the full facts of the Trump-Russia relationship. Mr. Trump and his people can't tell the truth, but they also seem incapable of hiding it.

G. Jefferson Price III's assignments in his career at The Baltimore Sun from 1969 to 2004 included Middle East correspondent in the 1970s and 1980s and foreign editor from 1991 to 2001. He can be reached at gjpthree@gmail.com.

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