On Tuesday afternoon, Donald Trump took some time away from his efforts to portray the Democrats’ impeachment proceedings as a deep-state conspiracy to present a Presidential Medal of Freedom—the highest honor that the U.S. government can bestow on a civilian—to Ed Meese.
Yes, that Ed Meese—the longtime Reagan aide and conservative legal activist who, when serving as Attorney General, from 1985 to 1988, was directly implicated in not one but three major scandals: the secret sale of arms to Iran to fund the Contra rebels in Nicaragua, a corruption scam involving efforts by the construction firm Bechtel to build an Iraqi oil pipeline, and an even bigger scam involving the allocation of U.S. military contracts to a New York company called Wedtech. Meese was never charged with any crimes, but the evidence suggested that he misled Congress about Reagan’s knowledge of the Iran-Contra scheme, which Oliver North ran out of the White House; turned a blind eye to the bribery of foreign governments in the Bechtel case; and did favors from the White House for his close friend E. Robert Wallach, a lobbyist for Wedtech, who in 1989 was sentenced to six years in prison for racketeering and fraud. In 1988, half a dozen senior Justice Department officials, including the Deputy Attorney General and the head of the criminal division, resigned to protest Meese’s leadership of the department.
Arguably, Meese’s involvement in these three scandals wasn’t even the worst of his sins. As Attorney General in 1985, he infamously spoke out against the Supreme Court’s Miranda ruling, from 1966, which confirmed a suspect’s right to remain silent when being questioned by police and to have an attorney. “Miranda only helps guilty defendants,” because “most innocent people are glad to talk to the police,” Meese declared. And he added, “We managed very well in this country for one hundred and seventy-five years without it.” Not for nothing did “Meese Is a Pig” T-shirts and posters become cult items during the Reagan era.
Without any hint of irony, Trump lauded Meese as an “absolute titan of American law and a heroic defender of the American Constitution.” The award ceremony took place in the Oval Office. In addition to Trump, the eighty-seven-year-old Meese, and several generations of his family, those present included the Vice-President, Mike Pence; the Attorney General, William Barr; the acting director of the Office of Budget and Management, Russ Vought; Kay Coles James, the president of the Heritage Foundation, which Meese joined after leaving the Reagan Administration; and a number of other prominent conservatives.
Apart from Trump, this was a conclave of the conservative establishment celebrating the battle scars of one of its oldest members. But coming on the same day that the White House announced its refusal to coöperate in any way with the Trump impeachment inquiry, the ceremony also highlighted an important dynamic that is now playing out on the right. After listening to the President shower praise on him, Meese, who started out during the 2016 campaign as a critic of Trump but eventually endorsed him, returned the compliment. In doing so, he helped explain why so many prominent Republicans have continued to defend Trump despite all his outrages, and why, almost certainly, they won’t desert him now, when he needs them the most.
In praising Trump, Meese singled out three policy areas. He cited the President’s support of the armed forces and his “emphasis on religious liberty.” But the first item on Meese’s list was “your commitment to the Constitution and your commitment to making sure that it’s interpreted it as it actually reads.” Referring to the fact that Trump has already appointed a hundred and fifty-two conservative judges to the federal bench, and two to the Supreme Court, Meese declared this to be “a monument to justice and the rule of law that will last literally—literally, for decades.”
There it was. To movement conservatives like Meese, the remaking of the American courts, particularly on rulings about constitutional and economic matters, is the great crusade that they have been on for forty years or more. And in this key area, Trump has done everything that the conservatives demanded when they threw their support behind him. By effectively outsourcing the appointment of judges to institutions like the Heritage Foundation and the Federalist Society, he has more than kept up his end of the bargain. In return, conservatives have gone all in with him, and none more so than the current Attorney General.
Barr, who didn’t speak at Tuesday’s ceremony, isn’t usually portrayed as a movement conservative, but don’t be fooled. As a young lawyer, he worked on the domestic-policy staff of the Reagan White House. He’s long been an active figure in conservative legal circles, and he’s a proponent of the “unitary executive” theory, which claims that the Constitution grants the President enormous leeway in virtually anything he does. During his remarks, Meese singled out Barr and said that he wanted to “wish you well in the fine work you’re doing.” Given the makeup of the crowd, Meese didn’t need to explain what this “fine work” consisted of. (Since taking office earlier this year, Barr has misrepresented the Mueller report, accused the F.B.I. of “spying” on the Trump campaign during the 2016 election, and ordered up and personally overseen a Justice Department investigation into the origins of the F.B.I.’s Russia probe.)
The bonhomie between Meese and Barr highlighted the fact that Trump—like Reagan when the Iran-Contra scandal blew up—now has a pugilistic loyalist as his Attorney General, which is what he hoped he was getting with Jeff Sessions. In Pat Cipollone, the White House counsel, an ex-speechwriter for Barr, Trump has another low-profile but very conservative lawyer, who, as he demonstrated in a letter that he sent to House Democratic leaders on Tuesday explaining why the White House would not be coöperating with the impeachment inquiry, is willing to make the most contentious legal arguments on his boss’s behalf. And on Wednesday evening, it was confirmed that Trey Gowdy, the former G.O.P. congressman who led the Party’s Benghazi investigations, is joining Trump’s legal team.
As the President’s apologists and attorneys go about their unedifying task of defending the indefensible, Meese may serve as their role model. The key evidence showing that he misled everyone to protect Reagan in the Iran-Contra case emerged years after he left office—too late for Lawrence Walsh, the independent counsel, to bring charges. In Walsh’s final report to Congress, which was published in 1993, he wrote of his efforts to investigate Meese’s role: “Six years after the pivotal events had occurred, the trail was cold. With the principals professing no memory of often critical events, the OIC did not uncover sufficient evidence of an obstruction to justify a prosecution.” Meese got off. So did Reagan.