Neil Eggleston: Getting to the Truth Quickly Is Key

By Sarah Kellogg

July 25, 2017

As turmoil roils the current White House administration, the D.C. Bar is beginning a series of interviews with Bar members who have been involved in investigations of former presidents. Through the lens of their professional experiences, these attorneys offer their personal views on the widening probe into the Trump campaign and Russian meddling in the 2016 elections.

W. Neil EgglestonFor attorney W. Neil Eggleston, the congressional investigation into President Donald Trump’s campaign and his staff is a reminder that highly public inquiries can be frantic and exhausting, no matter the president or the scandal.

Eggleston, who served as the deputy chief counsel for the U.S. House of Representatives’ probe into the Iran-Contra scandal, says members of Congress today could learn a lesson or two from that inquiry’s approach to uncovering the role played by former President Ronald Reagan and his staff.

“It was seven days a week and as many hours as you could stand to be there, day after day after day,” recalls Eggleston, a partner at Kirkland & Ellis LLP. “Hearings started in May and went through early August, and we issued our 500-page report by Thanksgiving. It was very important to get to the bottom of it and get to the bottom of it quickly.”

Iran-Contra was a two-phase scandal that saw the Reagan administration make millions of dollars in secret weapon sales to U.S. enemy Iran—hoping to prompt Iran to release American hostages—and then illegally redirect the money and guns to the guerrillas in Nicaragua.

The U.S. House Select Committee to Investigate Covert Arms Transactions with Iran and the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Secret Military Assistance to Iran and the Nicaraguan Opposition held 41 hearings in the summer of 1987 to tease out the culpability. While the committees did not officially combine their panels, they held joint hearings and issued a joint final report.

Eggleston says the decision by the committee chairmen—Democrats U.S. Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana and U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii—to move quickly to reduce disruption ensured that the Reagan administration was mired in investigations for a year rather than being distracted by a multi-year inquiry. The congressional investigations into the Trump campaign appear to be operating at a slower pace.

“I think the country benefited from the speed by which we did this,” says Eggleston of the Iran-Contra hearings. “Speed without getting to the bottom of it has no value, though. Speed is not its own value. If you can get to the bottom of it quickly, that has a tremendous value. It was important that the country know what happened.”

Another key factor in the Iran-Contra investigation was Reagan’s decision to cooperate with the congressional inquiry and not assert executive privilege, despite the objections of some key staff members. Trump has not exerted executive privilege, although some of his Cabinet and staff members have refused to answer congressional questions.

“President Reagan just decided it was important to get to the bottom of this, and speed mattered to him, too,” Eggleston says. “He wasn’t going to have big battles with Congress about executive privilege, and he waived it from the get-go.”

Eggleston shares the Trump administration’s frustration with the cat-and-mouse game with the media. “You read the paper every day and you read things that were about things you’re supposedly doing, and it would be completely wrong,” he says. “Then other times you read things and they’re pretty close to what you’re doing and you wonder how they got out.”

And while the Trump team may feel like it’s experiencing a more severe 24/7 media offensive than any other presidency, Eggleston says the reality is that leaking is de rigueur before, during, and after congressional investigations, especially into sitting presidents.

“Railing about leaks is nonproductive,” says Eggleston, who worked as White House counsel to former President Barack Obama from 2014 to 2017. “It’s just what happens. You might as well rail about humid weather in Washington in the summer. The consequential stuff just tends to come out. Once it’s out, then there’s a chance to move on.”

Eggleston believes that Trump’s ongoing attacks on the investigation, suggesting the Russia probes are a witch-hunt or politically motivated by Democratic sour grapes, will have little impact on the congressional investigation or the work of special prosecutor Robert Mueller.

“I’m certain it has no impact on Mr. Mueller and his group,” says Eggleston, who also served as associate counsel to President Bill Clinton from 1993 to 1994. “He’s a guy of integrity. If you haven’t done anything wrong, he’s the right guy to have on your matter. He’s not afraid to say so. If you did do something wrong, he’s the right guy to have on the job because he won’t stop until he knows the truth.”

Eggleston suggests that the Iran-Contra inquiry was the last time the country was plugged into an entire congressional investigations process rather than dipping in for a single sensational event, such as the testimony of former FBI Director James Comey. But Trump’s penchant for venting on Twitter and making a splash may draw even more viewers to Trump hearings, if or when they’re held.

“The Iran-Contra hearings really were the last hearings that everybody watched throughout the whole process,” says Eggleston. “I would be walking down the street and people would come up after recognizing me from that day’s testimony. It was a subject dominating the discussion in Washington and the whole country.”

Also in This Series... 

Robert Bennett, the personal attorney for President Bill Clinton in the Paula Jones case, discusses his experiences, especially as they relate to today.