On the Take

One set of Trump scandals that lacks useful historical analogy are the overlapping emolument and personal and/or familial enrichment activities which suffuse the daily business of the White House. Evidence of financial corruption and/or influence peddling in an administration once doomed the historical reputation of a presidency even if the president himself did not appear to benefit personally.

The Grant administration,for instance, featured an eclectic range of corruption scandals, none of which directly implicated Grant himself, but ruined his historical reputation nonetheless.

An 1882 cartoon showing Jay Gould on Wall Street, depicted as a bowling alley (left). A cartoon depicting James Fisk being knocked down by a bear market on Black Friday 1869 (right). 

In 1869, Wall Street financiers Jay Gould and James Fisk attempted to corner the market in gold. Their scheme hinged on convincing the U.S. Treasury to temporarily suspend its policy of releasing gold into the marketplace, so as to artificially limit its supply and permit the corner.

Fisk and Gould believed they had successfully lobbied Grant into the scheme by convincing him that suspension of gold sales would be good for crop prices; they took the additional precautions of paying Treasury officials for inside information and attempting to bribe assorted Grant confidants and family members.

Once Grant realized the nature of the scheme, he ordered the Treasury to sell gold and break the corner. The scandal, however, contributed to his reputation as personally honest but malleable and naïve in the face of pressure from rich friends.

n 1876 Thomas Nast cartoon on the Whiskey Ring (left). An 1880 cartoon showing Ulysses S. Grant on a trapeze holding onto a “third term,” “whiskey ring,” and a “Navy ring” with “corruption” in his mouth (right).

Additional Grant scandals included the Whiskey Ring, in which Grant’s private secretary Orville Babcock was implicated in a kickback scheme involving evasion of the federal excise tax on spirits; the New York Custom House Ring, in which administration appointees helped importers evade customs duties; kickbacks to Secretary of War William Belknap in exchange for monopoly rights at western trading posts; and a bribery scandal in the Department of the Interior involving fraudulent land grants.

For many years, this combination of scandals contributed to Grant’s ranking near the bottom of historians’ ratings of Presidents, though his reputation has recently improved due to re-evaluation of his role in Reconstruction.

In 1929, former Secretary of the Interior Albert B. Fall became the first U.S. cabinet official sentenced to prison (left). A 1924 cartoon showing Washington officials running down an oil-slicked road to avoid the Teapot Dome scandal (right).

Like Grant, Warren Harding has long been at or near the bottom of the presidential rankings due to a reputation for corruption. The main Harding scandal, however, the Teapot Dome scandal, seems underwhelming in retrospect.

A 1917 photograph of Nanna Popham Britton, a mistress of President Warren G. Harding.

Albert Fall, Harding’s secretary of the interior, took bribes from oil companies in exchange for leasing the development rights to two of the Navy’s designated strategic oil reserves at favorable terms. The details, however, emerged spectacularly over the course of the 1920s, and by 1931 Fall had become the first cabinet member to serve jail time as a result of actions taken while in office.

Harding, like Grant, was personally unenriched by these events, but Harding, like Grant, suffered in the eyes of historians as a symbol of a particular style of political corruption regarded as characteristic of his era.

Other members of the so-called “Ohio Gang” surrounding Harding, including Attorney General Harry Daugherty and Director of the Veterans’ Bureau Charles Forbes, were also credibly charged with corruption while in office. In 1927, a few years after Harding’s death, one of his mistresses, Nan Britton, published a book detailing their affair, including the accusation that Harding was the father of her daughter. This claim was confirmed by DNA evidence in 2015.

Did the President do that? Can the President do that?

As yet, sex and money have failed to fell a Presidency. Only a Constitutional crisis has been sufficient.

The alpha and omega of American political scandals remains Watergate, the only one to both compel the resignation of a President and permanently alter the English language.

The Watergate Complex in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood of Washington, D.C. (left). Chapstick tubes outfitted with small microphones used during the Watergate burglary and discovered in a White House safe (right).

In June of 1972, five men were arrested in the offices of the Democratic National Committee, located in the Watergate complex, while in the process of bugging DNC phones. It soon emerged that the burglars had been financed by money tied to Nixon’s re-election committee, and were part of a larger network of political espionage and sabotage activities. These revelations nevertheless had little impact on the outcome of the election, as Nixon cruised to one of the biggest landslide victories in history.

Nixon’s second term, however, was immediately consumed by efforts to cover up the White House’s role in and knowledge of the burglary.

A view of President Richard Nixon from outside the Oval Office addressing the nation on April 29, 1974 (left). President Richard Nixon boarding Army One after resigning on August 9, 1974 (right).

Televised Senate hearings began in May 1973, by which time a special prosecutor had been appointed and several major administration figures had already resigned. The Senate hearings revealed the existence of an automated taping system in the White House; the tapes, once made public, confirmed the extent of Nixon’s complicity in both systematic abuse of executive power and subsequent efforts to obstruct justice.

His effort to halt the investigation by ordering the firing of the special prosecutor—the Saturday Night Massacre—ultimately failed. He resigned in August 1974. Meanwhile, Nixon’s vice president, Spiro Agnew, had been forced to resign in October 1973 as the result of an entirely separate scandal related to kickbacks on construction contracts Agnew had accepted while governor of Maryland.

President Nixon’s resignation address on August 8, 1974.

Watergate remains a canonical trope of American culture, not just American politics. It spawned the greatest journalistic mystery of the twentieth century—who was “Deep Throat,” the informant—and is the central plot device of at least five major motion pictures and an episode of Futurama. Its cultural power came, ultimately, from its moral legibility. Even Nixon understood: people have gotta know whether or not their President’s a crook.

Subsequent executive branch scandals of similar Constitutional importance have proved less legible. Take, for example, the Iran-Contra affair, a scandal with a hyphenated name, and a separate and unique scandal on each side of the hyphen.

On the “Iran” side, the Reagan administration in 1985 engaged in secret negotiations with the Iranian government in an effort to secure the release of seven American hostages being held in Lebanon by Hezbollah. These negotiations led to arms transfers to Iran via Israel. At the time, Iran was one of six countries on the American list of “state sponsors of terrorism.”

President Ronald Reagan addressing the nation regarding Iran-Contra on November 13, 1986. 

Meanwhile, the administration was also covertly supporting the “Contras,” anticommunist guerrillas in Nicaragua, in violation of the recently passed Boland Amendment. The hyphen, so to speak, was Oliver North, a National Security Council deputy instrumental in funneling proceeds from the Iranian arms sales to the Contras—and in destroying evidence of the linkage once the arms sales became public.

As with Watergate, presidential knowledge of and/or culpability in the crime was the underlying question of the scandal. This ultimately applied to two presidents, as George H.W. Bush was also potentially implicated.

A mug shot of Oliver North after his 1987 arrest (left). North at the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2015 (right).

Also like Watergate, the Constitutional limits of executive power were placed on national trial. Iran-Contra nevertheless proved less obviously morally or legally clear. Despite numerous indictments stemming from the scandal, Reagan’s reputation largely survived, and he remains an iconic hero to many conservatives—as, to a certain extent, does North, who was recently elected president of the NRA.

Vice President Dick Cheney with his chief of staff Lewis “Scooter” Libby in 2001.

The Valerie Plame Affair proved less potent than Watergate, despite presenting similar questions about abuse of executive power.

In 2003, George W. Bush ordered an invasion of Iraq on the stated grounds that the regime of Saddam Hussein had sought weapons of mass destruction in violation of U.N. resolutions. As partial evidence, the administration claimed that Iraq had sought to obtain yellowcake, partially enriched uranium, from Niger.

After the invasion, however, a former American diplomat named Joseph Wilson wrote an op-ed in the New York Times calling the Niger story into question, and suggesting that the administration’s evidence for war had been falsified. A week later, Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, was outed as a CIA agent in a leak to Washington Post columnist Robert Novak.

Plame’s status as a CIA asset was classified, and a special prosecutor was appointed to investigate the leak. Scooter Libby, chief of staff for Vice President Dick Cheney, was eventually convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice, not for the leak itself, but for lying to the FBI about his contacts with reporters. Conservatives demanded his pardon; Cheney’s relationship with George W. Bush was reportedly damaged permanently by Bush’s refusal to grant one.

Donald Trump, however, pardoned Libby on April 13, 2018. Also on April 13, Trump called James Comey—who, as deputy Attorney General in 2003, had appointed the Plame special prosecutor, and who, as FBI director in 2017, was fired by Trump over his role in the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election—a “LEAKER & LIAR” on Twitter.

An April 2018 Tweet from President Donald Trump about James Comey.

The truth of this claim remains under investigation by Robert Mueller, special counsel for the Department of Justice.

Whether or not the Mueller investigation yields constructive action against any of the above outrages may depend on pace. What happens when wrongdoing accrues at a rate faster than it can be investigated?

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