Tracing political scandals from Nixon to Clinton to Trump

By Charles Lewis

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News Politics

The Investigative Reporting Workshop is co-publishing this essay with Zing.vn, one of the most-read news outlets in Vietnam.

The United States is mired today in its worst, most significant and extensive political and ethical wrongdoing since the 1974 Watergate scandal that, after more than two years, resulted in the historically unprecedented resignation of President Richard M. Nixon.

For a nation that has always preened and prided itself on the enduring quality of its representative democracy and its relative domestic tranquility, serious political crises have besmirched America’s self-image three times in the past 45 years. In particular, following revelations that he (and his White House staff) had committed various crimes and misdemeanors and was facing almost certain impeachment and removal from the office, Nixon wisely resigned Aug. 9, 1974. Weeks later, he was pardoned from any related, future criminal prosecution by Gerald Ford, fellow Republican and former vice president who had assumed the presidency. Ultimately, more than 70 people, including White House aides and Cabinet officials, were convicted of crimes and misdemeanors relating to the Watergate scandal — the most criminal convictions in a political scandal in U.S. history.

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton denies allegations of a sexual relationship with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky during a White House event in this Jan. 26, 1998, file photo. (Win Mcnamee/Reuters)

Just 24 years later, Democrat Bill Clinton was impeached by the Republican-controlled House after months of a lurid sex scandal involving the married president and White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Clinton also had been dogged by a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by Paula Jones accusing Clinton of perjury and obstruction of justice. For the first time since Feb. 24, 1868, when President Andrew Johnson was impeached by the House but not convicted and removed by the Senate, Clinton became (and remains) only the second president in U.S. history to be impeached.

The House voted Feb. 12, 1999, to impeach him for perjury to a grand jury by a vote of 228-206 and for obstruction of justice by a vote of 221-212. However, the Republican-controlled majority in the Senate could not muster more than 50 votes for Clinton’s conviction on the charges — nowhere near the 67 votes/two-thirds majority required to convict and remove a president from office. Thus, Clinton was acquitted by the Senate and served out his second and final term in office.

Remarkably, political life in the United States has gotten even stranger and more disturbing since then. Indeed, our daily political discourse has become less civilized and more cartoonish, which didn’t seem possible a few years ago. From the day billionaire reality-TV celebrity and political neophyte Donald Trump announced his Republican candidacy for the White House, on June 16, 2015, to Nov. 8, 2016, when he was elected president, winning the Electoral College 304-227 but losing the popular vote to Democrat Hillary Clinton by nearly 2.9 million votes (the largest popular vote total of any candidate who went on to lose the Electoral College vote and the national election) to now, he has lied constantly and prolifically, in ways never seen before in contemporary U.S. history.

The respected fact-checking website “PolitiFact,” the winner of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting, has a “Truth-o-Meter” with six categories in which it analyzes public officials’ statements: “True, Mostly True, Half True, Mostly False, False and Pants on Fire” lies, the most egregious. During the 2016 presidential election, according to PolitiFact, Trump’s public statements included 10 times more “Pants on Fire” lies than Hillary Clinton — 53 to 5, according to PolitiFact Editor Angie Drobnic Holan.

When asked how Trump’s 2016 numbers compared with other presidential candidates and recent elections, she said, “Trump has by far the most [“Pants on Fire” lies of any presidential candidate] in the 2008, 2012 and 2016 elections.”

Indeed, according to fact-checkers at The Washington Post, Trump “has made 8,158 false or misleading claims” in his first two years as president. Perhaps more alarming, he averaged “nearly 5.9 false or misleading claims a day in his first year in office. But he hit nearly 16.5 a day in his second year, almost triple the pace.” In just this past year, Trump made “an astonishing 6,000-plus” false or misleading claims.

That level of presidential prevarication is unprecedented in modern U.S. history since systematic fact-checking began.

But beyond his almost innumerable, unsubstantiated statements, Trump also has defiantly refused to release his tax returns – even after he said he would during the campaign and even though every elected president since the 1972-’74 Watergate scandal has released theirs. And he has also refused to place his far-flung hotels, golf courses and other extensive business holdings throughout the world (in such garden spots as Azerbaijan, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates) in a blind trust. Trump has arrogantly and defiantly refused to conform to the “good government” conventions of the post-Watergate era. Apparently for this 3 a.m. tweeter with a billionaire’s boundless id, existing federal ethics laws and mores are niceties to be ignored, unenforced or eliminated. At least two civil lawsuits have been brought against Trump for alleged violations of the Constitution’s “emoluments” clause because the president has not divested himself of his far-flung international financial interests, nor for that matter has his daughter, Ivanka, or her millionaire real-estate developer husband, Jared Kushner.

So now we are again in the full throes of the time-honored Washington Kabuki dance of federal investigations, prosecutors and well-heeled and well-paid defense lawyers all lined up, scrutinized by numerous eager, caffeine and adrenaline-filled reporters and researchers. It is another historic moment and spectacle of political scandal in the United States.

To date, according to Vox, there have been 34 federal indictments or guilty pleas of defendants and three companies brought by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team of prosecutors and the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York, the New York Attorney General’s office and others. Overall, there are 17 (known) Trump and Russia investigations, according to Wired magazine. And that does not include investigations by the now Democratic-majority House.

And yet, despite all this investigative energy, prowess and activity, the speaker of the House, Democrat Nancy Pelosi, recently told The Washington Post that Republican Donald Trump has “been a great organizer for Democrats, a great fundraiser for Democrats and a great mobilizer at the grass-roots level for Democrats. [Laughs.] And I think that’s good for America. . . . I’m not for impeachment. . . . Impeachment is so divisive to the country that unless there’s something so compelling and overwhelming and bipartisan, I don’t think we should go down that path, because it divides the country. And he’s just not worth it.”

With just 20 months until the 2020 presidential election and numerous federal and state investigations being conducted into Trump and his administration’s alleged misconduct, stay tuned!

Charles Lewis is the founding executive editor of the Investigative Reporting Workshop and a professor at American University in Washington, D.C. A veteran investigative journalist, he is also the founder of two Pulitzer Prize-winning nonprofit news organizations, the Center for Public Integrity and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. His most recent book is “935 Lies: The Future of Truth and the Decline of America’s Moral Integrity” (2014).