Americans have spent 230 years trying to rein in presidential misconductRoundup
tags: politics, impeachment, Trump
James M. Banner Jr. is a historian and the editor of “Presidential Misconduct: From George Washington to Today.”
Many presidents, starting with Thomas Jefferson, have faced calls for impeachment. Most presidents and members of their administrations, starting with the presidency of George Washington, have come under fire for serious breaches of law and conduct. How can we understand our present crisis against the long record of presidential wrongdoing?
Until the presidency of Richard Nixon in the 1970s, White House misconduct flowed in expected human channels. From the start, greed proved the major motivation of those caught out for breaking the law. The first instance of executive branch malfeasance, which occurred in 1792, during Washington’s first term in office, involved the theft of federal funds by a well-known speculator serving as assistant secretary of the Treasury. Ever since, high federal officials have tried to use public office for private gain.
When faced with charges of misconduct, officials’ go-to defense has been to try to cover up their actions, whether it’s the misuse of government funds or sexual dalliances, the latter in the case of Bill Clinton and Donald Trump. Lying, as Ronald Reagan did about his knowledge of the unlawful transfer of funds from one use to another during the Iran-Contra affair, has played a large role in cover-ups. Human embarrassment is a rich seedbed for attempts to suppress evidence.
But over 230 years of constitutional government, presidential misconduct has been forced often to change course. Laws that removed federal offices from patronage and outright purchase — the most famous example being Andrew Jackson’s “spoils system” — have made federal service more honest than it would have been without them. Where earlier it was relatively easy to award federal contracts to political friends — as was the case in the notorious Teapot Dome scandal of Warren Harding’s administration in the 1920s — the tightening of bidding rules has now made it difficult for federal officials to award contracts to political favorites.
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