From Nixon to Trump, the historical arc of presidential misconduct is deeply troubling

Since the early 1970s, the behavior of American presidents has worsened in alarming ways.
Image: Since the early 1970s, the behavior of American presidents has worsened in alarming ways.
Our current crisis unites the wrongdoing of the Nixon and Reagan administrations as they have never been combined before.Chelsea Stahl / NBC News
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By James M. Banner Jr., editor of “Presidential Misconduct: From George Washington to Today”

During the Watergate investigation, I contributed to an unprecedented history of presidential misconduct that the impeachment inquiry of the House Committee on the Judiciary requested in 1974. Now, 45 years later, I’ve edited an expanded version, covering all U.S. presidencies through Barack Obama’s. Looking over that 230-year span, what I’m forced to conclude is deeply troubling: Since the early 1970s, the behavior of American presidents has worsened in alarming ways.

Only occasionally, and then without major threat to the public welfare, did administration officials thumb their noses at the law. That changed decisively in the 1970s.

Until then, executive branch malfeasance followed what we might think of as normal human misbehavior: the search for easy money, attempts to escape responsibility and the subversion of existing law for personal gain. Only occasionally, and then without major threat to the public welfare, did administration officials thumb their noses at the law and engage in flagrantly illegal acts.

That changed decisively in the 1970s.

With the presidency of Richard M. Nixon, criminal acts were engineered and implemented directly from the White House. Then, during Ronald Reagan’s administration, a shadow government composed of administration officials acting outside normal channels and without legal authorization seized control of aspects of U.S. foreign policy.

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Today, the Trump White House has allegedly engaged in what looks like a breathtaking combination of both Oval Office complicity and shadow government operations. These two kinds of illicit executive action seem to have been brought together to drive U.S. relations with other foreign powers. This sort of criminal behavior has never before so permeated a presidency or so deeply threatened American governance.

Earlier in the nation’s history, official corruption assumed simpler, less sinister forms. The first known instance of executive branch malfeasance by members of the chief executive’s “official family” (his Cabinet officials and subordinate officers) occurred during George Washington’s first term (1789-1793) — when Assistant Treasury Secretary William Duer stole more than $250,000 from federal accounts for his speculative purposes. Like so many subsequent acts of misconduct, this one was actuated by greed — exploiting public office for private gain.

Such corruption was made easy by the absence of laws that effectively prevented and punished it. Well into the late 19th century, money could buy public office. Kickbacks for federal appointments were commonplace. As they remain today, public offices were made available as a reward for political support and campaign contributions even if appointees were incompetent or ignorant of the requirements of their offices.

Not until 1883, with enactment of the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act, were federal government positions subject to competitive examination and protected against partisan retribution. The 1939 Hatch Act, which prohibits federal employees from taking part in partisan politics, brought still greater protection of the public interest. So did subsequent whistleblower protection laws and some modest campaign finance reforms — even in the face of the U.S. Supreme Court’s notorious 2010 Citizens United v. FEC decision.

Rarely, however, have presidents themselves been caught in outright illegal or dishonest behavior. The administrations of Ulysses S. Grant (1869-1877) and Warren G. Harding (1920-1923), for example, may have been two of the most corrupt in U.S. history. But neither of those presidents were themselves corrupt. Naïve and too trusting of their subordinates, they simply failed to set high standards of behavior. They could not bring themselves to dismiss cronies and associates in whom they’d misplaced their trust. Presidential failures of this sort have been frequent.

It was during the Nixon presidency (1969-1974) that, seemingly for the first time, illegal and corrupt acts were orchestrated from the Oval Office. As tape-recorded conversations and other documents and testimony revealed, Nixon himself knew of his subordinates’ misdeeds, urged them on and joined in efforts to obstruct justice by covering up their illegal acts. For that, Nixon was the first president to be named an un-indicted co-conspirator in a legal filing. The Watergate break-in and associated scandals — which included warrantless wiretapping, break-ins, surreptitious surveillance and secret plotting among White House staff members — ultimately cost Nixon his presidency.

But the revelation of the Nixon administration’s wrongdoings and the punishments of those involved failed to deter others. Under Reagan in the 1980s, a second serious departure in the modern annals of presidential behavior emerged. Members of Reagan’s administration devised a secret operation — the Iran-Contra Affair — in defiance of Congress’s explicit ban against transferring funds authorized for one purpose to an unauthorized one. The scheme involved covert weapons-running, dealings with terrorists and money-skimming.

The revelation of the Nixon administration’s wrongdoings and the punishments of those involved failed to deter others.

Yet even these criminal misdeeds have been surpassed today in two respects. First, plotting to skirt public policy and engage in foreign policy outside official State Department and intelligence channels has now involved private individuals as well as plotters within the White House. Former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, acting as Trump’s amateur foreign policy representative without congressional confirmation, is their embodiment.

Second, and more deeply troubling, our current crisis unites the wrongdoing of the Nixon and Reagan administrations as they have never been combined before.

Nixon-like secret, illegal malfeasance now appears to be mixing with Reagan-administration cabal-like secret plotting. Illegal behavior is being plotted by a group of conspirators both within and outside the government — and the president of the United States admits he connived in it.

Many people are now placing confidence in the impending public House impeachment hearings to alter the president’s behavior — though previous congressional oversight, robust press exposure of the administration’s actions, Republican election losses, court decisions and aroused citizens have failed to do so. Consider, however, that it was the threat, not the fact, of impeachment that drove Nixon from office, and that the two other impeachments in U.S. history — of Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton — couldn’t gain the two thirds of the Senate vote required to remove a president from office. There’s seems slim chance that this one will do so either.

All Americans ought to be deeply fearful about what this portends for the future. If those responsible for illegal and corrupt acts don’t pay the price for their flagrant disregard of our laws and the U.S. Constitution — and if new laws and institutions are not created to prevent their happening again — the nation’s future is not bright.

CORRECTION (Nov. 10, 2019, 6:00 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the number of senators required to remove a president from office. Two thirds of the senators present must vote to remove a president, not three quarters.