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A Brief History of Crimes Committed in the White House

There's probably never been a president with a criminal appetite like Frank Underwood's, but that's not to say that criminal activity has somehow steered clear of The White House altogether.
February 28, 2015, 10:33am
Screencap from House of Cards on Netflix

No, there's probably never been a president with a criminal streak like Frank Underwood's, but that's not to say that criminal activity has somehow steered clear of The White House altogether. Far from it, since the first residence was constructed there in 1800, the place has seen dozens of crimes that can be reliably documented.

Easily the most interesting crime ever to occur at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, was the 1859 murder of Philip Barton Key, a DC district attorney and the son of Francis Scott Key, author of the national anthem. He was shot dead by his girlfriend's husband, who happened to be New York Congressman Dan Sickles. Sickles shouted "Key, you scoundrel, you have dishonored my home; you must die," before somehow firing a lethal shot right into Key's groin. But while that nightmare occurred within earshot of President James Buchanan, it was actually just outside the White House in Lafayette Square, and not technically on the grounds.


The rest of the items in this history occurred somewhere in the White House Complex, the principal structures of the White House and its surrounding grounds. Obviously when you compare the president's house to a park-and-ride lot in Camden, New Jersey, it's going to be relatively crime-free. Still, three types of crimes seem to happen there: Fun stuff, political stuff, and a category I'm going to call "Look at Me! I'm Doing Something Illegal in the White House!"

Fun Stuff:
Any gay stuff that happened in the White House before Washington DC's sodomy law was repealed in 1993 was a crime, and gay stuff may indeed have happened.

The author C. A. Tripp famously dug up compelling evidence that Abraham Lincoln had sex with his chief body guard David Derickson in the White House when his wife Mary Todd was away. In fact, prominent Mary Todd biographer Jean H. Baker endorses that interpretation of history. The penalty if they'd been caught would have been up to ten years in jail. Lincoln's immediate predecessor, James Buchanan, was almost certainly gay, but he was a lonely man most of his life, and there's nothing to suggest that Buchanan ever had guests in his White House bedroom.

It's not clear than any other presidents committed the crime of butt sex in the White House (OK, maybe Nixon), but plenty of non-presidents have boned in the Lincoln bedroom. In the 1980s, a lobbyist named Craig Spence bribed a Secret Service agent with a fancy watch in order to let him take his "friends" who were sex workers, on tours of the White House, and it's doubtful that they just wanted to look at the antiques.


Before Spence committed suicide he told the Washington Times, "All this stuff you've uncovered, to be honest with you, is insignificant compared to other things I've done. But I'm not going to tell you those things, and somehow the world will carry on." According to press at the time, he was the go-to guy among Reagan and Bush staffers' for prostitutes and cocaine.

But he didn't introduce cocaine to the White House. That appears to have happened during the Carter Administration. Dr. Peter G. Bourne, Carter's Drug Czar, told reporter Ronald Kessler that there was a "high incidence" of marijuana use among the Carter's staffers, "as well as some use of cocaine."

Political Stuff:

Right out of the gate, let's dispense with Watergate—Nixon, 1972—and the Iran-Contra scandal—Reagan, 1986. Both have a lot in common: They were fairly large conspiracies involving illegal activity; they were both almost certainly planned in the White House; and you've probably already read about them in a high school history book. So we don't feel the need to rehash them here.

Instead, let's look at some of the more obscure political crimes, of the kind Underwood would be proud of. Back in 1980, a somewhat low-impact document theft occurred, when a mole, whose identity was never discovered, pilfered a debate briefing book and gave it to Reagan before the big presidential debate. The incident was dubbed Debategate, but it's not clear that the documents actually helped. Conservative columnist George Will, who was helping Reagan prepare, said he peeked at the document, but found it boring and worthless.


Similarly, during the Bush Administration, Leandro Aragoncillo, a Filipino-American who worked in the vice president's office before moving over to the FBI, allegedly snuck out with some documents he stole from Dick Cheney, and handed them over to Filipino politicians who were running for office. It was a weird case of espionage that embarrassed the government of the Philippines. Aragoncillo is still in prison.

In more interesting political crimes, the antics of Clinton's staffers during the so-called "Vandal Scandal" of 2001 was a collection of pranks so extensive it may have bordered on actual vandalism. Democrats eventually confirmed that they pried the "W" keys off all the White House keyboards, to spite the incoming president who, they felt, had stolen the election from the outgoing vice president. They steamed presidential seal stickers off glass surfaces. They mislabeled doors with things like "Office of Strategery," and "Office of Subliminable Messages." In a Bush Administration report on the damages, a Time Magazine cover featuring a picture of Bush that they'd scrawled "Oh shit!" on was considered "obscene graffiti." No one was charged, and the ensuing investigation was arguably more costly than the mess.

But on the subject of the Clinton Administration, if you'll forgive a momentary lapse into conspiracy theories, some people think Bill and Hillary are at the center of a scandal reminiscent of the Doug Stamper subplot on House of Cards. In 1993 Deputy White House counsel Vince Foster, who had reportedly been very close to Hillary Clinton, apparently shot himself in the head. It took a three-year investigation to rule Foster's death a suicide, and the ambiguity of the whole thing has left conspiracy-nuts obsessed, trying to prove—it seems—that Hillary had him whacked, and then used her White House clout to keep it under wraps, forging a bizarre suicide note, hiding police photographs, which really did mysteriously disappear, and generally running a very cinematic Washington DC murder coverup scheme.


But now, let's return to things that definitely did happen.

"Look at Me! I'm Doing Something Illegal in the White House!"
In 1974, Robert Preston, a private in the US Army, managed to steal an entire helicopter from Fort Meade, and then fly it the thirty miles to the White House, with Maryland State Police helicopters chasing after him. He hovered around for a while before White House security shot at him, forcing him to land. If you're wondering what the name of this particular crime is, it is "wrongful appropriation and breach of the peace." No one was seriously hurt, though, and the President and First Lady weren't even home that day, so no harm done.

The best way to commit a victimless crime at the White House (now that sodomy is legal) is to just sneak some drugs in. Weed is newly legal in Washington DC, but when Snoop Dogg smoked it in 2013, while doing a "number two" in a White House bathroom, it was still illegal. The same was true when Willie Nelson and Fox News pundit Bob Beckel, got high in the White House in the 1970s. The high can't be all that great with all that heavy security around, but a lot of the time, that's not why people do drugs in the White House.

David Cross once did a tiny bit of cocaine at a White House Correspondents Dinner (which only gets honorable mention here, because it happened at the Hilton). Afterward, he explained it like this:

The jolt was similar to licking an empty espresso cup. It wasn't about that. It was just about being able to say that I did it, that I did cocaine in the same room as the president.

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(NOTE: This article has been edited to reflect the fact that David Cross snorted cocaine at the Hilton, not the White House)