What Trump Could Learn from America's Long History of Sex Scandals
Too bad Trump isn't a student of history.
Left: Warren G. Harding. Right: Donald Trump, photo by Alex Wong/Getty
Although it often feels like every tale out of the White House is shocking and unprecedented, one aspect of Trump’s presidency is actually fairly normal: A lot of presidents have been at the center of sex scandals. From stories about “Mr. Jefferson’s Congo Harem” at the dawn of the 19th century—a reference to Thomas Jefferson’s serial rape of his slave (and dead wife’s half-sister), Sally Hemings—to whispers about JFK’s star-studded intrigues to Bill Clinton’s many affairs and alleged assaults, sex scandals have been a feature of presidential politics for nearly as long as the office has existed. John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, James Buchanan, James Garfield, Grover Cleveland, FDR, Dwight Eisenhower, LBJ, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and both Bushes faced some level of sex scandal in the lead-up to, during, or after their terms. Less concrete rumors and speculation have hovered over about a half dozen other presidents.
None of these past scandals look exactly like the Stormy Daniels affair, which is dominating the news thanks to the 60 Minutes interview where she talked about having sex with Trump in 2006 and later being threatened by a mysterious man after dishing about the encounter to a tabloid. Many presidential sex scandals were even more absurd than the current moment. For instance, Warren G. Harding allegedly had trysts in a White House closet, relying on the Secret Service to tip him off when his wife was walking down the hall. Yet only a few sex scandals have picked up real steam and persistently dogged presidents for months or years on end, even in the modern era. To wit, while we all know about Monica Lewinsky, some of Clinton’s earlier affairs remain obscure to most Americans. And while both George H.W. and W. Bush’s were of accused of indiscretions (and in W’s case, rape), those allegations never got nearly as much air time as those leveled against Clinton.
So why has the Stormy Daniels story gained so much momentum? Looking back at history, it seems most presidents came up with tools and tactics to control the flow of information about their sex lives, or at least to mitigate the spread and damage of stories that leaked out. Not all of these tactics apply in the modern era. But many could have been of use to Trump and his team even today, if he’d taken the time to look back at his predecessors for (sneaky, sometimes morally bankrupt) insights.
The classic narrative, explained presidential historian Fred Greenstein, is that before Watergate and modern mass media gave rise to a new wave of adversarial sleuthing into every aspect of politicians’ lives, most White House sex scandals stayed off the radar because “the norms then were that journalists didn’t cover the private lives of public figures.” Many in DC likely knew that FDR had a long-term mistress and a loveless marriage or that LBJ boasted about sleeping with more women than Kennedy. But they didn’t think it was a matter of legitimate public interest, although arguably some affairs really were: Harding used Republican National Convention funds as hush money, for instance.
Clearly Trump can’t rely on that inside-the-beltway camaraderie and journalistic discretion. That hasn't been the norm since 1987, when reporters brought down presidential hopeful Gary Hart by reporting on his extramarital affairs—often cited as a watershed moment in political journalism. After that, chummy silence was a thing of the past. Presidents in the 18th and 19th centuries also faced scrutiny from an openly partisan press full of rabid muckrakers eager to equate private and public morality for ravenous readers.
Clinton and Bush II contained most of their sex scandals in the modern era, through effective optics, argues Robert Watson, author of Affairs of State, a history of the topic. “Bill Clinton was toast because of the Gennifer Flowers scandal,” he told me, referring to widespread coverage during the 1992 New Hampshire Democratic presidential primaries of an affair he’d had with a woman. (Clinton later admitted under oath to having a sexual encounter with her.) Then Bill and Hillary did a primetime interview during which Hillary humanized and showed support for him. “She reaches over, grabs his hand, and puts it on her knee,” recalled Watson. “That was a home run by Hillary.”
Likewise, when George W. Bush was on the campaign trail, stories popped up about his youth spent chasing pussy and drinking whiskey (to paraphrase the man himself in a recent book). So he began to talk about his personal transformation, wrapping himself, as Watson puts it, in faith and patriotism. As such, said Watson, when darker stories emerged on his youthful indiscretions, or even a rape accusation from just before his presidency, they didn’t stick.
Trump can’t lean into tactics like this to contain the Stormy Daniels story, though, because he built his brand on tabloid scandal and shock. “He’s actually boasted about the size of his penis” as a presidential candidate, noted Greenstein, and “how he could go into dressing rooms with naked women and so on.” Watson believes he is unique among presidents for the scale, volume, and visibility of his womanizing.
At the same time, Trump has no convincing ability to talk about faith and redemption from his past (e.g. his “Two Corinthians” moment), even if certain conservative Christian thinkers are still eager to offer him absolution. And while other presidents might have wrapped themselves in their families in response to scandal (a la Bill and Hillary in that 1992 60 Minutes interview), Trump’s children are controversial in and of themselves, and Melania “slaps his hand away and rolls her eyes.”
Some presidents have contained stories once they broke by just not engaging with them, which Watson notes may have been a more Trump-applicable strategy. For instance, Watson recalled, when a reporter tried to ask George H.W. Bush’s press secretary Marlin Fitzwater about rumors that he had a long-term office mistress, “he just went pit bull on her. This person was not invited back into the press pool.” The clear message was, he said, “‘We just won’t tolerate this. We just won’t go there.’” The strategy worked: Have you heard of Jennifer Fitzgerald?
Other presidents have taken some responsibility for their actions in an attempt to neutralize the story. One horrific example of this: In 1873, Grover Cleveland allegedly raped and impregnated a woman named Maria Halpin. She filed an affidavit against him and named the child after him. Cleveland accepted the child as his own (but still sent him to an orphanage). The story was used against him all through the 1880s. But he got Halpin committed to the Providence Lunatic Asylum for a time and spun the narrative that she had slept around with married men; as the only bachelor she was involved with, he said he took responsibility for the child as a noble act, even though he doubted the parentage. The story failed to derail his career—though obviously, that was another era.
Trump probably never had a chance at spinning the Daniels story as, by Watson’s estimation, he hired a press team utterly unprepared to deal with his scandals. But he could have just ignored it. That would have probably worked especially well for Trump both because American attitudes toward affairs have softened since the millennium and because he is awash in scandals that constantly displace each other. “Scandals almost protect him because everybody’s so focused on whatever the scandal of the week is,” said Greenstein.
At first, team Trump denied the story and attempted to move on. But as information kept leaking out, Trump inevitably responded, with his lawyer threatening to sue Daniels for $20 million. The result, through the lens of history, has been, as Watson puts it, “a textbook case in how not to handle a scandal, literally doing almost everything wrong.”
“It’s part of his ego, pushing and trying to intimidate people,” said David Rosen, author of a number of books on sex and political life. “He and his team are such fools. They made it into a far bigger thing than it would have been if they’d let it just go. She would have disappeared in two weeks.”
Past presidents, like Clinton, have been able to recover from a boffed initial response to a sex scandal by admitting they made an escape, expressing (ostensibly) sincere remorse. But Trump never admits to making errors, even when he simply misspeaks at a rally. Even if he did try to apologize, or do photo ops with his family and talk about faith, those standard tactics probably wouldn’t work. “At this point,” said Watson, his “image is so far gone. I really don’t know what he could do.”
If Trump had all this history in mind, he probably would have handled the Daniels scandal—and the bevy of other accusations from women—differently. But can you imagine a Trump capable of engaging with and drawing insights from American history?
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