The Buck Stops…Where?
President Harry S. Truman was a no-nonsense kind of guy. Son of a farmer and a strong advocate of personal responsibility, Truman famously had a little sign on his desk that read “The Buck Stops Here.” A play on the idea of “passing the buck,” Truman’s message was clear: When it came to the responsibility for executive actions, all roads led to and ended with the president. For Truman, the buck stopped at his desk.
In the current presidential administration, this appears to be changing. President Donald Trump has been quick to deny his own responsibility in creating political chaos during his first few months. Whether shifting focus to “the Democrats,” the media, or to President Obama, Trump has “passed the buck” frequently and forcefully, choosing to blame other political actors for the failures that come from his office, and in large part, changing norms in Washington about political messaging. At times, Trump’s statements have even put America’s global reputation at risk.
Take the latest shocker. Last week, President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey. Comey became a national name after he twice announced that the FBI was investigating Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was Secretary of State.
More recently, however, Comey was the leading investigator within the Justice Department into the Trump presidential campaign’s potential connections to Russia, and whether those connections were criminal in nature.
These facts are no secret, and Trump’s firing of the man investigating his campaign has certainly raised more than a few eyebrows in Washington and beyond. It doesn’t take a huge leap of logic to believe that this is an example of a president tightening his power in order to skirt potential charges.
Much noise has been made in the news media recently about the idea of political “numbness,” or the fact that the American public is no longer recoiling in shock to news of corruption from the White House. Day by day, widely accepted norms within our political process are being negated by an administration that seems more intent on saving its own skin than protecting the integrity of the presidency.
With that in mind, it may be necessary to step back and examine these transgressions collectively. When the standards of political decorum are violated so often and so flippantly, at what point do we know when enough is enough? When does corruption give way to formal censorship or removal from office?
I’m not going to be the next in a line of political commentators who compare Trump to Watergate, or label his actions “Nixonian.” Quite frankly, at this point that comparison has been too watered down by overuse to carry much persuasive power in the public sphere — mention Nixon or use the suffix “gate,” and most folks will dismiss your comments out of hand as merely a broad way to refer to political corruption.
But the comparison to Watergate is useful as a clue for us to look to the past in order to examine current political issues. Watergate is not the only example of a president misusing his office for personal gain. The emphasis on Watergate shows us that in order to understand how Trump’s shady practices will translate into public action, we need to delve deeper into the history of presidential transgressions.
There are plenty more examples to examine than just Nixon. The office of the presidency has a storied tradition of reverence, and many politicians, including Trump himself, draw on its reputation as a sacred office to push political priorities. At the same time, political corruption and shady cover-frequently come with the job. For every upstanding man to have held the office, there is one who discarded ethics to achieve personal gain.
One of Trump’s favorite former presidents is Andrew Jackson, a man whose gross misdeeds towards Native American peoples are well documented. In an interview earlier this month , Trump claimed that “had Andrew Jackson been a little bit later you wouldn’t have had the Civil War. He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart. He was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War, he said, ‘There’s no reason for this.’”
Besides the blatant historical inaccuracies in his statement, Trump’s use of Jackson as a signpost for the direction of his own presidency is particularly ironic. Just like Jackson, Trump has employed patronage practices to fill out his White House staff, practices that have drawn public scorn.
Jackson was ridiculed for his use of the “spoils system,” when he used the office of the Presidency to install his unqualified friends and family members to public office. As president, he was regularly and thoroughly derided by his political opponents for these actions, but nonetheless continued the practice throughout his entire term of office.
Today, Jackson’s actions bear a striking similarity to Trump’s hiring of Jared Kushner as a senior advisor, his nomination of Ben Carson as the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and his tapping of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. None of these appointees have prior experience completing similar responsibilities to those they have now. What they do have are personal connections to Trump, whether by marriage to his daughter, loyalty from a wing of conservative voters, or donations to his party.
Jackson’s actions sparked outrage from the opposing anti-Jacksonian faction in Congress, but did not lead to serious calls for his ouster. The political conditions surrounding his use of patronage were not shady enough to urge for his removal from office. If history is any indication, Trump’s use of similar practices may not, in and of itself, lead to his ouster.
For another war general-turned-president, political corruption was a bigger deal . Most Americans remember Ulysses S. Grant for his triumphant contributions to the Civil War by winning the Battle of Vicksburg and forcing Lee to surrender at Appomattox.
Less memorable, however, are the two turbulent terms he served as president. Despite his notable contributions to civil rights enforcement in the South, Grant was plagued by charges of corruption related to his manipulation of gold prices and the value of national currency tied to the gold standard. Grant took heat for his actions, and as his unpopularity grew, he was denied the Republican nomination for a third term as president in 1876.
Again, Trump has come under fire for similar practices. After pledging to label China as a currency manipulator during his campaign, Trump has backed off of those comments and has even considered decreasing the value of the dollar, a blatant manipulation of the national currency that brings his statements about Chinese currency practices into the realm of the hypocritical.
Grant wasn’t removed from office for his misdeeds, but his unpopularity within Republican circles caused him to lose the GOP nomination for a third term. Will Trump’s economic moves cause the GOP to dump him in 2020? The jury is still out.
Even less well known than Jackson or Grant is President Warren G. Harding. Harding was a likable, persuasive candidate who stormed into office on a tide of popular support, winning a commanding electoral college victory of 404 to 127.
Less popular was his decision to profit off the sale of U.S. oil reserves in Wyoming to private companies in the infamous “Teapot Dome scandal.” Harding likely would have been impeached for his actions, but a fatal heart attack stopped the proceedings before his illegal actions could be revealed. In the jury of public opinion, Harding’s presidency has been widely panned for his outright use of office for personal profit.
We’ve seen similar actions from Trump. Trump has gotten cozy with foreign leaders who preside over his business interests, including the president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, a man whose regime has been indicted the Human Rights Watch for its “unlawful executions.” With Duterte’s track record of human rights violations, is Trump merely playing nice in order to ensure the profitability of his newly constructed property in Manila? The record seems to suggest a connection.
Presidential corruption has created public concern at many points in American history, and Watergate was not the only time that the American public openly questioned their executive leadership. The question is, when do political scandals become toxic enough to force a change?
American history is replete with examples of Trump’s current actions, and these examples display a breaking point in public trust. Usually, that point has come when the President ignores the optics of his actions and enriches himself at the expense of American taxpayers. Clearly, Trump has started down that path. But has he amended the public tolerance for presidential corruption? It remains to be seen.
While political corruption can take many forms, certain violations have had a greater effect on public perceptions of the president than others. In particular, the lack of personal accountability that Trump has displayed for his own actions has, like others before him, left his tenure on shaky ground.
Trump has even inserted his own breaks from decorum by revealing sensitive intelligence to Russian officials in a closed meeting. With a whole suite of shady practices under his belt in less than four months, his way forward hinges on his willingness to step up, take accountability for his actions, and make a change in his policies going forward. Trump may follow in the footsteps of his corrupt predecessors, or he may create a new standard for what is acceptable.
Presidential history suggests the former, but tomorrow’s history is still unclear. We don’t know yet know where the “buck stops” with Trump. Regardless, it is clear that this presidency will continue to make history for those that come after.