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Tom Barrack, Donald Trump and the (other) most corrupt White House in history

The Trump administration was one of the most thoroughly criminal political machines America has ever experienced. But at least one president may have him beat.
IMage: Then-President Donald Trump speaks to the media on the South Lawn of the White House in 2019.
Then-President Donald Trump speaks to the media on the South Lawn of the White House in 2019.Jabin Botsford / The Washington Post via Getty Images file

The criminal charges brought last week against Tom Barrack, a major fundraiser for former President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign and chairman of his 2017 inaugural committee, were simply the latest in a long string of indictments (and convictions) of high-level Trump associates. (A spokesperson for Barrack, who was released Friday on $250 million bond, said the former fundraiser “has made himself voluntarily available to investigators from the outset. He is not guilty and will be pleading not guilty.”)

The list of Trump associates investigated, indicted or convicted for various crimes goes on and on and on and on and on and on.

Paul Manafort, chairman of Trump’s 2016 campaign, was convicted on charges of banking and tax fraud in 2018. Manafort’s aide and deputy campaign manager, Rick Gates, likewise faced indictments for bank fraud and money laundering (among other crimes) before pleading guilty to lesser charges.

Steve Bannon, campaign CEO and special counselor to the president, was charged with criminal conspiracies to commit wire fraud and money laundering. (He pleaded not guilty, but the charges were later dismissed due in part to confusion over his presidential pardon.)

Michael Cohen, Trump's longtime attorney and fixer, pleaded guilty in 2018 to tax fraud, bank fraud, campaign finance violations and other charges. Roger Stone, another Trump confidant and fixer, was convicted in 2019 on seven counts of witness tampering, obstruction of justice and lying to Congress. Michael Flynn, who served as Trump’s national security adviser for less than a month before resigning in disgrace, pleaded guilty — twice — to lying to FBI investigators.

The list of Trump associates investigated, indicted or convicted for various crimes goes on and on and on and on and on and on. (And, we should note, that list doesn’t include those whose transgressions have been ignored, such as the five members of Trump’s Cabinet whose cases the Department of Justice declined to prosecute.)

The latest criminal charges are surely not the last to be brought against Trump’s inner circle, given the wide array of investigations into his family, friends and business associates that are still underway. The final count of indictments and convictions won’t be known for some time, but it’s already clear that Trump’s team will go down as one of the most thoroughly criminal political machines in American history.

To be sure, other administrations have racked up considerable convictions in the past. The Nixon White House, most famously, unraveled not just with the resignations of the president and vice president, but with dozens of members sent to jail, including a former attorney general, White House counsel and several of the president’s top aides. The Reagan administration likewise ended with dozens indicted or convicted.

The bulk of the criminal charges in those administrations centered on abuses of power for political ends, most notably in the Watergate and Iran-Contra scandals. Trump’s inner circle has faced fallout from comparable investigations, such as special counsel Robert Mueller’s inquiry into their ties to Russia. But the bulk of the charges levied against them have revolved around more personal crimes of financial fraud and garden-variety graft.

To find the real counterpart to Trump’s gang of money-grubbing grifters, we need to look back a century to the crime-riddled administration of Warren G. Harding.

Much like Trump, who promised as a candidate to “drain the swamp” of criminality and corruption, Harding spent the 1920 campaign calling for a return to a “normalcy” marked by old-fashioned values that he promised to instill in Washington. “We need the stamp of common, every-day honesty everywhere,” he told a gathering of newspaper editors that August. “We need it in politics, in government, in our daily lives.”

Despite such soaring appeals to virtue, the government Harding created proved riven with vice.

Harding had his own considerable sins — drinking, gambling, cheating on his wife — but none crossed the line into serious criminal misconduct. Many of the friends and associates Harding chose for his administration, however, blew well past that line, in an unrivaled wave of official corruption and criminality.

Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall, an old friend of Harding’s from the Senate, famously used his own government position to line his considerable pockets. Fall took the federal oil reserves at Teapot Dome, in Wyoming, and Elk Hills, in California — which were set aside for use by the U.S. Navy — and leased them to private oil companies. A congressional inquiry revealed that oilmen had bribed Fall with an array of ill-gotten goods, including nearly a quarter-million dollars in war bonds, a black bag stuffed with $100,000 in cash and a herd of prized cattle for Fall’s ranch back in New Mexico. Convicted of the crimes, Fall was fined $100,000 and sentenced to a year in prison, the first Cabinet official ever to go to jail.

Col. Charles Forbes, director of the Veterans Bureau, ran an even bigger scam, one that cheated the country out of an estimated $200 million. Tasked with the care of wounded World War I veterans, Forbes ruled that trainloads of brand-new bandages and bedding for them were useless, selling them as cheap surplus to private vendors and getting kickbacks in return. He oversaw similar schemes with the selection of hospital sites and the construction of hospitals. After his swindles came to light, Forbes was sentenced to two years in Leavenworth.

The most brazen member of the Harding crime ring, however, was technically the chief law enforcement officer for the nation, Attorney General Harry Daugherty. Ringleader of a loose collection of con men and cheats known as the “Ohio gang,” he oversaw a diversified criminal enterprise, selling off government appointments, immunity from prosecution, pardons and paroles for criminals, and various acts of minor graft. Justice came for the Ohio gang too, with several sent to prison and nearly as many dying by suicide to avoid a similar fate. Daugherty destroyed evidence and refused to testify at his own two trials but still managed to avoid a conviction.

The most brazen member of the Harding crime ring, however, was technically the chief law enforcement officer for the nation, Attorney General Harry Daugherty.

When Harding finally realized the widespread wrongdoing in his administration, he felt betrayed. “I have no trouble with my enemies,” he told a visitor in spring 1923. “But my damn friends, my God-damn friends … they’re the ones that keep me walking the floor nights!” The president tried to escape the scandals of Washington that summer with a Western tour, but he succumbed to a brain embolism and died that August.

Trump, of course, is not likely to suffer the same debilitating shame over the considerable crimes of his inner circle. As president, he scoffed at most of their indictments and offered pardons for many of their convictions. Although he succeeded in erasing some of their criminal records, the record criminality of his administration will still endure.