Ten Political Scandals That Rocked the US in the Half Century Since Watergate
18:26 GMT 17.06.2022 (Updated: 13:29 GMT 06.08.2022)
© AP Photo / SUSAN WALSHFirst lady Hillary Rodham Clinton watches President Clinton pause as he thanks those Democratic members of the House of Representatives who voted against impeachment in this Dec. 19, 1998 file photo
© AP Photo / SUSAN WALSH
Ever since Nixon's involvement in the 17June 1972 wiretapping of the Democratic Party National Committee office in the Watergate office building was exposed, political controversies have been laden with the '-gate' suffix. Just recently the UK has seen 'Partygate', 'Cakegate', 'Currygate' and 'Beergate'.
Fifty years on from the Watergate scandal that brought down US President Richard Nixon, political scandals still regularly bubble to the surface in the Washington DC swamp.
From the Iran-Contra affair to the Laptop from Hell, actual and would-be US presidents have been caught with their pants down — sometimes literally — again and again.
Koreagate and Billygate
Democrat President Jimmy Carter ran into trouble right after taking over from Republican Nixon's vice-president Gerald Ford. Korean businessman and Washington lobbyist Tongsun Park was charged in 1976 with bribing US Congressmen between $100,000 and $200,000 each for political favours — allegedly including reversing Nixon's decision to withdraw US forces from the country.
Park was working for Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA) director Kim Hyong-uk who was acting on orders from Chung Il-kwon, prime minister to South Korean dictator Park Chung-hee. The lobbyist avoided prosecution by turning state's witness. Democrat California representative Richard T. Hanna pled guilty and served a year in prison, but fellow-accused Otto Passman, a Louisiana congressman, was acquitted.
© AP Photo / Alex SanzIn this image taken from video, former President Jimmy Carter speaks at the annual Human Rights Defenders Forum at The Carter Center, Tuesday, May 9, 2017, in Atlanta
In this image taken from video, former President Jimmy Carter speaks at the annual Human Rights Defenders Forum at The Carter Center, Tuesday, May 9, 2017, in Atlanta
© AP Photo / Alex Sanz
KCIA director Kim disappeared in Paris in 1979, just months after publishing his memoirs. It was rumoured he had been kidnapped by South Korean agents and smuggled back to Seoul, where president Park had him executed in the cellars of the Blue House presidential mansion.
But the Carter White House was hit by more foreign influence-peddling allegations after the president's brother Billy led three delegations from their home state Georgia in 1978 and 1979 to Libya, where he was loaned £220,000. CIA officer Edwin P. Wilson claimed to have seen a telegram stating that the Libyan revolutionary government had paid the president's brother $2 million.
Hard-drinking Billy Carter was also the publicity frontman for not one but two lines of alcoholic drinks: the self-titled Billy beer — which he publicly admitted disliking — and sweet liqueur Peanut Lolita. The creepily-named dessert drink cashed in on his brother's election campaign schtick based on the Carter family's peanut-farming business.
The Iran-Contra Affair
Faced with a series of Congress votes to limit US funding for the notorious Nicaraguan Contras fighting the democratically-elected Sandinista government of Daniel Ortega, Ronald Reagan's administration sought covert means to arm the guerrillas regardless of how many atrocities they were accused of.
Then-National Security Council member Colonel Oliver North was given the task of smuggling TOW anti-tank and HAWK surface-to-air missiles to the US' declared enemy Iran, then under an arms embargo. The money raised was used to buy arms for the Contras.
16 February 2019, 00:33 GMT
The scandal was exposed in 1986, and North was eventually convicted in 1989 of taking an "illegal gratuity" and obstruction charges. His three-year sentence was suspended. Others indicted over the affair included Reagan's defence secretary Caspar Weinberger. Among those convicted was Elliot Abrams, later appointed US envoy to Venezuela by Donald Trump.
But the accused were pardoned in 1993 by outgoing president George H W Bush, who was VP to Reagan at the time of the arms deals.
Two inquiries declared that Reagan had not known about the arms sales to Iran, despite Weinberger's written notes showing he knew of missile sales to "moderate elements" in Iran and potential deals to have hostages released. North was later elected president of the National Rifle Association from 2018 to 2019.
Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinksy
Bush senior's successor Bill Clinton couldn't keep it in his pants for long after occupying the White House. His two terms in office were overshadowed by the salacious story of his affair with intern Monica Lewinsky, who performed oral sex on him in the Oval Office.
© AP Photo / CHARLES REX ARBOGASTMonica Lewinsky
© AP Photo / CHARLES REX ARBOGAST
Clinton managed to escape impeachment proceedings from the investigation by independent counsel Ken Starr, originally set up to probe the Whitewater real-estate scandal in which the president and his wife Hillary were implicated. Clinton ended his presidency by granting hundreds of pardons, including to his younger half-brother Roger for cocaine dealing and fraudster Marc Rich.
George Bush junior is most notorious for ordering the 2003 invasion of Iraq on the basis of flimsy intelligence claims that president Saddam Hussein was hoarding chemical and biological weapons. But the US Congress made itself part of the crime by backing the war.
More embarrassing was the claim that Bush was a 'chickenhawk' who avoided being drafted to fight in the Vietnam war by serving in the Texas Air National Guard from 1968 to 1974. Records show Bush took time out from the territorial air force in 1972 to work for the failed Senate election campaign of Winton M. Blount in Alabama after losing his flight authorisation for failing to attend a physical examination.
In September 2004, just two months before the presidential election, CBS 60 Minutes presenter Dan Rather splashed with six letters allegedly written by Bush's squadron commander Lieutenant Colonel Jerry B. Killian, in which the senior officer complained that he had been pressured form above to give Bush better marks in his annual evaluation and could no longer cover for the young pilot's absence from duty.
The authenticity of the letters was challenged and CBS apologised, but the 'chickenhawk' label stuck. Bush's unsuccessful Democrat rival in the presidential race, John Kerry, was also targeted by Vietnam War veterans who accused him of burnishing his own service record.
The whistleblowing website made its name with the April 2010 release of footage of a 2007 US helicopter in Baghdad that killed at least 12 civilians, including several Iraqi journalists working for the Reuters agency. More releases of US military documents detailing atrocities followed.
Retaliation from Washington was swift however. US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning was arrested within months, tried and sentenced to 35 years in jail by a military court in 2013. Manning was pardoned by outgoing president Barack Obama in 2017, but was later jailed again for contempt of court.
Following rape allegations in Sweden in 2010 — since dropped by prosecutors there — Assange was forced to stay in the UK while extradition hearings continued. He was granted asylum at the Ecuadorean embassy in London in 2012 after his final appeal was denied, and lived there until the new government of Lenin Moreno evicted him in 2019. One of his disputes with the Ecuadorean government was over Wikileaks' release of Democratic National Committee emails.
Assange was jailed on remand in Belmarsh high-security prison while the US began its own extradition proceedings — finally approved by Home Secretary Priti Patel on the 50th anniversary of the Watergate break-in.
National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Edward Snowden left the agency and the US in 2013 before leaking tens of thousands of classified documents to The Intercept founder Glenn Greenwald and other journalists.
© AFP 2023 / Tobias SchwartzEdward Snowden greets the audience before he is honored with the Carl von Ossietzky medal by International League for Human Rights to during a video conference call after he received the award in Berlin December 14, 2014.
Edward Snowden greets the audience before he is honored with the Carl von Ossietzky medal by International League for Human Rights to during a video conference call after he received the award in Berlin December 14, 2014.
© AFP 2023 / Tobias Schwartz
Snowden's key revelation was that the NSA had forced telecommunications firms to hand over records of millions of users' 'metadata', including lists of numbers dialled and call durations, in a mass snooping exercise. A US federal court ruled in 2020 that the NSA's snooping was illegal and potentially unconstitutional, but Snowden remains in exile in Russia.
Hillary Clinton's Email Server
Bill Clinton's senator wife first had her ambitions dashed by Barack Obama in the 2008 primaries, but received the consolation prize of appointment as secretary of state. But trouble soon followed when she decided to have a private email server installed in her home basement to which she had State Department emails sent — potentially containing classified information in breach of federal law.
Clinton stood down as secretary of state in 2013 to prepare for her 2016 presidential election campaign — where her Republican rival Donald Trump focused on the allegations with his slogan "lock her up!"
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FBI director James Comey launched a belated probe in 2015, a year after concerns were first raised by State Department staff, but by then 31,000 emails that could have contained evidence of wrongdoing had been permanently deleted from Clinton's server.
Russiagate and the Steele Dossier
Hillary Clinton's second bid for the presidency was foiled again, this time by Beltway outsider Donald Trump. As victory increasingly appeared to be slipping through her fingers — especially following her disastrous "basket of deplorables" speech — the Democrat campaign resorted to underhand tactics.
They graduated from getting Clinton an early look at presidential debate questions, to tying to smear Trump with non-existent links to a Russian bank, and finally to hiring retired British spy Christopher Steele to rustle up a file full of scandalous allegations against the property tycoon.
Steele's dossier contained the famously salacious — but never substantiated — claim that Trump hired an exclusive hotel suite where Barack and Michelle Obama once slept, them paid two prostitutes to urinate on the bed in front of him.
Having failed to investigate Clinton's email server in time, FBI director Comey launched the 'Crossfire Hurricane' operation in response to Democrat claims Trump only won thanks to "Russian collusion" and election "hacking". Trump's firing of Comey in 2017 prompted allegations of obstruction of justice against the president, leading to the congressional probe by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
Trump continues to hold up Russiagate as evidence of a deep-state conspiracy against his presidency.
Hunter Biden's Laptop from Hell
The 'October surprise' in the 2020 presidential election was especially juicy: a laptop computer abandoned by Democrat candidate Joe Biden's son Hunter at a Delaware repair shop. The hard-drive contained a trove of incriminating emails suggesting cash-for-influence payments to "the big guy", along with photos of Hunter smoking crack cocaine and naked with prostitutes.
Hunter was already in the spotlight for his appointment to the board of Ukrainian gas company Burisma following the 2014 Maidan Square coup — which was backed by the Obama administration his father served in as VP. Biden stepped in to force Kiev to sack prosecutor-general Viktor Shokin when he launched a probe into the firm.
But for some, the real scandal was how the mainstream press and social media sites suppressed the story until long after the election, with Twitter and Facebook blocking any posts of links to the New York Post exposé.
2020 Vote-Rigging Claims and the Capitol Riot
Trump was unwilling to accept defeat to Biden in 2020, especially after alleging throughout the campaign that authorities were preparing the ground to steal the election. He urged his vice-president Mike Pence to allow Congress to send the electoral college tallies back to each state's legislature for potential de-certification — a long shot but technically constitutional.
With Pence looking increasingly reticent about that course of action, Trump called the 'Stop the Steal' rally in front of the White House on 6January 2021, the day the result was set to be confirmed. Up to 200,000 people attended, but several hundreds broke off to protest outside the Capitol building, the seat of Congress.
The facts and sequence of events around the occupation remain contested. While US Capitol Police officers fought with protesters at the front of the building, others guarding the rear opened doors and let people walk in. Senators and representatives were hurriedly evacuated to underground bunkers as protesters wandered through the unoccupied Senate chamber.
The only confirmed violent death on the day was that of Ashli Babbitt, a US Air Force veteran an unarmed protester shot dead by USCP Lieutenant Michael Byrd as she tried to climb through a broken window into the lobby of the House of Representatives. Some 18 months later, hundreds of people charged over the occupation are still in prison awaiting trial over the riot. At least one has committed suicide in captivity.