What Happens When Leaders Try To Diffuse Scandals?

by JR Thorpe
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Wouldn't it be nice to live in a country where political scandals involved, I don't know, one of the President's grandkids saying a swear word at a party? Instead, America has weathered months of major political scandals, the latest of which is the firing of FBI director James Comey. The administration has stated that Comey's dismissal was due to the way he handled the FBI's probe into Hillary Clinton's private email servers, though a number of commentators have found that unlikely — John D. Podesta, the chairman of Clinton's campaign, told the New York Times that "It’s beyond credulity to think that Donald Trump fired Jim Comey because of the way he handled Hillary Clinton’s emails." Many observers have posited a link between the dismissal and Comey's former role as the top official in the investigation into whether Trump’s advisers worked with the Russian government to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.

A number of commentators are comparing Comey's firing to the firing of Archibald Cox in the "Saturday Night Massacre," part of the 1972 Watergate scandal. Over the course of that scandal, President Nixon attempted a cover-up of his administration's role in the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters, was met with some pretty substantive pushback, and eventually resigned; but Watergate isn't the only time a leader has made a shocking move like this. As history can show us, the fallout from a leader's attempts to defuse a mounting scandal can be rather, well, unpredictable.

Every political situation is unique, and comparing Comey's firing even to Watergate isn't completely accurate — but just the same, we're lucky to be living in the present, rather than, say, ancient Rome.

Excommunication Of Your Enemies

Pope John XII, who held the papal tiara from 955 to 964, was, by all accounts, a real treasure to know. It's rumored he died because he was attacked by the husband of a woman he was having an affair with; he also had a long and angry relationship with the Holy Roman Emperor, Otto, which led to a series of tug-of-wars, and John XII's legendary attempt to stop himself from getting fired.

As far as corrupt popes go, John wasn't really in the top 10 (others have been much more spectacular), but he incensed Otto something frightful by refusing to pledge allegiance to him and inciting people to rebel against him. As a result, Otto and a collection of church leaders put John on trial in 962 for everything from adultery to the crime of selling church offices (simony). John attempted to get out of it by doing what any sensible Pope would do: threatening to excommunicate the lot of them. Unfortunately, it didn't work, and they deposed him, putting in a complete unknown as his replacement. John XII would manage to regain the throne for about a year, until he suffered his adulterous death.

Replacing An Entire Parliament

It's telling when history records you as the Good and Bad versions of something, and the Good Parliament and Bad Parliament of England in 1376 and 1377 certainly didn't mess about. England at the time was ruled by the elderly Edward III, whose son John of Gaunt was basically running things (extremely badly) and whose court was riddled with corruption. The Good Parliament was called in 1376 and tried to root out the issues: they imprisoned a bunch of the most corrupt courtiers and forced the king's mistress, Alice Perrers, to leave England and give up the expensive gifts the king had given her.

John of Gaunt's solution after his father's death was to put together a "Bad Parliament" that convened the following year and tried to undo everything the Good Parliament had done. It wasn't popular, though; John had to hide when people incensed by the Bad Parliament looted his palace.

Hiring Spies & Testifying In Court

Before this past year, Ulysses S. Grant's presidency was often believed to be the most corrupt in American history, beset by scandal after scandal. One of the most notable, because of Grant's attempt to interfere and protect people involved, was the Whisky Ring scandal of 1875, in which a huge swathe of politicians were benefiting from skimming off the top of federal taxes on liquor, defrauding the federal treasury of millions.

Grant only really got involved when the scandal threatened his private secretary, Orville Babcock, who had allegedly used some of the money to help with Grant's re-election campaign. Babcock was Grant's most trusted confidante and had been since the Civil War, but it was pretty clear that he was deeply involved. Grant decided the allegations were a political put-up job, sent spies to chase the prosecutors behind the case, and finally decided to do the unthinkable: when Babcock went on trial, he testified for him. Babcock was acquitted, but he was also fired. The Whisky Ring was seen as a massive public problem for Grant, and was one of the factors that saw him lose power.