U.S. political elections have long been cut-throat, high-stakes, rules-breaking, hate-inducing games on all sides. But lately, the GOP is ‘winning’ this race to the bottom.
This article was updated on Nov. 3, 2020.
In July 2016, Donald Trump trailed Hillary Clinton in most polls and knew he needed to do something drastic to surge ahead. That’s when he issued a challenge in a news conference — not to his campaign, supporters or voters in general. But to Russian President Vladimir Putin and his network of slippery intelligence hackers.
“I have nothing to do with Putin,” Trump said in one of many falsehoods. He then went on to say that Putin had called Barack Obama the “n word” as a means of showing that the former KGB lieutenant colonel didn’t respect the current U.S. president. Many thought that was another lie, but it wasn’t.
However, how Trump knew the true racist nature of Putin in 2016— something that didn’t come out publicly until a 2018 book — was unclear, especially if he had “nothing to do” with the Russian leader. Perhaps the Republican presidential nominee merely guessed to fit an anti-Obama narrative. Perhaps it was as simple as one racist recognizing another — Trump is no stranger to being accused of saying that slur himself. Perhaps there was something more to the story.
“I don’t know anything about [Putin] other than he will respect me. He doesn’t respect our president,” Trump continued before issuing his infamous challenge. “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails [reportedly deleted by Clinton on a server] that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press. Let’s see if that happens. That’ll be next.”
That same day, Russian intelligence officers and hackers worked to do just that. “On or about July 27, 2016, the conspirators attempted after hours to spearphish [attack a target through an email-spoof scheme] for the first time email accounts at a domain hosted by a third-party provider and used by Clinton’s personal office,” reads a July 2018 federal criminal indictment against 12 Russian intelligence operatives. “At or around the same time, they also targeted seventy-six email addresses at the domain for the Clinton campaign.”
The Russian operatives had started their illegal activities as early as mid-2015, hacking into email accounts of employees and volunteers associated with the Democratic National Committee, according to reports. They set up phony accounts on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media to spread disinformation against the Clinton campaign.
Their goal: Help elect Trump, who had been meeting with Russian officials about business projects — including building a Trump Tower in Moscow — at least since 2013. Maybe since 1987, according to an explosive July 2018 story in New York Magazine. Trump’s ties run so deep that individuals connected to Russia or former Soviet republics bought 86 Trump properties for $109 million in cash between 2003 and 2017, according to reports. Little wonder that Eric Trump could boast in 2013 that the family operation doesn’t rely on American banks but has “all the funding we need out of Russia.”
In April 2016, as Russian hackers compromised the email accounts of key Clinton campaign staffers, Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos worked to arrange a meeting between Trump officials and Putin operatives who said they had “dirt” on Clinton. In June, campaign chairman Paul Manafort, Don Trump Jr., and son-in-law Jared Kushner met at Trump Tower in New York with several Russians, including lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya.
Soon after, WikiLeaks, an organization with ties to Russia that publishes secret government files, and a Russian-formed site called DCLeaks, which is now defunct, began releasing the Democratic emails. Numerous documents showed a DNC bias against Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, including some references to trying to paint him as an atheist to win primary votes for Clinton. Trump hypocritically hammered home the “Crooked Hillary” narrative as often as he could, as his campaign made illicit acts taken by the Democrats look like child’s play.
Meanwhile, more Trump officials met with Russians, and the GOP platform was even changed to support Putin’s position on invading Ukraine. Trump’s plea to Russia to target Clinton directly resulted in more leaks, including emails of campaign chairman John Podesta Jr. In October, WikiLeaks communicated with Trump Jr. numerous times to get him to tweet links to the archive of Clinton emails. One message asked for one of Trump’s tax returns, saying that WikiLeaks publishing that document would give the Clinton dirt “much higher impact, because it won’t be perceived as coming from a ‘pro-Trump,’ ‘pro-Russia’ source.”
In other words, WikiLeaks wanted to cheat to try to appear unbiased when it was as pro Trump and pro Russia as they come.
Less than two weeks before the election, Trump was aided by FBI Director James Comey announcing that his office was opening another investigation into emails of discredited pol Anthony Weiner that could include Clinton. Trump aide Rudy Giuliani and security firm founder Erik Prince reportedly intimidated Comey into making such an unusually-timed announcement by threatening to release the documents themselves. Conservative news site Breitbart published an obscenely fake report that Clinton had allegedly traveled to an island with a pedophile, and that the Obama Justice Department had coerced the New York police into not releasing anything on Weiner before the election. None of that was true, but it didn’t matter to many voters.
The Hunter Biden laptop story —this year’s version of the Clinton emails that involved some of the same players like Giuliani and Trump 2016 campaign manager Steve Bannon — was deemed as sketchy by many who tried to investigate it. Biden’s son is alleged to have benefited financially from his father’s position, according to a laptop supposedly owned by Hunter Biden that somehow, some way, ended up in Giuliani’s hands.
Meanwhile, Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, and son-in-law have an office in the White House as senior staffers despite not being qualified. While violating the Hatch Act, they have made millions on deals, apparently benefiting from their father’s position. For example, while working on Middle East policy, Kushner’s family company sought loans from a Qatari sheikh.
Ditto for Trump’s sons, who are supposedly running the family businesses. Don Jr. and Eric have charged taxpayers for questionable expenses like Secret Service protection while drumming up business for themselves as they act as surrogates for their father in the White House. For example, in 2019, Junior flew to Jakarta just to help boost sales at Trump resorts planned for Indonesia. There was no national U.S. interest to justify spending federal government money on such a junket.
Suppress the vote
Another dirty-tricks ploy involved suppressing the vote of mostly Democrats through a now defunct system called Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck. That program involved a list of more than 7 million voters in 29 states created by Trump supporter and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach in 2013. Like Kansas, most of the states involved were controlled by Republicans, including key swing states won by Trump in 2016 — Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona, and Florida.
Officials would find people with similar names in a different state and claim they had voted twice, not even checking birth dates or Social Security numbers, investigative journalist Greg Palast charged. For example, Donald Alexander Webster Jr. of Dayton, Ohio, was accused of voting as Donald Eugene Webster of Charlottesville, Va., despite never visiting Charlottesville.
“They had 288 guys named James Brown in Georgia, who apparently voted in another state,” Palast said. “How’d they know that? Because they found — believe it or not — a James Brown in Motown, in Detroit. And then they found a James Brown in Virginia. And can you believe that? They found another James Brown in Ohio.” Almost 450,000 Michigan voters were on the Crosscheck suspect list, and at least 50,000 saw their votes discarded, he said. Trump supposedly won Michigan by about 11,000 votes.
“For voters of color in the USA, voting has become some kind of crazy obstacle course,” Palast said. “First, don’t get purged….Then drag yourself to the single black voting station and wait for five hours. Oops! Wrong guy ID — go back home. You’ll have absentee or provisional ballots. Don’t miss the bubble or it gets thrown in the garbage.”
In cities such as Detroit and Philadelphia, white nationalists gave out free marijuana and malt liquor to African-Americans on Election Day to try to get them to stay home. In addition, GOP officials closed almost 900 polling places in African-American and Latino districts across the South, said Ann Massaro, co-founder of civil rights group Women and Allies.
The crosscheck system purged tens of thousands of votes in the key swing states, including Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Arizona. The polls in those states that showed Clinton winning them were essentially correct, but getting so many votes tossed out pushed the count to Trump.
In 2018, Brian Kemp, the Georgia Republican candidate for governor who also happened to oversee the election as secretary of state, purged the rolls of thousands of likely Democratic voters. He narrowly won that race over Democrat Stacey Abrams. The crosscheck system was finally disbanded in 2019, thanks to a lawsuit by the ACLU.
A long, dirty history
If you look in the past, you will find many examples of political vitriol and dirty tricks. Whether they have been as bad as, if not worse, than the current version is debatable.
While apparently enlisting the aid of a foreign government to win an election is skulduggery that relatively few American pols besides Trump has pulled off, two other cases in modern history involved fellow Republicans Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, according to historian Kai Bird.
In 1968, Nixon worked to thwart peace negotiations between Lyndon Johnson’s administration and Vietnamese officials, using a Republican fundraiser and journalist, Anna Chennault. Nixon secretly promised a better deal if the South Vietnamese leaders would wait until after the election, while his campaign hammered Democrat Hubert Humphrey — the sitting vice president — for not doing more to stop the Vietnam War.
Back then, the Russians supported the Democrats more than Republicans, who they believed were more hard-line opponents. The old Soviet Union leaders lobbied North Vietnamese officials to agree to a ceasefire and hold talks, according to historian John Farrell. Nixon chief of staff H.R. Haldeman, among others, confirmed Nixon’s undercover acts of sabotage, which Johnson and others considered treasonous. Nixon won the 1968 election by only 0.7 percentage points, though the Electoral College was more decisive.
Then in 1980, Reagan campaign manager William Casey reportedly traveled to Europe a few months before Election Day to meet with representatives of Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolutionary regime during the Iran hostage crisis, which began in late 1979. Casey reportedly urged the Iranians to not release the 52 American diplomats and citizens being held until after Election Day. One part of the deal would be new arms sales to Iran, as well as releasing Iranian assets frozen under then-President Jimmy Carter’s orders. A memo unearthed in George H. W. Bush’s library confirmed that Casey had traveled to Spain in the summer of 1980.
“It is now reasonable to conclude that Casey did something,” Bird wrote. “The Iranians dragged out the negotiations over the release of the hostages. President Carter believed these negotiations were nearly successful in late September 1980, but suddenly new demands were made that stalled the talks. Polls showed Carter within single digits of catching Reagan until about 10 days before the election. Carter lost decisively, and the hostages were inexplicably released minutes after Reagan was sworn in as president.”
Iran, of course, received arms shipments and also benefited from later secret deals during the Reagan administration known as the Iran-Contra scandal.
Smaller October surprises have occurred, such as a Democratic operative in Maine releasing information shortly before the 2000 election on how George W. Bush had been arrested in that state for drunk driving in 1976.
The Kennedy family, of course, has not been beneath playing dirty. During John F. Kennedy’s first run for Congress in 1946, father Joseph Kennedy Sr. allegedly paid a man named Joseph Russo to run in the Democratic primary. That reduced the chances of a better-known Joseph Russo in that primary, helping JFK to victory.
Nixon charged Kennedy’s campaign with stealing the 1960 election, doing such things as bugging phones and falsifying vote totals. Kennedy’s running mate, LBJ, had won close elections in Texas under questionable conditions that included the 1948 U.S. Senate race in which opponents charged that Johnson’s machine manufactured last-minute votes from dead people.
In that 1960 race, a precinct in Angelina County in East Texas recorded that only 86 people voted, but the final tally was 147–24 in favor of Kennedy. Republican leaders demanded a recount, but the all-Democrat Texas Election Board denied the request. Nixon would have had to make up more than 46,000 votes to win Texas, an unlikely prospect.
Illinois, which Kennedy only won by fewer than 9,000 votes, provided a stronger basis for Nixon’s charges. Special prosecutor Morris Wexler found “substantial” miscounts in Chicago — where Mayor Richard Daley’s political machine reigned — due to voting machine errors and unqualified voters. Some precincts offered voters free meals, liquor, and raffle tickets for hams. The elder Kennedy was alleged to have brokered a deal with Sam Giancana and other Chicago mobsters to deliver thousands of votes.
Earl Mazo, a reporter for the New York Herald Tribune, found a Chicago cemetery where the names on the tombstones were registered and votes marked. “I remember a house. It was completely gutted. There was nobody there,” Mazo noted. “But there were 56 votes for Kennedy in that house.” Mazo also investigated Republican areas in southern Illinois and found fraud. Democrats charged that the Mafia-affiliated International Brotherhood of Teamsters union leader Jimmy Hoffa reportedly performed illegal acts in Ohio to help deliver that state to Nixon.
Some say the Kennedy campaign’s alleged deceit, along with CIA and Mafia officials feeling betrayed over JFK’s actions related to the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion in particular, led to his assassination, the ultimate political dirty trick.
Nixon still King of Dirty Tricks
Even with Trump’s illicit history, Nixon likely remains the King of Dirty Tricks. The criminal actions and malicious tactics of the Nixon administration went way beyond the burglary of DNC offices to Nixon reportedly authorizing an assassination attempt on journalist Jack Anderson, illegally wiretapping private citizens, using the CIA, FBI, and IRS against political opponents and journalists, and more.
The publication of the Pentagon Papers, leaked by defense analyst and whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg in 1971, sent Nixon into Trumpian rants that were recorded on tape. Nixon enticed ex-CIA agent Howard Hunt and former FBI agent G. Gordon Liddy to break into the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist in search of information to discredit Ellsberg.
Hunt and Liddy also met with CIA assassination expert Edward Gunn to discuss how to kill Anderson, according to statements made under oath by the plumbers. The ideas included shooting him with Liddy’s pistol that was believed to be untraceable, poisoning him, putting LSD on his car’s steering wheel, and running him off the road. They finally discarded those and settled on stabbing Anderson outside his home, with Liddy volunteering to make the crime look like a robbery gone wrong.
Liddy even wrote that he paid Gunn $100 at that meeting “from Committee to Re-elect the President [CREEP] intelligence funds, as a fee for his services.” Liddy added that he further discussed with Hunt a suggestion that the murder of Anderson be blamed on “Cubans already recruited for the intelligence arm” of CREEP. The plot fizzled after Liddy and Hunt were indicted for their roles in the Watergate burglary.
Other journalists were targeted by Nixon with tax audits, lawsuits, and criminal prosecution, author and University of Maryland journalism professor Mark Feldstein wrote. Some experienced suspicious home burglaries in which nothing was stolen, but their notes were reviewed.
Some of the tricks were silly, such as stealing shoes that aides of Democratic candidate Edmund Muskie placed outside their hotel rooms. Others were more serious like forging a letter purported to be written by Muskie that portrayed him as racially insensitive. In addition, Nixon ordered campaign literature from 1972 Democratic opponent George McGovern to be planted in the apartment of Arthur Bremer after Bremer shot independent candidate George Wallace. The dirty deed was an attempt to implicate Democrats in the shooting.
During Watergate, H.W. Bush aided Nixon as head of the Republican National Committee, implementing a phony plan to divert attention from the scandal in 1973. Bush accused Carmine Bellino, then a committee investigator for the U.S. Senate committee investigating Watergate, of trying to bug the hotel where Nixon stayed while preparing for the 1960 debates with JFK. The investigation into that dirty trick went on more than two months, causing delays in the Watergate committee’s proceedings. Bellino was eventually cleared, but not before Bush almost helped destroy the Watergate investigation.
Another key Republican dirty trickster who grew of age in the Watergate years was Karl Rove, the architect of W. Bush’s presidential campaigns. In 1970, Rove posed as a supporter of Alan Dixon, a Democratic candidate for state treasurer in Illinois, and stole stationary from the campaign. He then created a flier that lied about offering free beer, food, and women at Dixon’s campaign opening event on the stationary and distributed copies to homeless centers and rock concerts. Hundreds of people showed up for the free stuff, effectively disrupting the event.
Rove was paid by GOP organizations to lead college seminars on how fellow young Republicans could engage in dirty tricks of their own. The phony fliers and dirty tricks put out by Republicans in Florida in 2000, Ohio in 2004, Virginia in 2006, and other campaigns were likely manifestations from Rove’s Watergate-era seminars and similar teachings.
Rove and W. Bush’s campaign even maligned fellow Republican John McCain in 2000, spreading false rumors in South Carolina that McCain’s adopted Bangladeshi daughter was his illegitimate offspring. The tricks were particularly apparent in Florida through such actions as Democratic voters given misleading instructions by Republican election officials, carpools taking voters to the polls being stopped by police and harassed for not having taxi licenses, and a police checkpoint cropping up on Election Day near a largely African-American voting site.
Early American dirty tricks
Early U.S. elections were not without their dirty politics and rifts that escalated into violence, such as the famed 1804 duel in which Aaron Burr killed Alexander Hamilton. In the 1796 race between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, Hamilton — an ally of Adams — accused Jefferson of fathering numerous children with Sally Hemings and planning to free slaves if he won. While Jefferson did have children with Hemings, that wasn’t proven true until decades later.
After Adams won, Jefferson performed some skulduggery himself in the 1800 campaign, hiring journalist James Callender to publicly accuse Adams of being a hermaphrodite and planning to invade France. No less an Adams surrogate than the president of Yale University retorted that Jefferson would make many women prostitutes if he won. Another newspaper wrote that Jefferson’s presidency would result in an uptick in murder, adultery, and incest. Jefferson won that election, but by a narrow margin.
Later presidents faced similar mud-slinging and illicit actions. Andrew Jackson was accused of cannibalism and adultery. John Quincy Adams was labeled a sexual deviant and pimp. In 1844, the Whig party circulated a phony letter supposedly written by a Democratic official about how the badly the campaign was going. The 1880 campaign featured another forged letter supposedly written by James Garfield that advocated using Chinese immigrants for cheap labor. In 1888, Republican Benjamin Harrison narrowly defeated Democrat Grover Cleveland thanks in part to a fake letter written by a supporter.
In more modern times, Republican propagandists such as Rush Limbaugh and an army of Fox News hosts regularly claim that Democrats engage in criminal activity and nasty campaigning. They falsely report that liberals and Democrats destroy property and attack opponents in demonstrations, when much of that is being done by anti-fascist anarchists and far-right Proud Boys.
In 2012, Fox commentator Bernard Goldberg complained that Obama’s “political hit men are engaged in one of the dirtiest campaigns in recent American history.” So what was so dirty to Goldberg? Obama supporters like former Sen. Harry Reid publicly accused Republican nominee Mitt Romney of not paying taxes for the previous decade. And a political ad quoted a man talking about the aftereffects of a plant shutdown by Romney’s Bain Capital in which his wife died of cancer, with the implication that the facility closing had something to do with that.
Compare that to what the Nixon, Reagan, Bush, and Trump campaigns did to Democrats. It’s not near the same.
Republicans claim Democratic presidential administrations have been so crooked, pointing to Bill Clinton’s impeachment and more. Yet, when you actually look at the number of criminal convictions of presidential administration officials in the past 50 years, the score is something like 89 to 1 in favor of Republicans, according to some counts.
Going into the 2020 elections, Republican dirty tricks are more numerous than ever. Fake news stories abound, especially on conservative websites and Facebook pages. Trump and his minions whip up hysteria about supposed vote fraud on the other side, immigration, and other issues. Trump threatens not to leave and challenge any vote totals that don’t show him winning in court.
The skulduggery doesn’t seem like it will ever stop. Not the way the game is now played where a U.S. senate race can require $70 million or more, and the White House at least $3 billion. The situation causes some to abandon politics at the exact time when more moderate voices of reason are needed. To those who say they stay out of politics, if you pay taxes, you are a part of politics. It’s your money being spent in your name. It’s your kids who will have to deal with the consequences of actions and inaction.
For many political players, there is too much at stake to not go down without a nasty, dishonest, mud-slinging fight, consequences be damned. Until we can figure out a better process and have everyone actually play by those rules — such as only allowing a set figure of public funding of campaigns with no campaign donations, and cracking down on transgressions — the American Way, more and more, is leading us all into the great abyss.