Power  /  Antecedent

What Trump Could Learn from America's Long History of Sex Scandals

Too bad Trump isn't a student of history.
Stephen Jaffe/AFP/Getty Images

Although it often feels like every tale out of the White House is shocking and unprecedented, one aspect of Trump’s presidency is actually fairly normal: A lot of presidents have been at the center of sex scandals. From stories about “Mr. Jefferson’s Congo Harem” at the dawn of the 19th century—a reference to Thomas Jefferson’s serial rape of his slave (and dead wife’s half-sister), Sally Hemings—to whispers about JFK’s star-studded intrigues to Bill Clinton’s many affairs and alleged assaults, sex scandals have been a feature of presidential politics for nearly as long as the office has existed. John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, James Buchanan, James Garfield, Grover Cleveland, FDR, Dwight Eisenhower, LBJ, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and both Bushes faced some level of sex scandal in the lead-up to, during, or after their terms. Less concrete rumors and speculation have hovered over about a half dozen other presidents.

None of these past scandals look exactly like the Stormy Daniels affair, which is dominating the news thanks to the 60 Minutes interview where she talked about having sex with Trump in 2006 and later being threatened by a mysterious man after dishing about the encounter to a tabloid. Many presidential sex scandals were even moreabsurd than the current moment. For instance, Warren G. Harding allegedly had trysts in a White House closet, relying on the Secret Service to tip him off when his wife was walking down the hall. Yet only a few sex scandals have picked up real steam and persistently dogged presidents for months or years on end, even in the modern era. To wit, while we all know about Monica Lewinsky, some of Clinton’s earlier affairs remain obscure to most Americans. And while both George H.W. and W. Bush’s were of accused of indiscretions (and in W’s case, rape), those allegations never got nearly as much air time as those leveled against Clinton.

So why has the Stormy Daniels story gained so much momentum? Looking back at history, it seems most presidents came up with tools and tactics to control the flow of information about their sex lives, or at least to mitigate the spread and damage of stories that leaked out. Not all of these tactics apply in the modern era. But many could have been of use to Trump and his team even today...