First Criminal President: Donald Trump Didn’t Do It Alone
As Trump faces the music for a small slice of his crimes against our nation & our democracy, let’s not forget that he’s not the first. He was carrying on a GOP tradition stretching back to 1968…
Donald Trump has been indicted on thirty-seven federal felonies.
Most Americans view Donald Trump as an aberration, a one-off, the exception. He’s our first “criminal president” they think, the first to have committed crimes to get into office, while in office, or both.
Most Americans, in this regard, are wrong, and it’s a tragic statement about both the way we teach American history in our schools and the way our corporate media deals with past presidential crimes.
If previous Republican presidents had been held to account for their crimes the way it appears Trump is about to be, Trump may well have not been as brazen in everything from his violations of the Hatch Act to the Espionage Act to his explicitly asking Vladimir Putin to intervene in the 2016 election.
Everybody knows that Richard Nixon got caught orchestrating and then covering up a break-in at the DNC headquarters in the Watergate complex, and that he avoided going to prison by resigning his office. Yet it’s no secret that Nixon committed a far more serious crime — naked treason — just to get into office in the first place.
When the LBJ White House tapes were released in 2013, the world learned that Johnson had negotiated a secret deal with the Vietnamese to end the war in the late fall of the election year of 1968.
Nixon got wind of it and, through a campaign aide during a meeting in his New York apartment, reached out to the South Vietnamese ambassador offering inducements to pull out of the peace talks and scuttle the deal, which they then abandoned just as it was about to be signed.
The FBI was bugging the Vietnamese ambassador and conveyed the plot to President Johnson, who then called Everett Dirksen, the leader of the Republicans in the Senate, to ask for help in stopping Nixon (you can listen to the entire conversation here):
President Johnson: “Some of our folks, including some of the old China lobby, are going to the Vietnamese embassy and saying please notify the [South Vietnamese] president that if he’ll hold out ’til November 2nd they could get a better deal. Now, I’m reading their hand. I don’t want to get this in the campaign. And they oughtn’t to be doin’ this, Everett. This is treason.”
Sen. Dirksen: “I know.”
Polling showed that Vice President Humphrey was going to easily win the election so Humphrey chose not to disrupt the process by publicly accusing Nixon of treason; knowledge of the crime went with Johnson, Humphrey, and Dirksen to their graves after Nixon won the election in an unexpected upset.
But we’ve now known about Nixon’s double-dealing for a full decade. We’ve known that Nixon’s treason led to the death of an additional 22,000 Americans and more than a million Vietnamese. All entirely unnecessary and the fruit of a monstrous crime just to seize the White House.
Imagine what Republicans would be saying to this day if it was proven that JFK, for example, had committed treason to beat Nixon in 1960. Everybody in America would be able to recite chapter-and-verse of the story. (Republicans are still so committed to the idea that Chicago’s Mayor Daley stole that election for JFK that the New York Times saw fit to publish a review debunking a 2022 book re-asserting that claim.)
If Nixon’s crime was at least frequently referenced by the media and Democratic politicians, Trump may have thought twice about all his campaign’s secret meetings with Russians and his open solicitation of their help. Or of hiring a Putin agent to run his campaign.
Similarly, just three months ago the world learned for sure what the former Iranian President had been trying to tell us since 2013: that Reagan committed a similar treason to win the White House in 1980.
During the Carter/Reagan election battle of that year, then-President Carter had reached a deal with newly-elected Iranian President Abdolhassan Bani-Sadr to release the fifty-two hostages held by students at the American Embassy in Tehran.
Bani-Sadr was a moderate and, as he explained in an editorial for The Christian Science Monitor, successfully ran for President that summer on the popular position of releasing the hostages:
“I openly opposed the hostage-taking throughout the election campaign…. I won the election with over 76 percent of the vote…. Other candidates also were openly against hostage-taking, and overall, 96 percent of votes in that election were given to candidates who were against it [hostage-taking].”
Carter was confident that with Bani-Sadr’s help he could end the embarrassing hostage crisis that had been a thorn in his political side ever since it began in November of 1979. Reagan’s campaign surrogates had been ridiculing Carter, calling him weak and ineffective.
But behind Carter’s back, the Reagan campaign worked out a deal with the leader of Iran’s radical faction — Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini — to keep the hostages in captivity until after the 1980 presidential election. Khomeini needed spare parts for American weapons systems the Shah had purchased for Iran, and the Reagan campaign was happy to promise them.
The Reagan campaign’s secret negotiations with Khomeini — the so-called 1980 “Iran-Contra October Surprise” — sabotaged President Carter’s and Iranian President Bani-Sadr’s attempts to free the hostages. As President Bani-Sadr told The Christian Science Monitor in March of 2013:
“After arriving in France [in 1981], I told a BBC reporter that I had left Iran to expose the symbiotic relationship between Khomeinism and Reaganism.
“Ayatollah Khomeini and Ronald Reagan had organized a clandestine negotiation, later known as the ‘October Surprise,’ which prevented the attempts by myself and then-US President Jimmy Carter to free the hostages before the 1980 US presidential election took place. The fact that they were not released tipped the results of the election in favor of Reagan.”
The Iran hostage crisis continued and torpedoed Jimmy Carter’s re-election hopes. And the same day Reagan took the oath of office — to the minute, as Reagan put his hand on the Bible — by way of Iran’s acknowledging the deal, the Ayatollah released the American hostages.
Keeping his side of the deal, Reagan began selling the Iranian regime weapons and spare parts in 1981 and continued until he was busted for it in 1986, producing the so-called “Iran Contra” scandal.
The New York Times confirmed the crime in March of this year, when former Republican Speaker of the Texas House and Lieutenant Governor Ben Barnes — the guy who got George W. Bush into the Texas Air National Guard to keep him out of Vietnam as a favor to then-Congressman George HW Bush — laid out the story.
He’d known about it because he was on the trip with former Texas Governor John Connally to France where the deal was cut.
“History needs to know that this happened,” Barnes, now 85, told the Times. “I think it’s so significant and I guess knowing that the end is near for President Carter put it on my mind more and more and more. I just feel like we’ve got to get it down some way.”
Had Bani-Sadr been taken seriously; had the investigations into Iran Contra not been blown up by then-Attorney General Bill Barr and President George HW Bush pardoning the main criminals involved on Christmas Eve of 1992 as he was leaving office; Trump may have thought twice about sharing top-secret national security documents with random spies hanging around Mar-a-Largo and Bedminster.
Or sending Rand Paul on a private mission to hand-deliver still-unknown secret documents to Putin’s people in Moscow in 2017.
Similarly, if Nixon and Reagan had been prosecuted — or at least outed — Jared Kushner may have been less enthusiastic about sharing top-secret information with MBS that helped him stage a palace coup and take over Saudi Arabia, an apparent crime for which MBS appears to have rewarded both Kushner and Trump with billions of dollars.
As The Jerusalem Post reported on March 23, 2018:
“Kushner, who is the son-in-law of President Donald Trump, and the crown prince had a late October meeting in Riyadh.
“A week later, Mohammed began what he called an ‘anti-corruption crackdown.’ The Saudi government arrested and jailed dozens of members of the Saudi royal family in a Riyadh hotel – among them Saudi figures named in a daily classified brief read by the president and his closest advisers that Kushner read avidly….
“According to the report, Mohammed told confidants that he and Kushner discussed Saudis identified in the classified brief as disloyal to Mohammed.”
The day before, both CBS and The Intercept quoted MBS as gloating that Kushner was “in his pocket.”
The Washington Post noted that:
“Recently ousted Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and national security adviser H.R. McMaster expressed early concern that Kushner was freelancing U.S. foreign policy and might make naive mistakes, according to people familiar with their reactions.
“… [National Security Advisor] McMaster was concerned there were no official records kept of what was said on the calls.
“Tillerson was even more aggrieved, they said, once remarking to staff: ‘Who is secretary of state here?’”
Weirdly, our media is so invested in “both sides” narratives that unless they can point to a crime by a Democratic president, they seem to have no interest in reporting on Republican presidential crimes. The result is that Trump thought he could get away with whatever he did in office and afterwards.
As Donald Trump faces the music for a small slice of the crimes he committed against our nation and our democracy, let’s not forget that he’s not the first. He didn’t do this alone.
He was simply carrying on a Republican tradition that stretches all the way back to 1968.