New York, US – This latest hectic week in Donald Trump’s presidency, which saw new leaks from insiders about his madcap leadership style, has revived questions about whether his is the most scandal-plagued administration in the history of the United States.
American political dramas are nothing new. From titillating revelations about President Bill Clinton’s trysts with an intern to the Watergate saga that ended Richard Nixon’s presidency, plenty of impropriety, gossip and intrigue have emanated from the White House over the years.
But Trump’s West Wing has started to look like something different altogether. This week’s developments – an excoriating new book from famed journalist Bob Woodward and a senior administration official publishing a backbiting op-ed in The New York Times – are just the tip of the iceberg.
They occur against the backdrop of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into possible coordination between Trump campaign members and Russia in the 2016 US election, which has shone spotlights on lies, fraud, and hush money pay-outs to an adult film actress and a former Playboy model.
James Melcher, a University of Maine at Farmington professor, was unwilling to judge Trump until the Mueller investigation confirms or rejects suspicions of skulduggery. Even so, these are unchartered waters, he told Al Jazeera.
“What is different is that we’ve had so many allegations in the first act of the play. It is really peculiar to have a president, not even two years into office, to have this many targets. For his critics, it’s a shooting gallery,” said Melcher.
The 45th president is fighting several fires at once, but his biggest headache is the inquiry into whether his campaign team colluded with Moscow to swing the election his way. If proven, it would likely trigger fresh calls for his impeachment.
It recalls past probes into corruption at the highest level of American politics, from the Teapot Dome scandal in which one of President Warren Harding’s officials took bribes for a lucrative oil deal in the 1920s, to the financial scams that dogged Ulysses Grant’s administration in the 1870s.
But Trump’s alleged election-influencing is more frequently likened to the scandals that dogged Republican President Richard Nixon, who was implicated in a plot to break into the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters in the Watergate complex in Washington.
Nixon’s chicanery was exposed in part by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who were fed information by an informant known as Deep Throat, who was later revealed to be the deputy director of the FBI.
For Robert Strong, a Washington and Lee University scholar, the Nixon and Trump dramas both hint at the kinds of stunts politicians might pull to win an election. Even so, a candidate plotting with a rival foreign power would be several shades worse than Nixon’s misdeeds.
“Nixon played dirty tricks and had a slush fund, but his scandal was domestic,” said Strong. “If there were solid evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign team and foreign intelligence services, that would be unprecedented.”
Mueller’s probe could drag on for months longer, but it has already secured criminal convictions or guilty pleas from four of Trump’s former advisors and also led to a separate case with damaging revelations about Trump’s private life.
In that inquiry, Trump has been implicated by his ex-lawyer, Michael Cohen, over hush money payments to adult film actress Stephanie Clifford, better known as Stormy Daniels, and former Playboy model Karen McDougal – two women who say they had sex with Trump.
Trump has denied having sex with either woman and also denied knowledge of the payments, but that has not stopped the type of saucy media coverage that has surrounded the private lives of some past presidents and candidates.
Democratic candidate Grover Cleveland struggled in the 1884 election amid swirling claims he had fathered a child out of wedlock. Andrew Jackson similarly had his private life exposed in the 1828 election, over claims that his wife, Rachel, was a bigamist.
In the 20th Century, such presidents as John F Kennedy and Franklin Roosevelt were spared scandals, as claims of extra-marital affairs were brushed under the carpet. Not so for Clinton, whose fling with Monica Lewinsky was front page news.
The Arkansas politician survived earlier claims of marital infidelity in the 1992 and 1996 elections, but lying under oath about Lewinsky led to his impeachment by house legislators in December 1998. He was acquitted by senators the next month.
Trump’s ex-lawyer Cohen has pleaded guilty and implicated the president in campaign finance violations, but the sex scandal itself may not be so damaging, Melcher said. Voters were unaware of the affairs in 2016 but were well acquainted with two-time divorcee Trump’s bragging about where to “grab” women in a widely-shared video.
A more pressing problem for Trump, however, comes on September 11, with the release of Watergate reporter Woodward’s warts-and-all account of his 20-month-old presidency, called Fear: Trump in the White House.
Excerpts from the book already released depict Trump as reckless and impulsive, with aides sometimes trying to limit what they saw as damaging behaviour by disregarding his instructions.
It follows similar exposés of chaos from insiders, including Trump’s former adviser Omarosa Manigault Newman. On Wednesday, the New York Times took the unusual step of publishing a column by an unnamed senior official in the Trump administration.
The writer slammed Trump’s “amorality” and hectic leadership, describing a number of US officials who were part of a “quiet resistance” within the administration who were “working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations.”
The revelations bolstered other reports of turbulence under the former New York businessman and reality TV star, who has had an unusually high level of staff turnover and has publicly bashed his top aides, notably Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Of course, Trump is not the first president to be criticised for his performance. President Woodrow Wilson’s wife, Edith, unofficially ran the country in the weeks after his stroke in 1919.
Ronald Reagan was accused of falling asleep at the wheel during the Iran-Contra Affair when, without his knowledge, his officials ran a secret operation involving Iran-backed rebels and the anti-communist Contras of Nicaragua.
In another Watergate parallel, accounts of Trump’s rashness can be compared with Nixon, who grew increasingly isolated and suspicious as the break-in and its cover-up led to impeachment proceedings and his resignation in 1974, said Strong.
“But while Nixon could be paranoid, angry and vicious, no one ever said he was incompetent,” said Strong.
For Jonathan Cristol, an academic at Adelphi University and author of a forthcoming book on the 9/11 attacks and Afghanistan, questions over Trump’s aptness for office put him in a different league to Nixon, Reagan and Clinton.
“We’ve never had so many negative reports about a president’s fitness to lead,” said Cristol. “The president’s abilities, character, honesty and respect for the rule of law are in doubt, and nobody is willing to do anything about it.”
Melcher is not pulling the trigger on Trump just yet. While his scandals may seem noisier than those in the past, they have likely been amplified by such innovations as Facebook and Twitter and a more partisan domestic media than many of Trump’s predecessors faced.
And while Trump’s “salad of scandals” offers the full range of muck on mistresses, lies, election campaigns and foreign plots, only time will tell whether Mueller produces hard evidence and if voters or legislators care enough to act on it, he added.
“The hits keep on coming, but their impact may not be so severe,” said Melcher, a contributor to the book Presidential Swing States.
“The web of interconnected allegations has become a blur and people are getting numb to it. Trump will always call it a witch-hunt and, all the while, the Dow Jones gets higher. A good economy cancels out a lot of bad behaviour.”