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Congressional scandals ain’t what they used to be

The modern playbook for surviving scandal was created by a Democrat

Activists at a Sept. 26 rally sponsored by the conservative group FreedomWorks urge Jim Jordan to run for speaker, past scandals or no. (Alex Wong/Getty Images file photo)
Activists at a Sept. 26 rally sponsored by the conservative group FreedomWorks urge Jim Jordan to run for speaker, past scandals or no. (Alex Wong/Getty Images file photo)

Jim Jordan has a reputation.

He is a pit bull: Video clips of the Ohio Republican tearing into witnesses in committee is like sweet nectar to many conservatives.

He is deeply conservative: As founding member of the far-right House Freedom Caucus, he had a large hand in deposing former Speaker John A. Boehner.

He is a White House favorite: If he’s on camera he’s likely defending the president with every fiber of his being.

He is rising in the ranks: In the 116th Congress, he is now the top Republican on the Oversight and Reform Committee, a key position that Republicans hope will serve to beat back Democratic efforts to investigate President Donald Trump.

One other thing about Jim Jordan: Since last summer, scandal has trailed him. In July, multiple wrestlers he once coached at Ohio State University over 20 years ago accused him of turning a blind eye to widespread sexual abuse by a doctor there. With state and federal investigations underway, Jordan has denied the allegations and has said if he had known he would have done something.

Complicity in such behavior, or outright harassment itself, has deep-sixed the careers of at least a half-dozen members of Congress over the past two years, yet the scandal has done nothing to slow Jordan’s rise. In November, he won a seventh term in his northwestern Ohio district by 3o points. He made a failed run at minority leader, and he remains an in-demand face on television.

He dismisses any suggestion that what happened at Ohio State will hurt his credibility or be a distraction as he leads Republicans on the committee. “I think everyone sees through that,” he said. “Everyone sees through that story. Look, every single coach, all kinds of wrestlers have said what I’ve said. And the reason they’ve said it is because it’s the truth.” When asked if he had ever considered resigning, he replied, “No, of course not.”

Jordan’s rise in the ranks of the Republican Party is just one example of a phenomenon that has been sweeping Congress and Washington in the era of Trump, and even for some years before — that of a consequence-free culture. Even more stunning: in some cases, scandal has not been a career-ender, but instead a career-enhancer. “Scandal just isn’t what it used to be,” is how Ross K. Baker, a longtime scholar of Congress at Rutgers University, puts it.

Look no further than recent re-election wins by two Republicans under federal indictment — Chris Collins of New York for insider trading and Duncan Hunter of California for misuse of campaign money — and a win by Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, whose corruption case ended in mistrial in 2017. Menendez, who was severely admonished by a bipartisan committee for bringing “discredit upon the Senate,” remains the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, and like Jordan, he thinks his checkered history should have no impact on his ability to lead.

“That’s all in the past,” he said. “If that were to be an issue, it would be an issue now that I’m ranking [member]. There’s no question about my credibility, and no member, no colleague, on either side of the aisle has raised it.”

Many longtime watchers of Congress worry that rewarding this sort of behavior will establish a precedent with fallout that could be felt for years.

“When you have examples of people who are caught red-handed and brazen it through, and end up surviving, and in some cases thriving, then it becomes an incentive for others to do the same thing,” said Norman J. Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He points to the president’s many business conflicts and dubious ethics and the tone-setting behavior of his scandal-plagued Cabinet. “If there’s no shame anymore for anything then you don’t get the ability to put any constraints around people’s behavior.”

A comment in December by since-retired GOP Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah seemed to sum up the apathy.

Asked by CNN about federal prosecutors essentially implicating the president in campaign finance felonies, he responded in stunning fashion: “OK, but I don’t care.” He later walked back the comments, calling them “irresponsible” while saying he had spoken “imprudently.”

The Trump effect

With numerous investigations swirling around the president, 44 former senators, both Republican and Democrat, signed a letter last month saying “we are entering a dangerous period.”

“The foundational principles of our democracy and our national security interests are at stake,” they wrote, urging their colleagues to be “steadfast and zealous guardians of our democracy,” regardless of partisan leanings.

Democrats swept into power in the House in part on a message of fighting corruption, and some good-government types see something to cheer in that.

“I’m quite hopeful that going forward we’re actually going to see a lessening of [scandals] because of the huge momentum coming out of this election to rein in corruption,” said Lisa Gilbert, vice president of legislative affairs at Public Citizen, a watchdog group. She points to an ethics overhaul package that Democrats recently introduced as a good sign.

Depending on how you count, about a dozen Republican and Democratic lawmakers in the 115th Congress either resigned or retired due in part to scandal, mostly sexual misconduct — and indeed, researchers say that the public tends to view sexual scandals in a much harsher light than other types of wrongdoing. But many lawmakers seem to have discovered that if they just hang on and weather the storm, the full blast of outrage will most likely turn into background music.

Many point the finger at Trump as the ringleader of looser standards.

“You have a president who seems to send a message that ethics rules and business conflicts of interest aren’t really important,” said Noah Bookbinder, the executive director at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “And that may have contributed to some members either being a bit more brazen or feeling at least empowered.”

Others believe Trump has created a scandal-a-day environment that oftentimes drowns out what would typically be major news.

“We’re a little inured to corruption,” said Gilbert of Public Citizen. “There’s more of it, so it feels less shocking. That is certainly something that Trump is changing for us. He’s changing the goal posts on what seems horrifying.”

So it’s perhaps not surprising in this environment that a former campaign aide for Trump, George Papadopoulos, who recently served 12 days in prison for lying to the FBI, would aspire to Congress. “I will be running for Congress in 2020, and I will win,” he declared on Twitter in December.

If you wanted to find a high-profile collection of brazenness, look no further than House Oversight — the panel whose mission statement under Republicans was “to hold government accountable to taxpayers.”

In the Congress just passed, there was Republican Greg Gianforte of Montana, who assaulted a reporter on the eve of a special election in 2017, lied about it and got a wrist-slap of a sentence. And Mark Sanford, who as governor of South Carolina mysteriously disappeared from office for a week for what his office said was a leisurely hike on the Appalachian Trail. It turned out he was in Argentina carrying on an affair. Sanford lost a GOP primary in 2018.

Others on that committee have faced serious accusations. Former Chairman Darrell Issa of California, as an 18-year-old, was indicted for grand theft auto (the charges were later dropped) and was investigated by authorities for committing arson on a business he owned (accusations that were never substantiated). Republican James R. Comer of Kentucky was accused of physical and mental abuse by a former girlfriend in 2015. He was never charged and denies the accusations.

Then there’s Tennessee Republican Scott DesJarlais, a former doctor and strict anti-abortionist, who in recorded phone conversations could be heard urging a patient-turned-mistress to seek an abortion. He acknowledged pressuring his now-divorced wife to get two abortions and had multiple affairs with his patients, for which he was fined $500. He won his most recent election by 30 points.

Baker, the Rutgers professor, has a name for the phenomenon: “The DesJarlais Effect,” which he explains as “the House member who enshrined the principle that if your constituency is an indelibly red or blue district that even a scandal or an indictment cannot dislodge you.”

“You’d think that what he did, basically being a right-to-lifer and then urging a mistress to have an abortion, should be a knockout blow, except when you’re looking through DesJarlais’ district,” he said. “And it becomes, within the current idiom, transactional. It’s a district that a Republican can’t lose.”

And such a phenomenon isn’t restricted to Republicans. In 2018, several Democrats won races despite storm clouds hanging over their heads. In Dec. 2017, Roll Call reported that the Treasury Department made a secret $220,000 payment to settle a sexual harassment claim against Rep. Alcee L. Hastings, a 13-term Florida lawmaker. Hastings denied both the harassment claims and any knowledge of the payment, and House Democrats rallied around him.

Brad Sherman of California faced accusations that he fostered a toxic office environment that led to sexual harassment claims against a district office staffer.

In 2017, Michigan’s Brenda Lawrence came under scrutiny when Politico reported that she continued to keep a since-resigned chief of staff on the payroll despite complaints from female staffers about his behavior.

Rep. Robert C. Scott of Virginia was accused by a former congressional fellow of sexual harassment.

And in 2018 an ex-girlfriend accused Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota of abusing her, but he went on to win a race for state attorney general.

The hyper-partisan and tribal nature of politics in recent years is likely one reason why lawmakers are now able to survive such indiscretions.

Scott Basinger, an expert in congressional scandals at the University of Houston, said that in recent years, voters have been less willing to punish lawmakers for wrongdoing — and that such a phenomenon predates Trump.

In data he compiled recently, he found that in three election cycles (2014, 2016, 2018), the taint of scandal has had less of an impact on lawmakers in their re-election efforts compared to earlier eras. According to his research, from 1993 to 2012, such members would lose, on average, five points off their expected vote share in the general election. But in recent years he found that the number has shrunk, down to just 2.3, on average, since 2014.

“People just aren’t willing to tolerate or listen to or respond to negative information about people from their own party the way perhaps they used to,” he theorizes of voters. However, Basinger also found that the number of members who “survive” scandal has actually declined — from 64.5 percent in 1993-2010 to 56.1 percent from 2011-18, a consequence, perhaps, of a primary challenge or party leaders persuading members to resign or retire instead of having to face voters.

Basinger also said he’s noticed something new from lawmakers.

“There has been a change in the way members of Congress address scandals,” he said. “They don’t just say, ‘Oh there’s a scandal, I’m dead.’” Instead, he sees lawmakers “more willing to be belligerent and confrontational” when wrongdoing is exposed.

Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, is under pressure from constituents in the 4th District for comments he made questioning when
Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, escaped formal censure in the House after comments he made questioning when “white supremacy” became an offensive term. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Digging in

For the most part, Congress has been lenient in policing its own. Rarely has a lawmaker been censured or reprimanded, let alone expelled. (Menendez is a notable exception for receiving an admonishment from his colleagues.)

The House stopped short of censuring Rep. Steve King, the Iowa Republican, for comments he made earlier this month to The New York Times questioning why “white supremacism” and “white nationalism” had become offensive terms. Instead, GOP leaders refused to seat him on committees, and the House passed a resolution rejecting “hateful expressions of intolerance,” a measure that passed with unanimous Republican support, King included.

In the past, lawmakers had no formal rules to deal with indicted colleagues. But in recent months, both Republicans and Democrats have adopted new rules stripping indicted members of their committee assignments and forcing any member in leadership to step aside.

The truth is that the sheer number of scandals that gripped the Congress of 2017-2018 has been about average compared with other points in time and are well below previous scandal-plagued eras like that of 2005-06, which featured Jack Abramoff, Duke Cunningham, Tom DeLay and William Jefferson, and the 1992 House Bank scandal, which ensnared 17 lawmakers.

Most lawmakers are not exactly enthused when people start asking them about their transgressions and what that means for the future of Congress. “I can’t talk about that,” Duncan Hunter said when asked recently about his corruption trial. When questioned about his body-slamming past and Trump’s praise for it, Gianforte suggested a reporter call his office and then ducked into a Capitol elevator.

Others get irritable. “Are you serious?” Menendez asked, when presented with the question of whether he might have credibility issues on Foreign Relations. The question was serious enough for the Senate Ethics Committee, which in April 2018 issued a blistering admonishment of Menendez for his actions that led to his indictment, which included accepting gifts in exchange for apparent favors to a doctor. In a letter, the committee said that Menendez had “demonstrated poor judgment,” and that his actions “risked undermining the public’s confidence in the Senate.” Even worse, the committee concluded in its letter that his actions “reflected discredit upon the Senate.”

Despite all that, Menendez still got his old job back as ranking member on the Foreign Relations Committee.

More willing to talk was Sanford, who has offered sharp criticism of Trump. In a twist of irony, he lost his congressional seat last year not to any misfeasance, but his lack of fealty to the president. (Trump and Sanford’s opponent, Katie Arrington, wasted few opportunities needling Sanford about the extramarital affair during the campaign.)

He had some advice for his scandal-plagued brethren: repent. “People extend grace if you humbly approach the issue and both ask for God’s forgiveness, their forgiveness and amend your ways,” he said. But then he thought further. “That doesn’t seem to be the current playbook that’s out there, though. Trump blows all that up: ‘I have nothing that I’m sorry for. I deny whatever. I don’t know anything about anything.’”

Sanford worries that the president’s ways have begun to infect Congress. “It’s cancerous. It metastasizes,” he said. He imagines a candidate taking his cue from the president: “If that’s the way it works at the top, that’s the way it works in my race.”

“This idea of just pushing through, at a minimum, is bad for the human soul,” he said. “And even if it’s viewed as OK in the political world, it may get you through an election cycle, but I don’t think it serves you well in the long run.”

Perhaps in a nod to that sentiment, Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont Independent, apologized twice this month for widespread accusations of sexual harassment, sexism and discrimination inside his 2016 presidential campaign. He called what happened “absolutely unacceptable.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vt., above, and congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., will headline two rallies in Kansas this weekend. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call)
Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vt., apologized twice this month after allegations emerged that his 2016 presidential campaign harbored discrimination and harassment. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Never say you’re sorry

Eric Dezenhall, a D.C.-based crisis management consultant who has advised, among others, Michael Jackson’s legal defense team, said that the playbook created by Trump is here to stay. “What has changed in the Age of Trump is, why would you start out admitting anything? Apologizing for anything?” he said. “Because you have people looking at Trump and think, ‘My God, he can get away with anything.’ And what Trump has taught us is the playbook of apology and contrition is largely out the window. Because you apologize and show contrition, you lose your job.”

Further, he describes what is happening now in Washington as the “Butch and Sundance Approach,” which he said is being utilized to an extent by both Menendez and Jordan — the latter of whom hired his own crisis P.R. firm last year.

“If you have the posse out after you, it may pay to jump off the cliff and hope you land in water and not on the rocks,” he said.

Another thing that Trump has changed is the notion that the cover-up is worse than the crime, Dezenhall said. “One of the things we’re learning is that is complete and utter crap,” he said. “Cover-ups often work and being defiant often works.” Look no further than the Stormy Daniels matter, he said, in which Trump paid hush money in 2016 to the porn actress to keep an affair secret. “The Stormy Daniels cover-up worked,” he said, because it came out after the election. “The cover-up was, by most measurable means, immoral, but effective.”

And, he notes, the modern playbook for surviving scandal was created by a Democrat, Bill Clinton, who lied and stonewalled and sought to destroy his enemies before apologizing.

When it comes to Jordan leading Republicans on Oversight, Comer, Jordan’s colleague on the committee, thinks he’ll be fine. “I believe Jim Jordan, and I don’t believe it has any weight on his ability to lead moving forward,” he said, calling him “a man of character” who would “defend his students, his athletes, his fellow members to the end of time.”

But at least a few Democrats will likely be arching their brows at their Republican colleague. “I think it remains an unresolved issue that certainly could be problematic,” said Gerald E. Connolly of Virginia, a member of the committee. “He was an adult coach with supervisory responsibilities. And what he knew and what he did about what he knew, I don’t know. There are accusations, unresolved, that he did know, that it was brought to his attention and he chose not to do anything about it. Could that be problematic? Yeah. One of his mantras, especially in the Obama years, has been it doesn’t matter whether you didn’t know about the scandal in your department. You’re in charge, the buck stops with you.”

Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, chairman of the committee, was more circumspect. “I think it’s fine, I’m looking forward to it,” he said of working with Jordan on the committee. “The voters of his district saw fit to send him here and they’re close up on it.”

Turning point?

Earlier this month, Democrats unveiled their very first bill — HR 1 — a package they hope will go a long way toward changing things in Washington. It includes a measure that would stop members of Congress from using taxpayer money to settle harassment or discrimination cases. It would strengthen the Office of Government Ethics, impose stricter limits on lobbyists and foreign agents and require more campaign spending disclosures by corporations, labor unions and super PACs. It would prohibit any coordination between candidates and super PACs.

It would also block people like Chris Collins from serving on corporate boards, a situation that critics say creates an inherent conflict of interest.

“We need to take a dramatic step to restore people’s faith in government and to ensure that we have tough laws that can be enforced,” said Ted Deutch, a Florida Democrat who is the new chairman of the Ethics Committee. “We know that there’s a problem, and HR 1 is a significant step forward in doing that.”

Gilbert at Public Citizen said that it’s a good first step, even though it isn’t going anywhere if it passes the House. “HR 1, all of that, that will certainly be a big messaging bill, which we eventually hope, in several years is a real bill,” she said. But there is more to be done. For instance, Gilbert’s group has been seeking to overhaul what they see as the loose regulation of leadership PACs.

“There aren’t currently [Federal Election Commission] regulations that say you can’t use them for bougie perks like golf outings and Disney trips and cars to chauffeur yourself around Rome,” she said. “And that’s been happening basically across the board. The only difference between that and Duncan Hunter is that he used his regular PAC and so he got caught.”

Most believe that scandals run in cycles. There’s wrongdoing, then changes to address the wrongdoing, then the eventual backsliding. “I hope we’re at a low point and it’s not going to get any lower,” said Ornstein.

“It doesn’t mean that anything goes,” said Gary C. Jacobson, a professor emeritus at the University of California, San Diego. He points to the 2017 victory of now-Sen. Doug Jones over Roy Moore, who was accused of child molestation. “The fact that there’s a Democrat representing Alabama in the Senate as the consequence of that special election shows there’s some level of revulsion among voters that will override, at least temporarily, their partisanship. But it’s harder to do these days.”

But as long as Trump continues to divide America, things could actually get worse in the short term, he said. “As long he’s there to galvanize negative partisanship, then one would expect scamps and scoundrels to survive, as long as the scoundrelism wasn’t putting them behind bars without bail.”

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