As a presidential historian carefully watching the pursuit by Democrats of President Donald Trump’s scalp, I can’t help but express exasperation at the Democrats’ hypocrisy and their selectivity.
Their goal, of course, is to tag Donald Trump with some sort of quid pro quo deal with Ukraine — specifically, withholding money to Ukraine if it didn’t act in a way that served Trump’s election interests. That’s the Democrats’ central case; impeachment and removal hinges on that. But here’s the critical question: Should such a thing, if proven, be considered impeachable? That’s the issue. And it desperately needs some historical context.
The question of whether such a quid pro quo would be impeachable is debatable, but what isn’t debatable is that the history of the presidency is filled with quid pro quo examples, particularly among the Democratic Party’s icons. And especially with Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Needless to say, there is no president more hallowed in liberal lore than FDR. In nearly every survey that has been done of liberal academics, FDR always ranks among the top three presidents of all time, behind only George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, and always top among modern presidents. He is their gold standard. FDR is the standard-bearer of the Democratic Party.
And yet, if you want to see a president who engaged in using explicitly public funds for his own explicitly political interests, look no further than FDR. In fact, no one did it more. What Trump is alleged to have done one time to Ukraine, well, FDR did incessantly to his own citizenry.
To show this, I’ll make things really easy, citing a single source: scholar and historian Dr. Burton Folsom. Among Folsom’s books on FDR, go to just one, his New Deal or Raw Deal?, published in 2008 by Simon & Schuster — a dozen years ago, long before anyone could ever imagine Donald Trump even seeking the presidency. Numerous books on FDR could be cited, but here I’ll stick with just this one.
Starting around page 85 of the book, Folsom addresses the first of at least a dozen examples of FDR abusing his powers and the public purse.
FDR’s chief instrument for shaking down his targets was the crown jewel of his New Deal: the WPA, the Works Progress Administration. The WPA was at the core of the New Deal and FDR’s vast administrative state. Quite literally tons of taxpayer coin went into this massive relief program, which FDR, in turn, redirected for political manipulation. For the record, WPA picked up from where FERA, the Federal Emergency Relief Act, left off. The wildly disproportionate share of FERA money that went to states like Pennsylvania (second only to Illinois in funds received), a state that had gone for Herbert Hoover in 1932, but which FDR hoped to flip in 1936, was scandalous and undoubtedly heavily influenced by the president’s political considerations.
But let’s stick with the WPA, under which FDR reformulated relief from FERA. WPA become the cash cow that FDR would milk not only for public jobs but for political patronage.
“The inefficiency and uselessness of many WPA projects was a serious problem,” Dr. Folsom writes, “but a greater problem was the increased politicization of relief under the WPA.” President Roosevelt had “much discretion in allocation and distributing” WPA money, not unlike a president’s discretion in allocating and distributing foreign aid — though worse because foreign policy is constitutionally the president’s prerogative. As Folsom notes, FDR would choose “which states would receive what,” and the main problem was that this “made relief a game of political manipulation,” at least in the hands of a manipulative president like Franklin Roosevelt. “The problems that plagued the FERA would sharply increase under WPA because more money was at stake,” Folsom notes. “Governors worried that their states would not get their ‘fair share’ of federal tax booty, and so they came to Washington, hats in hand, to curry favor with Roosevelt, Harry Hopkins, who became the WPA director, and other New Deal administrators.”
A critical side-note: Harry Hopkins was the most duped of FDR’s terribly pro-Soviet and pro-Stalin aides, to the point that some Cold War historians have argued that Hopkins was the “Agent 19” Soviet spy in the Venona Papers. (I write on this at length in my book, Dupes.) No other aide was as close to FDR, so close that Hopkins slept in the White House.
“Although Roosevelt and Hopkins said they would not use WPA and other relief organizations to play politics,” Folsom notes, “the evidence suggests again and again that that is exactly what they allowed to happen.”
That’s for sure. And Folsom’s book is full of them. Every Republican (and every Democrat) involved in the Trump impeachment trail should grab a copy of Folsom’s book and read through the examples. Again, I’ll make it easy for them. Here’s a summary:
Read them and weep. It’s disgusting. To repeat all of them here would take several thousand words and constitute a virtual cut and paste from Folsom’s book. Still, I’ll note a few of them.
Harry Hopkins was well aware of the abuses taking place. He received mail regularly from people all over the country who were denied federal jobs or fired because of their political views or affiliations. There were so many of these letters that they’re today housed in state-by-state files at the National Archives in Washington in a large file labeled “WPA — Political Coercion.” The New Jersey file is especially fat. One WPA worker complained, “You are either on the WPA or employed in some government department and by virtue thereof you owe a duty to the [Democratic] Party to do your part in making the canvass.”
Gavin Wright, a scholar and economist who carefully analyzed WPA spending state by state, concluded, “WPA employment reached peaks in the fall of election years. In states like Florida and Kentucky — where the New Deal’s big fight was in the primary elections — the rise of WPA employment was hurried along in order to synchronize with the primaries.”
FDR and his Democrat buddies were using WPA funds like a party war chest to help them win elections.
FDR’s own advisers were taken aback by his scheming, his ruthlessness, his ego. Particularly shocked was FDR’s speechwriter, Raymond Moley, who provided an assessment of FDR that we now hear every day from Democrats about Donald Trump. Moley was struck by “the utter lack of logic of the man [FDR], the scantiness of his precise knowledge of things that he was talking about, by the gross inaccuracies in his statements, by the almost pathological lack of sequence in his discussion, by the complete rectitude that he felt as to his own conduct.” He went on, adding that he was appalled at FDR’s “immense and growing egotism that came from his office, by his willingness to continue the excoriation of the press and business in order to get votes for himself, by his indifference to what effect the long-continued pursuit of these ends would have upon the civilization in which he was playing a part.” Moley was aghast at how FDR’s “political habits” were fueled by “the added influence of a swollen ego.” This was so bad, felt FDR’s own speechwriter, that he considered the president “dangerous in the extreme.”
Again, that appraisal sounds like any modern Democrat’s take on Donald Trump: the scant knowledge, the gross inaccuracies in statements, the dangerously swollen ego, the excoriation of the press, the extreme and almost “pathological” behavior, etc. But of course, here was a Democrat on a Democrat — an FDR speechwriter on FDR. And FDR is a hero to Democrats, the patron saint of their party.
Still more, as Folsom notes, FDR used patronage not only to help fellow Democrats in election campaigns but also as a club to discipline wayward congressmen who didn’t toe the party line. Ray Moley observed that for FDR, “patronage would be used, if not as a club, then as a steel-pointed pic.” Folsom follows up with seven pages of detailed examples merely from the 1934 election, involving states from (among others) Maine to West Virginia, New York, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and Illinois.
Alf Landon, the Republican presidential nominee in 1936, lamented, “If he [FDR] did not have the $5 billion [of WPA money] his election would be very much in doubt.” California Sen. Hiram Johnson, who actually endorsed Roosevelt for reelection, described FDR on the campaign train: “[he] carries with him the Agricultural Department, with checks for the farmers in untold amounts, and Mr. Hopkins, who doles out relief in unstinted quantities.”
How much of a shameless political advantage was this for FDR?
“He starts with probably 8 million votes bought,” said Johnson. This was a massive number of votes in the 1930s, insurmountable to an opponent.
Folsom also describes attempts by FDR to influence entire voting blocs, including black Americans. His analysis is backed by hard data, with several pages of tables.
Importantly, these are only some examples from a single book. Almost any non-hagiographic biography of FDR shows abuses like these. His vicious pursuit against Andrew Mellon, for example, again with the power of the public largesse behind him, and his extraordinary effort to nationalize everyone’s gold, are other stunning abuses of power. As to Mellon, the immensely talented former Treasury secretary was just one victim of FDR’s misuse of the IRS to punish, silence, and even ruin his political opponents. I personally knew one of Mellon’s nephews. He was extremely bitter at FDR for what FDR did to his uncle — an honorable man and dedicated public servant who ultimately was fully exonerated, even though the president’s lawyers went after Mellon like a pack of wolves with unlimited government dollars behind them.
“Roosevelt absolutely tried to ruin my uncle’s life,” Mellon’s nephew told me. “It was vicious.”
Folsom unavoidably addresses this as well. Mellon, he notes, became the object of a “massive and unrelenting IRS investigation.” Elmer Irey, head of the Intelligence Unit at FDR’s IRS, later confessed that “the Roosevelt administration made me go after Andy Mellon.” No less than Walter Lippmann would call FDR’s indictment of Mellon “an act of profound injustice.” This was done in large part to discredit the Mellon tax cuts that spurred the vast economic prosperity of the 1920s, given that FDR was literally pushing for a 99.5 percent tax rate on incomes over $100,000. He wanted to smear Mellon in order to smear the Mellon free-market philosophy.
We could go on and on.
As for FDR’s abusive antics, everyone knew about them, from congressmen to reporters. “The furor over the WPA and vote buying became so loud,” notes Folsom, “that Senator Carl Hatch of New Mexico introduced a bill barring WPA workers, and certain other appointees, from political activity.”
Moreover, most FDR historians know about this side of their man. They shrug it off. They treat their beloved New Dealing president with a wink and grin, chuckling at FDR’s wonderful political “horse-trading.” Like LBJ’s stunts — including spying on the Goldwater campaign in 1964 — they treat it like it’s fun, cute, endearing. (“Oh, yes, good ol’ Lyndon!”) Everyone does it, they shrug — until they judge that maybe a Republican might have done something like it, even just once. Put any one of these FDR–LBJ abuses in the hands of a Nixon or a Trump, and it’s impeachment time, baby.
What Trump is accused of doing — using U.S. dollars to (one time) pressure Ukraine in order to help his reelection — is something that FDR did countless times. It was a routine part of how FDR cynically operated. What is alleged to be a single occurrence with Trump and Ukraine was something utterly systematic with FDR and his public pot.
Finally, note that my analysis here deals strictly with FDR’s domestic policy. As to FDR’s conduct in foreign policy, that would require a much longer presentation, with even worse consequences. (See my book, Dupes, 2018 edition, specifically the introduction and chapters seven through nine.) Even then, this is just one element of his domestic policy. The American Spectator founding editor R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr. is looking into FDR’s abuses with federal intelligence agency wiretapping, which was heavily documented decades later in the mid-1970s by the Church Committee.
Still worse, these were preciously limited tax dollars from Americans during the Great Depression, taken and funneled into the Democratic Party political machine. This conduct was egregious.
Naturally, liberals today, in 2020, will ignore this. If you actually get this information in their face, they’ll dismiss it as whataboutism. But that’s nonsense, and unfair. Even if Trump were guilty as charged with the Ukraine, why would you impeach and remove a president for a onetime offense of something that the likes of FDR did daily throughout the worst decade and crisis in American history? It would be damned unjust. I personally couldn’t do it, regardless of whether I liked or voted for Donald Trump. Fair-minded people should understand that. Trump supporters will. And that’s yet another reason why they’ll ignore the Democrats’ histrionics about Donald Trump’s allegedly impeachable and removable abuse of power.