Why you should care
Because a president besieged by investigations has lots of weapons in his arsenal, especially when he’s a former general.
Based on OZY’s hit podcast The Thread, which delves into surprising connections in history, The Mueller Thread weaves together the strands linking the sprawling investigations around President Donald Trump.
Ulysses S. Grant is not known as a particularly innovative or inspiring president. In his inaugural address in 1869, the former Civil War general made the stirring promise that he would be a “purely administrative officer” as president. One thing that did distinguish Grant, however, was his steadfast loyalty to his country and to his friends. Unfortunately, Grant’s loyalty led him to make some very poor choices when it came to his “administrative” personnel. And when some of those corrupt aides came into the sights of federal prosecutors, Grant did become a pioneering president of sorts.
He was, for example, the first president to appoint a special prosecutor. And the first to fire one. Grant also remains the first and only president to testify as a defense witness in a criminal trial — a maneuver that helped one of his closest associates evade almost certain prosecution.
In short, the hard-edged but clean-nosed Grant may not have been good at picking his friends, but he proved extraordinarily good as president at helping them escape justice. And for a president like Donald Trump watching as special counsel Robert Mueller’s legal battalions circle around some of his closest associates, Grant’s combat tactics still provide a useful illustration for how a besieged president can achieve some measure of victory on the bloody battleground of political scandal.
Grant was able to survive what he considered a witch hunt even as it took down many around him …
Almost from the moment that he promised to be the nation’s chief administrative officer, Grant’s administration was beset with corruption, from the financier friends who sparked the 1869 gold panic to the Union Pacific shareholders who bribed lawmakers for new rail line contracts. What almost all of these scandals had in common was Grant’s own chief of staff, Gen. Orville Babcock (his actual name), a West Point graduate who had been at Grant’s side since the war. In a truly majestic work of criminal electioneering that makes Watergate look even pettier, Babcock helped organize a series of “whiskey rings” across the country in 1872. Essentially, these rings involved underreporting alcohol sales with part of the resulting tax savings being funneled to the Republican Party so that both whiskey distillers and party officials received a nice windfall.
The scheme cost the government more than $4 million in tax revenue, and it wasn’t long before an investigation, in the form of Treasury Secretary Benjamin Bristow, came knocking at the president’s door. Bristow showed Grant the incriminating evidence, including coded telegrams from Babcock to his co-conspirators. The loyal Grant refused to believe that his most trusted aide was involved and appointed the first special prosecutor in American history to investigate. “Let no guilty man escape, if it can be avoided,” the president instructed.
As with the Mueller probe, the president was at first tolerant and cooperative. However, once the new special prosecutor, a respected veteran and a fellow Republican named John Henderson, started racking up indictments, the president changed his tune. After Henderson indicted Babcock on fraud and implied potential White House obstruction, Grant was furious. He ordered his attorney general to fire Henderson. A new special prosecutor was appointed, but fueled by fellow Republicans and a partisan press fuming about a “rebel Grant jury” out to get the president, the increasingly paranoid Grant took more steps to hamstring the investigation. He assigned a former special agent to spy on government prosecutors, he prevented prosecutors from giving immunity to witnesses in return for their testimony, and when it came time for Babcock’s trial, he took another unprecedented step to help his guilty friend.
On a Saturday morning in February 1876, the Chief Justice of the United States himself presided over the deposition of a sitting president in the White House. In responding to a list of prearranged questions, Grant’s legendary photographic memory was uncharacteristically patchy when it came to Babcock’s activities, but he vouched for his aide’s “integrity and his efficiency.” Thanks to Grant’s testimony, Babcock was acquitted, and the Whiskey Ring investigation stopped outside the White House’s door. Some Democratic newspapers argued Grant should be charged with obstruction of justice, but the president had done nothing illegal in testifying — and there was never any evidence he was involved in the Whiskey Ring scandal itself.
Grant’s main sin may have been trusting duplicitous friends, but he still managed to successfully interfere with an investigation without paying any big political price — Americans pretty much divided along party lines over the scandal. It’s an outcome we should all — almost 150 years later — pay attention to as prosecutors close in on the inner circle of another president, one who still has not personally been implicated in the major crimes of his corrupt associates. Sure, political corruption was more rampant and political norms weaker in Grant’s day, but with the help of a loyal partisan media, and through the use of his prosecutorial power as president and the bully pulpit of his own testimony, the “administrative” Grant was able to survive what he considered a witch hunt even as it took down many around him.
Is it not possible that the current norm-busting, scandal-ridden occupant of the White House could do the same from an even more powerful modern executive perch? And if he does, might the verdict of historians someday be that this president was not a scheming wrongdoer, but rather as biographer Ron Chernow says of Grant, “an easy victim for crooked men.”