There was a time where it was thought that an unseemly or illegal sexual relationship could sink the aspirations for anyone seeking the highest office in the United States of America. Somehow this belief survived 1992, and seemed to stay intact right up to 2016, when it was dispelled forever.
Looking back through storied American history, however, it seems that presidential sex scandals are actually a tradition that is only slightly younger than the office itself, and that apparently the only candidates or elected figures that they had the expected effect on were potential 1988 Democratic nominee Gary Hart and one-time leading 2012 Republican nominee Herman Cain. Let’s reflect on some of the most infamous presidential sex scandals from throughout American history…
10. Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings
Along with his writing of the Declaration of Independence, authorizing the Lewis & Clark Expedition, and being in officer during the Louisiana Purchase, Thomas Jefferson is most remembered for forcing his slave Sally Hemmings to have his children. This was public knowledge during Jefferson’s presidency, first published in the Richmond Recorder on September 1, 1802. Interestingly, there is some evidence that no less than the obnoxious and disliked first vice president/second president John Adams spilled the beans, as the first known reference to the Sally Hemmings crime seems to be a 1794 letter he wrote to his son Charles Adams. Adams referred to her both as “Dashing Sally” and “Egeria in the groves,” the latter of which was a reference to a nymph who Ancient Roman writer Ovid claimed consorted with Numa, the first King of Rome (back when it was only a modest city-state).
The matter was still heavily disputed in 1874 when Thomas Jeffereson’s nephew Peter Carr was quoted in The Life of Thomas Jefferson saying that Jefferson had admitted to being the father to at least one if not six of Hemmings’s children. It wasn’t until 1998 that DNA tests confirmed that the Hemmings/Jefferson families were intermingled, and in 2000 that a representative of Monticello made a public statement conceding that the claim was valid. In 2018, the New York Times reported that Monticello had incorporated Hemmings into their historical presentations on the founding father.
9. John Quincy Adams and Tsar Nicholas I
The first son of a former president elected to the presidency, Adams may have one of the most singular sexual scandals on record. He may be the only president whose sex scandal involved him facilitating someone else’s affair instead of having one himself. In 1828 reports began circulating that Adams had sold one of his housekeepers to Tsar Nicholas I as a sex slave to get in the head of state’s good graces, the plausability of this coming from the fact Adams had been the first American ambassador to Russia.
The story happened to come from newspapers that were almost explicitly loyal to Adams’s rival, Andrew Jackson. Yet according to Robert McKenzie’s 2021 book We the Fallen People, not only was the accusation widely believed, but Adams was aware he was being smeared and complained in his diary about how people were inclined to believe it out of a desire to “surrender themselves up to their passions.” Despite Adams loyalists being willing to smear Jackson just as viciously, Old Hickory snatched the White House from the alleged pimp that year.
8. John Tyler and… Well, Numerous Slaves
There were a number of amusing absurdities that marked the presidency of this largely forgotten president from 1840-1844. You’ve heard of how William Henry Harrison lasted scarcely a month in office before dying? Yeah, this was the vice president who filled the vacant seat, thus America’s first unelected president. As he had been a bipartisanship candidate, he was so opposed to the Whigs, his own party, that he vetoed many of the bills that passed through both chambers of Congress, such as creating a federal bank and a tariff system, that his cabinet almost all quit and members of his own party almost impeached him. Such matters seemed to overshadow the fact his presidency saw such momentous events as the annexation of Texas.
As a slave-owner when the Whig Party was largely abolitionist, a scandal erupted when an article was published in the newspaper Emancipator that he had a Jeffersonian proclivity for having sex with his slaves. It certainly would have been in keeping with his libido, which caused him to have eight children with his first wife and seven with his second, who was thirty years his junior and bore him his last ever when the former president was 70 years old. Tyler’s official newspaper Madisonian flatly denied the charge at the time, and as of 2017, there were no DNA tests that confirmed any of Tyler’s slaves had born an illegitimate child by him. While Tyler did not seek reelection, it seems that he had done enough to alienate so many that the sex scandal could hardly be blamed with/credited for that.
6. James Buchanan and William King
Long known as America’s only bachelor president, more than a decade before his inauguration in 1856 this was causing a lot of whispers about him. In 1844, open letters were published by his political opponents that referred to Buchanan’s “better half,” the US senator from Alabama William Rufus King. The pair had first met in 1830 as members of the Democratic Party, and were to be lifelong bachelors, though Buchanan had a fiance had likely committed suicide before their wedding and King was suspected of having a crush on the Tsarina Charlotte that compelled him to kiss her hand in greeting. The pair didn’t just live together in the same boarding house for years, they were together so often that first lady Julia Tyler dubbed them “the Siamese Twins,” referring to the conjoined twins Chang and Eng, obviously meaning the two were inseparable.
The two wrote numerous letters after moving out, of which dozens survive. One King wrote to Buchanan says that he would like to be with the former president, as he was “solitary and alone” and that he had “gone a wooing to several gentlemen”, which seems to go past simple changing meanings to words over time. Buchanan’s presidential aspirations seem to have overcome this reputation overwhelmingly because of how amenable he was to the agenda of slave owners.
The most significant event of James Buchanan’s time in office was when the president essentially allowed the Confederate States of America to seize federal forts and armories against the explicit requests of commanding general Winfield Scott. Considering that this effectively armed the Southern states at a time when they only had a single cannon factory and two gunpowder mills, his actions hugely contributed to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans. In short, he is very lucky that a significant part of his legacy is just that he might have been gay at a time when that was less socially acceptable.
6. Grover Cleveland and Maria Halpin
Few political careers deserved to survive their scandals less than that of the first Democrat elected to the White House after the Civil War and only US president so far to serve two non-consecutive terms. In 1873, after a few months of courting, then 37 year-old Cleveland accompanied Maria Halpin to her bedroom and then had sex with her “by use of force and violence and without [her] consent.”
Cleveland was by no means done ruining Halpin’s life: When he learned he had impregnated her, he had the child taken away from her and taken to the Buffalo Orphan Asylum and Maria herself locked in the Providence Lunatic Asylum. At least she was quickly released when it was determined by a doctor that she had only been committed in the first place as an act of blatant corruption, which considering this was a time when hysterectomies were still a mainstream medical procedure for women accused of insanity, that was a narrowly dodged bullet indeed.
When Cleveland’s illegitimate offspring became public knowledge in 1884 after he received the Democratic nomination, Cleveland’s campaign launched one of the most counterintuitive forms of damage control in American history. Maria Halpin was portrayed as someone who has having sex with multiple potential fathers, and Cleveland had allegedly been willing to put his child in an orphanage because there was so much uncertainty Oscar Cleveland was even his child. However heinous that was, there was little denying it worked.
5. Craig Spence, Ronald Reagan, and George Bush
He is a largely forgotten figure today, despite being at the heart of what should have been the largest political scandal of the 1980s aside from Iran-Contra. Craig Spence was a Republican lobbyist, primarily for Japanese business interests in the 1980s. In June 1989, The Washington Times named him as organizing a group of men who were hiring male sex workers of legally dubious age, and claimed he’d even taken two of them on a nighttime tour of the White House with the assistance of a Secret Service member. As if that wasn’t enough heat, in August that year he was arrested while in possession of a firearm and crack cocaine. During a subsequent investigation, several members of the Reagan and Bush administrations were implicated in the sex ring.
While a federal investigation into the matter was launched, it ended with surprising abruptness. Craig Spence, the most prominent figure, committed suicide in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in November 1989. The whole affair ended as such a surprising anti-climax that the Washington Post called it “The Bombshell that Didn’t Explode.”
If this sounds suspiciously similar to a figure who was prominent in the news in 2019 and 2021, don’t worry; just stay tuned.
4. Tara Reade and Joe Biden
From 1992 to 1993, a woman who used the alias Tara Reade worked for then-Senator Joe Biden’s office. One night in 1993, she claims that she delivered him his gym bag. When the two were alone together, he allegedly forced her against a wall and put his hands up her skirt and shirt. When she protested and then stopped him, he allegedly said, “Come on, Man, I heard you liked me.” Reade claimed that despite being angry, he was smiling when he said it.
As the allegations came to light in March 2020, Reade was deeply scrutinized and widely attacked. For example, in May 2020 Politico published an article alleging that she would use multiple aliases while using pity to get money from people. It also came to light in 2012 that she declared bankruptcy.
Among the most disturbing aspects of the case is a survey of 1,854 respondents conducted by Harvard CAPS-Harris. It found that while 55% believed the accusation, a majority said it would not affect their votes in that election. Such are the low standards elected officials are held to, even for the highest office in the land.
3. Bill Clinton’s Many Alleged Victims
Bill Clinton’s 1998 affair with Monica Lewinsky is certainly the highest profile of his scandals. If the accusations of a number of other people are true, that’s actually one of the two term president’s lesser sexual misdeeds While the first woman that became known nationwide for Clinton’s sexual impropriety was his longtime mistress Gennifer Flowers in 1992, his crimes have been part of the public record since 1969. At the time 19 year old Oxford student Eileen Wellstone allegedly filed a report that Clinton had assaulted her, but neither she nor her family pressed charges.
In 1998, during the investigations by Kenneth Starr related to the aforementioned Monica Lewinsky scandal, Kathleen Willey went on the TV program 60 Minutes to describe how in 1993 while she was a White House volunteer when Clinton groped her in the White House. That same year, her husband committed suicide over the immense debts he had left her in, and she spent many of the subsequent decades dealing with financial difficulties, such that she needed public support to prevent the loss of her house in 2018 during the aftermath of the Brett Kavanaugh senate hearings.
Also in 1998, Juanita Brodderick also went on 60 Minutes to describe how Clinton had assaulted her in Little Rock, AR in 1978 while he was campaigning for governor of Arkansas. She had been given the alias “Jane Doe #5” during Paula Jones’s lawsuit against Clinton for sexual harassment. The Washington Post reported that reports from the time corroborated claims that both of the parties were in the area at the time of the alleged crime. Brodderick claimed that Clinton had reached out to her in 1991 in an attempt to make amends, and she simply told him to go to Hell.
If you were more familiar with Clinton’s background and your first instinct when you saw the header for this entry was that they wouldn’t all fit in one entry, you’re right. We’ll have to come back to the subject of Clinton later.
2. Katie Johnson and Donald Trump
In August 2015, the website Gawker.com received a tip from a caller who said they were Al Taylor, a former producer for Inside Edition. So began reporting that in 1994, Jeffrey Epstein and Donald Trump sexually abused a thirteen year-old who later adopted the alias Katie Johnson, including having her perform lesbian acts with another minor. By April 2016, she would be filing a lawsuit against the candidate for president. In June 2016, a video of a pixelated, voice-modulated woman in a wig surfaced where she recounted her allegation. By October 2016, she would file to dismiss the lawsuit, alleging in part that her decision was motivated by a lack of funds and death threats.
Surprisingly, the main boosters of these allegations against the former president were reported by Jezebel magazine to not be with the Democratic party, but conservative power brokers Steve Baer, his daughter and son-in-law Chandler and Blake Smith. While the most famous sexual scandal against Trump would certainly be the Hollywood Access tape from October 2016, it was his own party that released the most harrowing accusation against him during the 2016 primary.
1. Jeffrey Epstein’s Death
Previously convicted for procuring a child for prostitution in 2008, a charge for which he served 13 months with many work releases, on July 6, 2019 Jeffrey Epstein was arrested on new charges outlined in a 13 page Manhattan document. As it happened, Epstein had a number of deeply suspicious connections to many of the most powerful men in the world and a victim using the alias Priscilla Doe claimed he had dossiers on his associates to be used for blackmail purposes. Consequently his trial threatened to implicate a number of public figures in his effort to avoid prosecution.
For example, in addition to Trump’s aforementioned association in the Katie Johnson lawsuit, there was his presence in the flight logs for Epstein’s plane, nicknamed the Lolita Express. There are a number of photos and videos of the former president socializing with Epstein, and his statements from a 2002 New York magazine profile of Epstein where he said that the billionaire liked women “on the younger side.”
Even more damning is that Clinton, who praised Epstein in the same article, flew on the Lolita Express 26 times, and that for five of those flights, no secret service personnel were listed. His wife also accompanied him on regular visits to Epstein’s $27.5 million Zorro Ranch in New Mexico. Unlike Epstein’s famous temple estate on Little St. James Island off the coast of Florida, this building was so conspicuously unraided that CBS news devoted an article to how suspicious that was.
So it was that when on August 10, 2019, Jeffrey Epstein was declared to have committed suicide, many people found it impossible to take at face value. It was became even more suspicious that his guards happened to have fallen asleep at the time despite the fact he was under 24 hour surveillance, the cameras happened to fail at that time, and that bone fractures in his neck were more often associated with homicide than suicide according to experts cited by the Washington Post. It became even more suspicious when the New York Times reported such bizarre aspects of his incarceration as the fact his last phone calls were not recorded, he insisted to interviewers that he did not feel suicidal and would never kill himself because he was a “coward”, and that he was incorrectly filed as a black man and not listed as a sex offender. Frankly it almost seems more like ridiculous conspiracy theorizing to believe that he wasn’t silenced to prevent testimony that at least two of America’s former presidents have sexually abused children.
Dustin Koski has no sex scandals on his record, but if he ever does, they’ll probably come out through his Twitter.