Another large group of questions received this week. Let's hope we picked good ones to answer.
Q: What is the course of action if Donald Trump decides not to run for re-election, either because he can't stand the thought of being thumped by Joe Biden on Election Day, or because the biggest of Republican bigwigs decide for him that he has to go? C.W., Kansas City, MO
A: There are three basic scenarios. And note that all of these are predicated on Trump either voluntarily dropping out, or else becoming unavailable due to death or disability. There is nothing in Republican Party rules, as they currently stand, that would allow them to cashier Trump against his will:
- Trump drops out tomorrow: There are no longer enough unpledged delegates available for
anyone besides Trump to claim the Republican nomination. So, if Trump were to throw in the towel tomorrow, or next week,
or anytime before the Republican convention, then we would have an open convention, and his pledged delegates would
become free agents. Exactly how many times they would have to vote for Trump before becoming free agents depends on the
circumstances of his departure, and the state the delegates hail from, but the vast majority of them would be free to
vote their personal preference after the second ballot. Party leadership would presumably try to steer the delegates
toward a favored candidate, most likely Mike Pence, though if Trump were to die tragically, there might be sentiment for
someone like Ivanka Trump in order to "honor" his legacy. And, in any event, there aren't smoke-filled rooms at the
conventions anymore, so the delegates might be willing to be led, but they might not be.
- Trump drops out the day after the convention: Now, this is where smoke-filled rooms enter
the equation. By Republican Party rules, the replacement candidate in this circumstance would be chosen by the 168
members of the RNC. The same would be true for the Democrats, incidentally, except that the DNC has a little over 400
- Trump drops out the day before the election: At some point—and this is determined by state law in the various states and D.C.—it would be too late to legally remove Trump's name from the ballot. That time would definitely have arrived by the day before the election and, in most states, would arrive by Oct. 1. In that case, the Republican Party would announce that a vote for Donald Trump is really a vote for [X], where [X] is the Party's favored candidate. Again, that would presumably be Mike Pence. And depending on how the upcoming Supreme Court decision about faithless electors comes down, it might have to be Mike Pence.
Q: Would Mary Trump's nondisclosure agreement be enforced if it covers up evidence of a crime? Per The New York Times' exposé on the Trump familiy's collective efforts to commit tax fraud, which was based in part on Mary's evidence, wouldn't that render the NDA null and void, at least in part? M.M., San Diego, CA
A: Yes. Here are the main circumstances in which an NDA is either partly, or entirely, null and void:
- The confidential information that the NDA covers is not spelled out clearly enough in the NDA
- The confidential information that the NDA covers is defined in unreasonably broad terms
- The confidential information that the NDA covers was provided by a third party who is not covered by the NDA
- The confidential information that the NDA covers was never actually confidential
- The confidential information that the NDA covers was once confidential, but ceased to be after the NDA was executed
- The NDA has the wrong name on it (for example, Mary M. Trump, instead of the correct Mary L. Trump)
- The person signing the NDA did not have the legal authority to sign it (say, they were a minor)
- The government compels the holder of confidential information to reveal it, for whatever reason
- The confidential information covered by the NDA is evidence of a crime
Some of these would clearly not apply to Mary Trump (for example, she was obviously able to execute the agreement). But for many, it is certainly easy to see how they could apply, depending on the language of the NDA and on the circumstances. For example, if everyone in the Trump family knows that—to invent a random example—Donald was once expelled from school for showing up in blackface, then Mary would probably be able to share that, NDA or no. More realistically, Mary might know of crimes Trump committed, possibly involving tax evasion or refusing to rent apartments to black families and they might be detailed in the book, making it harder for Trump to win a lawsuit against her.
Q: With the Supreme Court's decision imminent, and with the assumption they follow existing law and Donald Trump must turn over his tax returns, what are the exact mechanics for how the returns will be turned over to Congress? Does the Court have the tax returns, and they will just hand them over? Or does Congress have to go back and ask Sec. of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin again? If so, what happens if he still refuses the request? I assume AG Bill Barr will not prosecute him for refusing a Supreme Court order. If he doesn't, are there no consequences for ignoring a Supreme Court decision? J.C.A., Shepherdsville, KY
A: The Supreme Court does not have the returns. However, the IRS does, and several private entities do. So, if SCOTUS rules that Congress can have the returns, then lawyers working for House Democrats will toddle over to IRS headquarters at 1111 Constitution Avenue Northwest, USB drive(s) in hand, and will ask the folks there to download a copy. They are probably restricted to high-level employees, but surely they will be able to find someone who has access, and who is not interested in defying a Supreme Court decision and risking a charge of contempt of Congress.
Alternatively, Congress could get Deutsche Bank, Mazars, or other entities that have the returns on the phone, and ask them to messenger over a copy. These firms have indicated they will assent, once they have the legal cover to do so. Further, they—particularly Deutsche Bank—likely don't want to suffer the consequences of defying the law to protect Donald Trump. Deutsche Bank is involved in a massive $20 billion scheme for laundering Russian money and has already been fined 15 million euros by the European Union for tax evasion. The last thing the bank wants is for a potential President Biden to tell his AG: "Prosecuting Deutsche Bank to the fullest extent of the law is one of my top priorities."
Q: How likely do you think it is that New York State Attorney General Letitia James, unrestricted by the Justice Department's regulations, will indict Donald Trump in October on a state felony such as using his "charitable" foundation's money just before the 2016 election to pay for the silence of Stormy Daniels? S.K., Chappaqua, NY
A: About 0.0%. If she were to do that, it would play right into the Republicans' arguments that the various investigations and prosecutions of Donald Trump are politically motivated, and have no substance. It would not help the Democrats at the polls, and could rebound on them.
In our experience, most judges and prosecutors are serious about the pursuit of justice, without passion or prejudice. If James feels that way, then an "October surprise" would undermine that goal. It's also possible that James is a staunch Democratic partisan whose only goal is to help the Party and her own electoral prospects. If so, this would not help. And it's possible that both things are true; that she wants justice served and she wants to promote her own brand. In that case, then a stunt like this would be a double whammy for her.
If James was willing to ignore Justice Dept. guidelines, she would have already moved forward. The fact that she has not means that either: (1) she doesn't actually have the goods needed to pop Trump, or (2) she has decided it's best to wait until he's no longer in office. Our guess is that it's #2, but either way, we will eventually find out.
Q: Suppose Donald Trump loses in November, leaves office in January, and no longer enjoys his current protections (Justice Dept. and Senate in his pocket). How severe is his legal exposure, and that of his family? The idea of a former President actually going to prison seems absolutely absurd, even impossible, but then again everything about Trump is absurd and impossible. J.M., Jacksonville, FL
A: Needless to say, we don't know all the things that the authorities know. But his exposure is certainly extensive, and definitely or probably includes the following:
- Tax fraud
- Bank fraud
- Obstruction of justice
- Obstruction of Congress
- Violations of campaign finance laws
- Sexual assault
- Money laundering
- Misappropriation of federal funds
In some cases, like the sexual assaults, the statute of limitations has probably run. In others, like perjury, the crime may be hard to prove. But there are at least some things on this list where he is in deep trouble, should he be prosecuted.
Q: Should Donald Trump, either before or after the election, decide to resign in order to receive a blanket pardon from Mike Pence, how much protection would that afford him and his family? D.P., Oakland, CA
A: Assuming Mike Pence was willing to play a role in this scheme—and if the prize is two lame-duck months of being president, he might not be—then Trump and his family would presumably be granted a blanket pardon of the sort that Gerald Ford granted to Richard Nixon. This would clear the docket of federal crimes, but would not actually help the Trumps all that much. If they are indeed guilty of crimes, then the majority of those—and, in particular, the majority of the ones that are provable in a court of law—were almost certainly committed in New York. And the president, be he Trump pardoning himself or a newly promoted Mike Pence, cannot pardon state-level crimes.
Q: Let's suppose that Joe Biden is elected and then federal charges are brought against Donald Trump. What do you see as the pros and cons of Biden giving Trump a pardon as an act of "healing the country," à la Jerry Ford and Richard Nixon? G.J., Spokane, WA
A: The pros are nearly non-existent, from where we sit. That would presumably be meant as an olive branch extended in the direction of the Republican Party. However, the modern Republican Party has evinced no interest in olive branches in the last couple of decades, and there's no reason to think that will change now.
Meanwhile, letting Trump off would infuriate many Democrats. It would leave a lot of tensions seething, right below the surface. And it would send the message that, in the end, presidents are above the law, no matter what they do. None of these things would be good for the democracy, either in the short term, or the long term.
Further, as we point out above, Biden would have no power over the state of New York. Well, no official power, at least. He might be able to twist some arms behind the scenes, if he really wanted to. But our guess is that if Biden wins the election, he hopes that Letitia James has the goods, and that she nails Trump to the wall. In that scenario, the President would pay a price for his misdeeds, but it would look less obviously like "victors' justice."
Q: I realize that there's no mechanism for a "retroactive impeachment" in the Constitution.
However, I also realize that there is a greater than zero chance that Trump may be pursued for various high or low
crimes and misdemeanors once he is out of office, whenever that may be. I'm curious if there are any provisions for
revocation of various post-presidential honors or benefits, fiscal or not, as a result of conviction after
I know a past president gets a six-figure pension for life, for example, Secret Service protection, semi-exclusive use of a Washington townhouse, and other informal niceties such as being addressed as "Mr. President" for life. Could some of these privileges be revoked as the result of a post-presidency conviction or incarceration? D.R., Omaha, NE
A: The privileges accorded an ex-president do not come from the Constitution, and instead are set by statute. That means it is entirely within Congress' power to strike those benefits entirely for all presidents, or to strike (or reduce) them for any individual president.
Alternatively, they could impeach him. That would not remove him from office, but a conviction would deprive him of the emoluments of office (the pension, etc.), and would also also allow the Senate to disqualify him from further office-holding, if they wished.
Q: I've read your comments about the fact that we're stuck with Donald Trump's unqualified partisan hack judges with a heavy heart and a heavier sigh. But I also saw Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) suggest that one option to force Bill Barr to testify is to yank his budget. This led me to this question: Is there anything that says we have to pay our judges? Could we just say to all the judges "yup, you have a lifetime appointment, but your salary is $0 with no benefits. Taking money from benefactors is a bribe that comes with jailtime. Enjoy your lifetime volunteer gig!" My guess is that even most judges would have to look for new jobs. M.R., Rochester, NY
A: The gentlemen who wrote the Constitution foresaw the possibility of this exact maneuver. And so, Article III, Section 1 says: "The Judges, both of the supreme and inferior Courts, shall hold their Offices during good Behaviour, and shall, at stated Times, receive for their Services, a Compensation, which shall not be diminished during their Continuance in Office." In other words, your idea would not be constitutional.
Q: You noted that Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson once clerked for Justice Stephen Breyer. I know there are many examples of former clerks being appointed to the Supreme Court. I was wondering if there has ever been a serving justice who has had a former clerk appointed to the Court? If it has occurred, was the dynamic between them as equals, or was it at the other end of the scale, where the serving Justice thought "I taught them everything they know"? R.C., Winter Haven, FL
A: There are eight people who clerked for Supreme Court justices, and then went on to become justices themselves. They are:
- Byron White (clerked for Chief Justice Fred Vinson)
- William Rehnquist (Justice Robert Jackson)
- John Paul Stevens (Justice Wiley Rutledge)
- Stephen Breyer (Justice Arthur Goldberg)
- John Roberts (Justice William Rehnquist)
- Elena Kagan (Justice Thurgood Marshall)
- Neil Gorsuch (Justices Byron White and Anthony Kennedy)
- Brett Kavanaugh (Justice Anthony Kennedy)
The only one of the eight who made it to the Court in time to serve with their former mentor is Gorsuch, who served with Kennedy for a little over a year. Only they and their colleagues know exactly what the power dynamic between them was. However, for Kennedy to assume an air of superiority would be at odds with the dynamics of the modern Court. Further, Kennedy was (and is) known as a down-to-earth kind of guy. So, you can be fairly confident that Kennedy treated Gorsuch as an equal.
Q: Do Nebraska's 2nd Congressional District and Maine's 2nd Congressional District ever get polled for presidential races? If so, do you know of any recent outcomes to share? Since they each offer one electoral vote—and since each has gone to the candidate not chosen by its whole state in recent memory—one would think that this information would be important and valuable. Yet I have not seen any polls of either in this cycle. B.L., Hudson, NY
A: They are almost never polled, since doing so would involve costs similar to any other poll, but with relatively little benefit. It's only one EV, after all, and a great many sites (including us) don't really have the ability to utilize and publicize that poll. We can only find one poll of NE-02 conducted this cycle; it was a partisan poll run by the DCCC in early May, and it had Joe Biden up on Donald Trump, 52% to 41%. We can find no polls of ME-02 thus far. In the last cycle, there were only a couple of each, and that's not likely to change this cycle.
Q: If Fox has Joe Biden up one point in Texas in their poll, why isn't it "lean Democrat" on your map? B.K., Boca Raton, FL
A: Because we average the last week's worth of polls, and right now our database has three polls of Texas that are less than a week old.
Q: You have mentioned the exit polls that are conducted with in-person voting. But how does it work with states that have 100 percent mail-in voting? Are the polling companies planning to adjust their approaches in anticipation of a large increase in voting by mail? J.G., Pristina, Kosovo
A: They call people, ask them if they voted, and then talk to them if they say they did. It's costlier and more time consuming than exit polls are, but it's definitely doable. And yes, everyone who conducts exit polls is ramping up their capacity right now. The good news for them is they don't have to wait until Election Day to start making phone calls. They can start a week or so early, and they'll get a fair number of people who have already dropped their ballots in the mail.
Q: On cable news, the announcers frequently state that because of absentee ballots, election results will be delayed way past election night. Why is this? Absentee ballots are sent, in many cases, weeks before election night. Why aren't these counted in advance of election night? T.L., Hayward, CA
A: There are two issues. First, some states specifically prohibit the counting of ballots until Election Day. Their reasoning is that if the counts were to leak (which is very possible), it could influence the results. Second, many states accept ballots as long as they are postmarked by Election Day. So, they cannot possibly count all the ballots on Election Day, since not all the ballots have arrived.
Q: Why did you say that the Congressional races In New York were "resolved" when the very article you linked to says that absentee ballots won't be counted until June 30? J.W., Queens, NY
A: Quite often, the people who analyze exit polls (and by that, we really mean the AP) can confidently declare a result long before all the ballots are counted. In fact, if you look back at that posting, you'll see we specifically noted that we were relying on the AP's conclusions. The New York Times, whose numbers we were relying on that evening, utilized the graphical convention that they always use once a race has been "called," namely coloring in a candidate's line in their graph. For whatever reason, what the Times was communicating was that the in-person vote had been called, not the overall vote. Our bad for misreading their tables, but their bad for making such a weird, wonky choice.
We did go back and change the wording on some races, once the error was clear. And there were several where the margin was too great to be overcome by mail-in ballots.
Q: I volunteered to write postcards for my Rep. Elissa Slotkin's (D-MI) campaign. They will be
sent out to residents of the district to try and get them to vote.
My husband is a scientist and he questions if the postcards actually end up being sent out, or if the end game is to get people more invested in the candidate and thus more likely to vote and donate since they will feel a part of the campaign. I had not thought of this angle, and think it may play a part, but I think the main goal is to send them out and hopefully sway some voters.
Thoughts? D.L., East Lansing, MI
A: We think you're right.
When we first read your question, we were reminded of some of the things the U.S. government did on the home front to increase supplies for World War II. Switching from copper to steel pennies for a couple of years, for example. Organizing supply drives where people were encouraged to donate scrap metal, old cloth, grease from their stoves, rubber tires, and the like. All of these things helped fuel the war machine. At the same time, they allowed civilians to feel like a part of Team America, and caused them to become more invested in the war effort (and maybe to buy some war bonds).
In the case of the postcards, it seems like a similar sort of win-win. Get people invested in Team Slotkin, and at the same time produce some useful campaign materials. We see no reason that the campaign wouldn't use the postcards. Heck, as long as they drop them in the mail by Aug. 5 (a.k.a. 90 days before the election), they don't even have to pay for postage—it's covered by the Representative's franking privilege.
Q: You wrote: "And if [Andrew] Romanoff pulls off the upset, which would have been inconceivable a month ago, then Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) will get a new lease on (his political) life." More than a dozen Democratic candidates started off in the Democratic primary precisely because they believe that Gardner is beatable. Why do you think Gardner suddenly has a chance to be reelected if Romanoff is the Democratic candidate? Do you have polls that tell you this or is it your gut? Also why would an upset have been "inconceivable" a month ago? In April Romanoff handily beat Hickenlooper at the state assembly. C.L., Boulder, CO
A: That was indeed based on polls. Although nobody appears to have polled Romanoff vs. Gardner, because they don't think it will happen, they have polled Hickenlooper vs. Romanoff (big gap) and Hickenlooper vs. Gardner (small to moderate gap). By transitive property, it stands to reason that the less popular Democrat (Romanoff) would have a smaller advantage over Gardner than the more popular Democrat (Hickenlooper). And if the more popular Democrat's lead is only small to moderate, then it follows that the less popular Democrat's lead would be small to none.
The number of candidates in the Democratic race is not, in and of itself, instructive. Sometimes, people declare for their own amusement, or to see what it feels like, or to gain attention for some pet issue or cause. For example, 10 people ran for the Republican U.S. Senate nomination in Illinois this year, despite the fact that Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) isn't going anywhere. Romanoff's victory over Hickenlooper is not instructive, either. Many states, including Colorado, have a setup that allows a small number of highly motivated activists to exert huge influence over the process. But this is not a representative sampling of the electorate. Recall, for example, how well Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) did in caucuses in 2016 (often taking 70% or 80% of the vote), as compared to how he did in primaries (generally taking a percentage of the vote in the 40s). The same dynamic applies to Romanoff and Hickenlooper.
Q: I know this is a question based on future assumptions, but it seems to me that Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) could be a possible presidential candidate in 4 or 8 years, since he is now a household name and was a rockstar during the impeachment hearings. So my question is: What path makes the most sense for him to help improve his presidential stock? Should he consider becoming the next Senator of California (if Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-CA, retires or Sen. Kamala Harris, D-CA, gets a promotion, opening her seat)? Or, should he hope that Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) retires her gavel, and then take a shot at being elected the next Speaker of the House? M.D., San Tan Valley, AZ
A: The list of presidents who went straight from the House to the White House is very small (James Garfield). The list of Speakers who became President is also very small (James K. Polk). Since this is not the 19th century, and Schiff is not named "James," that does not bode well for him.
That said, the Speaker is a much-higher-profile position right now than has historically been the case, as he or she tends to be the face (or one of the faces) of their party these days. So, maybe that is a good route for Schiff, since he obviously knows how to work the gears and levers of the House. We doubt that the Senate would make much sense; it's not so easy to make a dent as a junior senator. If Schiff does not stay in the House, the promotion that he should probably seek is a Cabinet position. That would give him executive experience, and—depending on which portfolio he's given—a national platform. For example, can you imagine what he might do as Attorney General?
Q: A CNN article suggests Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) might be in danger of a 2022 primary challenge due to being too moderate and too much a part of the establishment, based on the results (still being determined in some races) from the New York primary. The article even suggested Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) might challenge him for his seat. How likely do you think this is? He seems pretty savvy, like Nancy Pelosi, in my opinion. T.W., Wellsville, OH
A: Schumer is indeed very savvy. So, for that matter, is AOC. And so, they will both have polling available to them that gives them far greater insight into this question than we have. However, while New York City is overall very liberal, western and upstate New York tend to be moderate to conservative. So, a fire-breathing progressive might be a poor match for statewide office. We cannot help but notice that the only two outspoken liberals elected to the Senate from New York since 1900 were Robert F. Wagner (and that was nearly a century ago) and Robert F. Kennedy (kind of a special case, given his celebrity and national profile). Maybe if AOC changed her name to Robert F. Ocasio-Cortez....
Q: I'm puzzled why House Democrats adopted a bill making D.C. the 51st state now? It feels like they just handed the Republicans a campaign issue to rail against. I figured they would wait until after the November election. Am I missing something? M.R., Oakland, CA
A: First, because they want to give voters tangible things that might be accomplished if they return a Democratic Senate in November. Second, because the largest demographic group in Washington, D.C. is black people, and this is a useful way to respond to the historical moment, and to make a statement about how much the Party values black political empowerment. They might even appeal to some moderates by reviving an old slogan "No taxation without representation."
Q: My question is related to all the D.C. statehood talk. What is the argument against the district being annexed into the State of Maryland? Maryland is already a small state, and it wouldn't be such a stretch. Tax structure, politics (generally), and budgetary ideals are similar and many of the residents of Maryland already work in D.C. D.P., Jacksonville, FL
Q: One of the Republicans' biggest issues is that adding Puerto Rico as a state would guarantee the Democrats two additional seats in the Senate, which of course would be spun as an unseemly Democratic power play. Could the Democrats somehow get away with an alternative, namely adding Puerto Rico's population to another state? I'm obviously thinking specifically of Florida. In this scenario, the Senate math wouldn't change, but Puerto Rico would influence statewide votes. Puerto Rico therefore would have "representation." S.M., Toronto, Ontario, Canada
A: These two plans have the same two problems. First, in both cases, the two entities mentioned do not want to be blended together. Marylanders don't want to absorb Washington, and Washingtonians don't want to be part of Maryland. There has been a lot of polling of this, and the result is always the same, and always unambiguous. There hasn't been polling of making Puerto Rico part of Florida (because that would be semi-arbitrary), but we can assure you that Puerto Ricans are proud of their shared identity, and have no interest in being declared Floridians overnight.
That leads us to the second problem, which is related to the first. In the hypothetical state of Washington, D.C., black voters would be the largest demographic (the only state where that would be true). In the expanded state of Maryland, they would be a minority. In the hypothetical state of Puerto Rico, Latino voters would be the largest demographic (the only state were that would be true, though New Mexico will be joining the list soon). In the expanded state of Florida, Puerto Ricans would be a minority. Making two groups of voters of color the minority overnight, and in places where white voters are in the majority, would be a very poor match for this particular moment in time.
Q: On Juneteenth, protesters tore down Confederate statues in my current metro of Raleigh, NC. As
these statues and many others like them were erected long after the fact and were simply meant as tools of Jim Crow, I
applaud this action.
That said, and also on Juneteenth, three statues were torn down in my former metro. As in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. These were: Ulysses S. Grant, Junípero Serra, and Francis Scott Key. What are your thoughts on the histories of these three men, the rationale (or lack of it) in each case for their statue to come down, and the political optics of each of these actions? D.L., Cary, NC
A: Key is the easy one. He was a slave-owner and he sometimes used (or maybe abused) the powers of his office (district attorney in Washington, D.C.) to frustrate the efforts of abolitionists. His only claim to fame is that he wrote the Star Spangled Banner. Yes, it's the National Anthem, but frankly, it's a godawful choice for the National Anthem. It's overly militaristic, it's maudlin, and its 1.5-octave range mean that the vast majority of Americans can't actually sing it properly (wouldn't "America the Beautiful" or "This Land is Your Land" be a better option?). Meanwhile, Key has absolutely no connection to California. So, tear it down.
Serra is harder. He was the linchpin of a "Sacred Expedition" (as the Spanish called it) that led to the enslavement, rape, and/or death of tens of thousands of Native Americans. On the other hand, the world he grew up in told him that he was doing good, and was saving innocent souls from eternal damnation. Further, and in contrast to someone like Christopher Columbus, he did his best to prevent some of the damage being done, although he did not command the physical force needed to prevent rapes, nor did he have the knowledge of medicine/germs to prevent disease from wreaking havoc on native populations. Serra also has a clear connection to California history. As a historian, (Z) tends to think that statues of Serra afford teachable moments, and should stay in place, though he certainly understands why they might be torn down.
Grant is harder still. There's an article in Smithsonian Magazine, originally written in 2016 but enjoying a resurgence on social media, with the provocative title "Ulysses S. Grant Launched an Illegal War Against the Plains Indians, Then Lied About It." It was written by Peter Cozzens, who has an extensive catalog of historical books he's written, but does not have an advanced degree in history. His popular-rather-than-academic approach to history is reflected in a headline like that; it gets eyeballs and clicks, but engages in the sort of dramatic pronouncements, value judgments, and somewhat anachronistic thinking that scholarly historians try to avoid.
In any event, Grant's Indian policy was a complicated thing, and not particularly suited to being reduced to a headline, or a paragraph or two (as we are doing here), or a magazine article. On one hand, he was a generally humane man who disliked bloodshed, and preferred peace over war. One of his closest friends, Ely S. Parker, was a Native American, which gave Grant a greater level of sympathy for the plight of the Native peoples than any other president of the 19th century. On the other hand, upon becoming president, Grant inherited a messy situation, including a state of open warfare between the U.S. Army and the Plains Indians that had been going on for at least a generation. Some Natives did very unpleasant things to white settlers. Some white settlers (many, in fact) felt they were entitled to Native lands (and the riches therein), and that if a few (or many) Natives had to die to make that happen, then so be it. These white folks were not particularly concerned if they had the blessings of the national government or not. And if this messy situation were not enough, much of the action was happening thousands of miles from Washington, and was not subject to a lot of direct control from the President.
Anyhow, over the course of eight years, the results were mixed. Grant got rid of corrupt Indian agents, tried to make the reservations more livable, pressed Congress to increase funding for support of the Natives, and appointed Parker as the first Native American Commissioner of Indian Affairs. However, increased conflict between white Americans and Natives, particularly after the discovery of precious metals in the Black Hills, led to the Marias Massacre, the Modoc War, and the infamous Battle of the Little Bighorn. When these things became known back on the East Coast, and generated outrage, Grant was held to account. Did he lie? We would say that he spun, as politicians do, and that characterizing his actions as "illegal" (they ran afoul of treaties, not U.S. law, per se) and his words as "lies" is lacking in a lot of nuance.
Grant also has other debits against him. He was an anti-Semite, and he did have personal control over slaves for a short period of time (they were his wife's, and he freed them pretty quickly). On the other hand, he did lead the Union to victory in the Civil War, thus bringing the promise of the Emancipation Proclamation to fruition. He also took proactive steps to protect black citizens in the South after the war, most obviously overseeing the destruction of the original incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan. Oh, and like Serra (and unlike Key), he did have a connection to California (having served briefly in the state during the early part of his career). Further, the statue was erected in 1885, following Grant's death, and in honor of his contributions to the Union (in contrast to, for example, honoring Grant for his efforts to "control" the Natives). If it was up to (Z), he'd keep that one, too, but he's not militant about it.
As to the optics, we don't think they really exist, per se. Those who support the protesters' message will support their statue-destruction, or else will shrug their shoulders and say "Not what I would do, but whatever." And those who oppose the protesters' message will zoom in on the most outlandish or blood-boiling incidents, as they see it (What! They got rid of Abraham Lincoln's statue!), and will use that to justify their position.
Q: Who are the five most racist presidents in U.S. history? Is the current officeholder among them? And which presidents were not racist at all? F.S., Cologne, Germany
A: Let's start by talking about Theodore Roosevelt. Like Junípero Serra, he grew up in a world very different from ours. Specifically, he grew up in a world where it was understood, almost without questioning, that white people were at the tip-top of the evolutionary pyramid, and that all other races and cultures were less evolved. TR most certainly internalized that white supremacist way of looking at the world. But what did he do with that? He concluded that he wanted to help those folks become better. That stands in contrast to contemporaries who used their belief in white superiority to justify oppression, or even murder, of people of color. So, what do you do with him? By the standards of our day, he was a racist. By the standards of his, he was pretty progressive on race.
What we are saying is that if we list things in absolute terms, then all the presidents before 1960 or so are pretty racist, and all the ones after 1960 are less so. That means that the answer must be in relative terms; a comparison to that president's contemporaries. And with that said, the five most racist presidents (in chronological order, with brief explanations):
- Andrew Jackson: Owned slaves and treated them harshly; initiated the Trail of Tears
- Andrew Johnson: Probably the last president to freely use the n-word in the White House
- Woodrow Wilson: Segregated the federal government, openly disdained civil rights, disregarded Mexican sovereignty
- Richard Nixon: Southern strategy, war on drugs, undermined civil rights protections, agreed with Ronald Reagan that black people are "monkeys"
- Donald Trump: Sh**hole countries, Islamophobia, Mexican rapists, "good people on both sides"
And five least racist, relatively speaking:
- Abraham Lincoln: The first president to welcome a black man to the White House, plus the Emancipation Proclamation
- Harry S. Truman: Said horrible things in private, but was the first president to prioritize civil rights since Reconstruction. Integrated the army.
- Lyndon B. Johnson: Said horrible things in private. Strongly supported civil rights in public, even before it was fashionable.
- Bill Clinton: There's a reason he's sometimes called "the first black president"
- Barack Obama: No explanation needed
Q: Now you have got me curious. Who was sworn in on "a Torah scroll, a Quran, a Buddhist Sutra, the Bhagavad Gita, a copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, a rabbit's foot, a Kindle (displaying the text of the 19th Amendment), an iPad, and a copy of the Constitution"? D.R., Anaktuvuk Pass, AK
A: This is not exhaustive, of course. Once we confirmed a single example of each, we moved on. But here you go:
- Torah scroll: Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY)
- Quran: Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) (note: It was Thomas Jefferson's personal copy)
- Buddhist Sutra: Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA)
- Bhagavad Gita: Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI)
- The Autobiography of Malcolm X: Athens-Clarke County Commissioner Mariah Parker (D)
- Rabbit's foot: President Chester A. Arthur (in addition to a Bible)
- Kindle (displaying the text of the 19th Amendment): Ambassador Suzi LeVine
- iPad: Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano (R)
- Copy of the Constitution: Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ)
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