Thomas Nast, Harper’s Weekly, 1871

In light of daily revelations about new scandals engulfing the nation’s capital, we are struggling to digest the full magnitude of the corruption and incompetence of the Trump administration. But while we are absorbed by our present circumstances, it might be helpful to look at another very corrupt era of our national history, a time when the public also dealt with information overload about misdeeds in high places, for some perspective and an idea about where all of this ends.

In this case, the locus of corruption and scandal was not the nation’s capital but New York City, our financial and commercial center, which in the immediate post-Civil War era was booming with boundless energy in the period that Mark Twain described as The Gilded Age. As we try to make sense of the turbulent present, there is a lesson for us to earn by looking at this earlier time.

Immediately after the Civil War, the country was energized by a rapidly growing economy. Tammany Hall, which was the name of the Democratic political machine that ran New York City in that era, had plenty of public money to spend on projects to reward its friends. In perhaps the most famous example, the New York County Courthouse was built by an associate of William Tweed, a New York State Senator more commonly known as Boss Tweed, for millions more than the construction cost. It is estimated that the cost of the courthouse project in today’s dollars would be at least $178 million. The Tweed Ring, as the inner group of Tammany was called, proved expert in money laundering and was involved in the early work for the famed Brooklyn Bridge and the New York Public Library.

In the fetid swamp that characterized some parts of the Gilded Age, it took the New York Times and one crusading editorial cartoonist to thoroughly expose the tawdriness of Tweed and his lieutenants, proving the maxim that a picture is worth 10,000 words. Thomas Nast, the cartoonist for Harper’s Weekly, produced a series of drawings showing Tweed as an omnipotent scoundrel. The most famous of these were several cartoons which carried a caption with the Tammany boss saying “Well, what are you going to do about it?”

According to at least one historian, Tweed never said those words. But it didn’t matter. His deeds were much more important than any of his supposed words. He also remarked about Nast’s damaging cartoons. “Stop them damned pictures. I don’t care so much what the papers say about me. My constituents don’t know how to read, but they can’t help seeing them damned pictures!”

Thomas Nast, Harper’s Weekly

The story of Tweed is instructive for us today. Like the Tammany Boss, our current president is a New York City native and seems to also be adept at money laundering. As an example, reports of dozens of Russians owning apartments in Trump Tower and other properties have triggered speculation regarding the central place Russia plays in business development (a euphemism) with the Trump Organization.

Last year, there were reports of 86 cash sales involving Trump properties worth $109 million by individuals with Russian ties. “The size and scope of these cash purchases are deeply troubling as they can often signal money laundering activity,” Rep. Adam Schiff, the newly installed Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, opined about Trump’s real estate activity with Russian-related entities.

But money laundering is not confined to real estate transactions. Federal prosecutors are closely examining the operation of the Presidential Inauguration Committee (PIC), which collected $107 million but spent considerably less than that amount. What happened to the unspent money?

The Southern District of New York is investigating the PIC for possible money laundering, false statements, mail and wire fraud, according to court documents. There is a fear that foreign money was used to fund activities for the PIC as an effort to curry favor or buy influence with the president.

In the view of some observers, Trump’s propensity for money laundering is a key to the full exposure of his sordid behavior and potential prosecution for financial crimes. But with Trump, there is so much more in the analysis.

These are other alleged crimes that Trump has been accused of in various press reports and inferred from filings made by Special Counsel Robert Mueller and other branches of the Justice Department. NOTE: This is only a partial list.

• Violation of the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause through revenue received from foreign governments who use Trump Organization hotels and other commercial property. Lawsuits have been filed by the attorneys general of the District of Columbia and Maryland over this issue.

• Trump is named as “Individual-1” in a filing by the Southern District of New York for coordinating hush money payments to a porn star, an action amounting to an illegal campaign contribution. There is little argument that this action by prosecutors defines Trump as an unindicted co-conspirator.

• The question at hand is whether “Trump or those associated with him engaged in a “conspiracy with elements of the Russian government to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.” While six  close Trump associates have been charged with a series of crimes, the only individuals directly charged with election tampering so far are 13 Russians who were involved with the Moscow-based Internet Research Agency and 12 GRU military intelligence officers.

• Obstruction of justice is being considered as a result of the firing of FBI Director James Comey. Incredibly, Trump admitted in an interview with NBC anchor Lester Holt that his action rid him of someone leading an investigation into his myriad of connections with the Kremlin and Vladimir Putin. “And in fact when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said ‘you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story ..,” Trump told Holt.

Again, this is only the short list, and other state charges, including violations by the Trump Foundation, are being considered by the New York attorney general.

Then there is the whole business with Trump’s taxes and his failure to release tax returns, unlike every president since Richard Nixon.

An added note to the sleazy Trump behavior deals with his constant attacks on a free press. No matter what Trump says about questions raised about his taxes, cozy relationship with Putin, and anything pointing to those in his circle who have been indicted and convicted, it is not fake news.

Moreover, his attempt to ride roughshod over Congress and its constitutional power of the purse was given this treatment recently by another cartoonist. Is there a hint of Nast’s influence in this cartoon, where the figure of democracy shown above being mauled by the Tammany tiger has been replaced by that of a slain Congress whacked by the Fifth Avenue Felon? One wonders.

Nate Beeler, Columbus Dispatch, February 17, 2019

As we await the submission of Robert Mueller’s report to the attorney general, we must look at all of these alleged crimes by Trump and ask the same question raised by Thomas Nast nearly 150 years ago.

Well, what are you going to do about it, Mitch McConnell?

Well, what are you going to do about it, Lindsey Graham?

And, much closer to home, in light of his recent announcement that he wholeheartedly supports GOP (Government of Putin) Boss Donald Trump for re-election, let us all ask Ohio Senator Rob Portman:

Well, Rob Portman, what are you going to do about it?

You might want to ask him this question by calling him at his Washington office: 202-224-3353 or email him at this link:

So let’s say it loud and clear one more time:  What are We the People going to do about it? 

Barely a dozen years after Tweed’s death, the Populist firebrand Mary Elizabeth Lease advised distressed farmers to “raise less corn and more hell.” Based upon what we may learn in the coming weeks, it might be time yet again to raise more hell. If we won’t do that, you’ll also know that Portman, McConnell, and Graham will continue their silence and complicity in what seems to be a monstrous criminal conspiracy, assaulting democracy and those who ask these Senate leaders what they’re going to do about it.