Early on in the 2016 campaign cycle, then-candidate Donald Trump ominously stated at a campaign stop that he could “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody” without losing any support from voters. He went on to become perhaps the most scandal-ridden president in American history, famously impeached by Congress twice. One hallmark of the Trump presidency was his defiance of calls to resign seemingly every day of his administration, from the moment he defended a violent racist mob in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017 to when he defended a violent racist mob that attacked the United States Capitol building on January 6.
Thanks to the Republican Party’s steadfast enabling and normalization of Trump’s shameless presidency for the past four years, the bar for resignation is now impossibly high. This has made it far too easy for scandalous politicians on both sides of the aisle to wait out the storm and remain in public office despite overwhelming backlash from the public. Congressman Matt Gaetz (R-Florida) is just the latest example.
For those who haven’t been able to keep up, Rep. Gaetz is becoming the target of increased scrutiny in the midst of an ongoing sex trafficking investigation by the United States Department of Justice (DOJ). Some particularly damning pieces of evidence focus on allegations that Gaetz made several Venmo payments to his associate, Joel Greenberg, who is the former Seminole County, Florida tax collector. Reportedly, Venmo records show that Gaetz paid $900 to Greenberg, who then allegedly sent $900 to three teenage girls roughly eight minutes later. Greenberg himself has already been indicted on 33 federal counts, including sex trafficking of a 17-year-old girl.
In addition to the DOJ investigation, Gaetz is also facing an investigation by the House Ethics Committee. The committee announced that, along with the sex trafficking allegations, it will investigate alleged illicit drug use and other possible acts of corruption, including the conversion of campaign funds for personal use, misuse of state identification records, and acceptance of bribes and other non-permissible gifts.
Congressman Adam Kinzinger (R-Illinois) was the first Republican member of the House of Representatives to call for Gaetz’s resignation. Former Republican House Speaker John Boehner has also said Gaetz should resign if he’s indicted in the ongoing federal probe. Both Gaetz’s legislative director and communications director have already resigned from their positions. For his part, Gaetz is so far refusing to resign, and is painting himself as a victim of false allegations or “cancel culture”.
However, Gaetz is just the latest in a long line of public officials accused of sexual misconduct and other offenses who won’t heed calls to leave office.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (D) — who wrote a book congratulating his own handling of the Covid-19 pandemic before he was accused of covering up Covid-19 deaths in nursing homes — is also facing multiple accusations of sexual misconduct. Instead of heeding calls from prominent New York officials like Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senate Majority Chuck Schumer to resign, Cuomo continues to remain in office, complaining that he, also, is a target of “cancel culture.”
Cuomo’s insistence on staying in office may have been inspired by Virginia’s top three elected officials, who all survived scandals in 2019. Governor Ralph Northam (D) waited out calls for his resignation that followed after he confessed he was one of two men in an Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook photo that showed one man in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan robe (he later recanted that confession). That same year, Virginia Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax (D) refused to resign in the wake of two women accusing him of sexual assault. Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring (D) refused to step down following a blackface scandal of his own. While Northam isn’t running for a subsequent term, Fairfax is running for governor, and Herring is running for reelection to a third term.
In fact, no male member of the US House or Senate has resigned due to scandal since Al Franken in 2017, when eight women accused the two-term Minnesota Senator of sexual misconduct, including groping and non-consensual kissing. In 2019, Franken told the New Yorker that he regretted his resignation. Given how high the bar is now for public officials to resign from office in the wake of scandal, Franken likely could have simply waited out the news cycle. Franken’s 2019 statement is particularly disheartening — in America’s patriarchal culture, a politician resigning from office is the most honorable thing to do when multiple women risk their reputations and careers to publicly accuse one of the most powerful men in the country of being sexually inappropriate.
It should go without saying that anyone who takes an oath of office shouldn’t betray the integrity of that office with corrupt or sexually predatory behavior. And if someone tasked with representing the public’s interests betrays the public’s trust, they are no longer deserving of that office. Perhaps the longest-lasting legacy of the Trump administration will be his numbing of the American public to scandal no matter how nefarious. It’s hard to see how Trump’s refusal to resign — even after being accused of raping a woman in a department store dressing room (as writer E. Jean Carroll has alleged) and egging on a mob that killed five people in an attempt to lynch the Vice President — won’t be seen as a green light by morally bankrupt politicians to do their dirt, in the open, without fear of accountability, for years to come.
Carl Gibson is a freelance journalist. Follow him on Twitter@crgibs.