What's the 'greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history'? We asked the experts

Who is the most unfairly investigated U.S. politician of all time?

According to President Trump, he is.

In response to the news that a former FBI director, Robert S. Mueller III, has been appointed to investigate Russia’s role in the 2016 presidential election, Trump made the declaration Thursday on Twitter:

“This is the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!”

For another opinion, we decided to ask 10 historians and political scientists.

They disagreed with the president, starting with his characterization of the investigation as a witch hunt. Several thought there are enough signs that Russia interfered with the election to justify a thorough look.

Moreover, the academics said there are plenty of truly frivolous political investigations and ginned-up controversies.

First, though, a word about an actual witch hunt: the 1692 Salem witch trials, which focused on allegations of witchcraft — including the use of magic to torture villagers — and ended with the executions of 20 men and women.

An often-invoked modern parallel is the campaign by U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee to expose communists in the 1940s and 1950s.

Yet that effort for the most part did not target elected politicians.

Political witch hunts in the U.S. date back to the early days of the republic, the experts said.

“Jacksonians attacked [President] John Quincy Adams for buying a billiard table, saying that he was using the people's money to purchase a gambling device,” Mark Cheathem, a professor of history at Cumberland University, wrote in an email.

As one of Adams’ critics charged in 1826: "When we find the fathers and matrons of our country engaged in persuading young men from practices which lead to destruction, we greatly fear that the too frequent answer will be, 'Why, the President plays billiards!’"

Less than two decades later, “Whigs attacked [President] Martin Van Buren for acting like a dandy, spending an exorbitant amount of money to refurbish the White House, and landscaping the White House grounds in the shape of an Amazon's bosom,” Cheathem said.

That’s not a joke. Rep. Charles Ogle of Pennsylvania alleged in a pamphlet that Van Buren’s “clever sized hills” appeared “designed to resemble and assume the form of AN AMAZON BOSOM, with a miniature knoll or hillock at its apex, to denote the nipple.”

Then there was President Andrew Johnson, who opposed Reconstruction programs aimed at supporting African Americans after the Civil War ended in 1865. Johnson was impeached and almost convicted by Congress “for very good policy and moral reasons, but on nakedly political charges,” Jeffrey Pasley, a history professor at the University of Missouri, wrote in an email.

But in conversations with academics, one politician emerged above all others as the most unfairly targeted.

“As to unfair investigations, [historians] would point to the Republican attacks on Bill Clinton in the 1990s,” said Robert A. Goldberg, a professor of history at the University of Utah.

“I think most investigations of presidents have not been witch hunts, though some would say Bill Clinton is the victim of that,” Julian E. Zelizer, professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, wrote in an email. “Meaning endless investigations into whatever people could find with the purpose of just getting him.”

“[It] began with business dealings in Whitewater and after years and millions of dollars wound up with Monica Lewinsky,” said Cornell W. Clayton, a professor of government and public policy at Washington State University.

Lewinsky was the White House intern with whom Clinton had an affair. Whitewater was the name of a real estate company with questionable practices that had included Bill and Hillary Clinton as investors. While more than a dozen people were convicted in the real estate inquiry, the president was absolved.

Congress impeached President Clinton on charges of obstruction and lying about having the affair, but then acquitted him.

Many conservatives supported the investigation into the Clintons and still view the couple with deep suspicion. The broader public came to view independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr critically. One Gallup poll showed 53% of respondents said Starr was acting like a "persecutor" compared to 39% who said he was acting more like a "prosecutor."

As for Trump, one political scientist, Alison Dagnes of Shippensburg University, said he was part of a witch hunt — one that Trump himself led.

“The biggest ‘real’ witch hunt of this century was perpetuated by none other than Donald Trump himself — the witch hunt of President Obama being born in Kenya,” Dagnes said.

Trump perpetuated the myth that Obama’s birth certificate from Hawaii was fake, fueling a conspiracy that lives on despite Trump’s acknowledgment last year that he was wrong.

“If there’s ever been a witch hunt, there’s that,” Dagnes said.

matt.pearce@latimes.com

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