When it comes to scandals, 2018 was a doozy. Between the expansive Russia probe, the near-constant cabinet secretary snafus, and a wild midterm election, it’s hard to keep track of all the muck.
And so, as we do every year, we’ve rounded up some of the best instances of corruption, stupidity and craziness for the 12th Annual Golden Duke Awards!
The awards are named after former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, as Josh recounted last week. Duke Cunningham revolutionized corruption in his time, and with the Golden Dukes, we recognize those who have followed in his footsteps.
Our fantastic judges will now undertake the difficult task of choosing the winner in each of our seven categories. We will announce the winners on Dec. 28, but for now, revel in the corruption by perusing through our esteemed nominees.
Meet the Judges
KT Nelson, freelance writer and Weird Twitter icon
Erin Ryan, host of Crooked Media’s “Hysteria,” writer for FXX’s “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia,” and editor at The Daily Beast
Jason Linkins, senior editor at ThinkProgress
Susie Bright, feminist sex columnist and author
Simon Maloy, senior writer at Media Matters
THE NOMINEES, as submitted by staff and readers
Best Scandal — General Interest
Michael Cohen: Depressing sad sack stories about how much POTUS’ ex-fixer wished Trump cared about him took a turn for the vindictive this year: First in August when Cohen pleaded guilty to (along with multiple counts of tax evasion) two campaign law violation charges in connection to the Stormy Daniels/Karen McDougal payoffs, then in November when he pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about a proposed Moscow Trump Tower. All while pointing to the President as the central figure in his wrongdoing. You almost have to feel sorry for the guy. Who knew making the man you’d “take a bullet for” president would lead to a three-year prison sentence?
Rep. Duncan Hunter: Hunter and his wife pleaded not guilty to charges of misusing $250,000 in campaign funds and trying to hide the spending from the public eye. They’re accused of using the money for multiple vacations, dental work, and even paying to fly the congressman’s pet rabbit back and forth from his district (yes, really). Hunter also threw his poor wife right under the bus during a Fox News interview, insisting she was the one holding the purse strings and that she was also his campaign manager. “So whatever she did, that will be looked at, too, I’m sure,” Hunter said. “But I didn’t do it.” There’s one for the family scrapbook.
Paul Manafort: While information from the Russia probe merely dribbled out, Paul Manafort took us on a roller coaster ride this year filled with juicy details and fantastic twists. Watching a former Trump campaign chairman face a weeks-long trial was a spectacle to be had. It brought us the fabulous ostrich jacket, mysterious Yankees season tickets, and a wisteria covered pergola. But Manafort did not let his past misdeeds or the verbose Judge T.S. Ellis hog the spotlight. He also engaged in witness tampering and allegedly lied to federal investigators after reaching a plea deal. We applaud Manafort’s ironclad commitment to lying and scheming.
Ivanka Trump: Looks like there’s common ground between the Trump family and Hillary Clinton after all. After a Washington Post report revealed that Ivanka Trump used a personal email address to send hundreds of emails last year relating to government business, her father – whose “Lock her up!” campaign rallying cry was centered on Clinton’s email faux pas – dismissed the report by insisting there was “no deletion!” Ivanka echoed her father’s defense while taking great pains to distance herself from Clinton, which wasn’t difficult to do given how GOPers and “Fox and Friends” had her back in downplaying the practice they’ve weaponized as Clinton’s nail in the (campaign) coffin.
Sean Hannity: Minds were blown as Michael Cohen’s attorney revealed in court that Sean Hannity was the mystery third client of Trump’s personal lawyer. Although Cohen’s attorneys named Trump and GOP fundraiser Elliot Broidy as two of “at least three clients” whom Cohen had been engaged in “traditional legal tasks” with in 2017 and 2018, Cohen’s refusal to disclose the third unnamed “publicly prominent individual” led to a dramatic judge-ordered reveal. After the news broke, the Fox News host said that it was “very strange” to watch his own TV network have his “name up as the lower third.”
Best Scandal — Local Venue
Kris Kobach: A perennial TPM character, Kris Kobach never fails to disappoint. The March trial for Kobach’s proof-of-citizenship voter law was a spectacular display. Kobach insisted on defending himself in court, and he ran into so many procedural issues, that when the judge issued an order striking down the law, she also ordered Kobach to attend legal ed classes. Yet Kobach was so committed to his keystone voter restriction that he tried his best to not let that pesky judge get in his way. He was found in contempt of court for ignoring one order, and he also boldly delayed telling clerks to stop implementing the law after the final order came down. Now that’s commitment!
Rep. Scott Taylor: In a brazen attempt to ensure his re-election to his House seat representing Virginia’s 2nd District, Republican Rep. Scott Taylor’s campaign staffers faked signatures on petitions to place the Democratic primary loser on the ballot as an independent. The hope was that the two Democrats would split the liberal vote in the district, allowing Taylor to sail to victory. Yet, the campaign trickery was discovered, despite Taylor’s call to berate the constituent who discovered it, and the independent candidate was thrown off the ballot. Not only did Taylor lose his credibility — especially as he continued to pay the staffers who forged the signatures after they were caught doing so — he also lost his House seat.
Leslie McCrae Dowless: The North Carolina GOP operative seems to have been the ring leader in an election fraud scheme so obvious, it’s almost beautiful: Dowless and his deputies went around North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District collecting voters’ absentee ballots, then taking the ballots, sometimes unsealed, with them, voters say. Then lo and behold, GOP candidate Mark Harris went on to win 61 percent of mail-in absentee ballots in Bladen County, even though just 19 percent of voters who received absentee ballots there are registered Republicans. Hmmmm.
Denver Riggleman: No, you’re not imagining things. Bigfoot made an appearance in … Virginia’s fifth district House race? It all began when Dem candidate Leslie Cockburn unearthed opponent Republican Denver Riggleman’s extensive interest in Bigfoot, tweeting censored pictures of the naked creature taken from Riggleman’s Instagram and calling him a “devotee of Bigfoot erotica.” Riggleman, who authored “Bigfoot Exterminators Inc: The Partially Cautionary, Mostly True Tale of Monster Hunt 2006,” laughed off the claims as he discussed yet another Bigfoot-themed book in the works (“Mating Habits of Bigfoot and Why Women Want Him”) and said that he is merely interested in the “belief system” surrounding the tall tale.
Matt Rosendale: All hat, no cattle. The GOP Montana Senate frontrunner appeared to get knocked off his high horse as he came under scrutiny for the rancher cred his local image rode on. Unlike his folksy references to his work on the ranch, public records and his own past statements revealed the longtime real estate developer from Maryland never actually ranched his land himself, instead renting his land out to others. Rosendale began quietly scrubbing “rancher” from his campaign bios. Rosendale’s Senate dreams were ultimately stampeded when incumbent Sen. Jon Tester won the neck-and-neck race.
Meritorious Achievement In The Crazy
Rudy Giuliani: Where to begin? Trump’s lawyer repeatedly made waves throughout the year with his bizarre conflicting statements that he says may be “rumors.” Some of his (many) shining moments include his wildly conflicting claims about the Stormy Daniels case and his messy attempt at cleaning up interviews in which he claimed collusion isn’t a crime and he couldn’t be sure Trump didn’t know about the Trump Tower meeting ahead of time. Most recently, he had to clarify that answering Mueller’s questions was a “nightmare” because Trump is so busy. Rudy’s unwieldy ways guarantee one thing: as soon as his crazy eyes light up on TV, you know you’re in for a wild ride.
Omarosa Manigault Newman: The former Apprentice star-turned-White House aide started 2018 with a bang when she joined the cast of “Celebrity Big Brother” and spilled the beans on her time in the West Wing. “I was haunted by tweets every single day,” Manigault-Newman told a fellow castmate. The drama didn’t end as Omarosa made claims such as Trump using the “N word” and dropped tapes of her secretly recorded conversations with Trump and other staffers leading up to the release of her memoir “Unhinged.”
Don Blankenship: When notorious coal barron Don Blankenship launched his longshot West Virginia Senate bid, he put out some of the most brazen attack ads. It takes guts to call the Senate leader “Cocaine Mitch” in an ad without any context for the moniker. Blankenship later offered his reasoning for the Trump-style nickname, but that did not take away from the sheer zaniness of the move. We cannot thank Blankenship enough for photoshopping McConnell into a “Narcos” ad. It was truly crazy.
Donald Trump: The country held its breath ahead of POTUS’ meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. Would Trump finally condemn Putin for Russia’s election hacking in 2016? Would he confront the Russian leader for U.S. intelligence communities’ findings? At the very least, would he manage to keep himself from going on an unhinged rant about Hillary Clinton? No, nope, and absolutely not. Instead, Trump sided with Putin’s denials, claimed he doesn’t “see any reason why” Russia would’ve been behind the hacking, and yes, ranted about Clinton (and the Mueller probe, naturally).
State Rep. Matt Shea: Have you accepted Jesus as your Lord and Savior? If not, you better get on that ‘cause there’s a Washington state lawmaker who’s got a step-by-step guide (currently being scrutinized by the FBI) on waging a Christian holy war against non-believers. The terms of the non-believers’ surrender is about what you’d expect from a wannabe theocrat: They must “stop all abortions,” refrain from “same-sex marriage,” avoid “idolatry or occultism,” and “obey Biblical law.” And if they refuse? “Kill all males.” You know, just wholesale murder.
Best Conspiracy Theory
Jacob Wohl: Citing the findings of an intel firm called Surefire Intelligence, pro-Trump Twitter personality/investment fraud wunderkind Jacob Wohl tried to undermine Robert Mueller with a “credible” rape allegation in a scheme that turned into one of the most spectacular self-owns in modern politics. Within 24 hours, the internet discovered that Surefire Intelligence was nothing more than a facade of fake LinkedIn profiles featuring “employees” that were actually doctored photos of actors and models. To top it all off, the phone number listed for Surefire led to the voicemail of none other than Wohl’s mom. And Wohl’s follow-up presser with GOP lobbyist Jack Burkman, where the alleged accuser suddenly decided not to show up, was a dumpster fire. Wohl, whose brain is apparently made entirely of soft cheese, had tried to set a trap for the most high-profile investigator in the country.
Ed Whelan: The sheer desperation Ed Whelan showed in his attempt to shield Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh from a sexual assault accusation was … insane. Whelan concocted a short-lived theory that accuser Christine Blasey Ford just misremembered the Georgetown Prep student involved in her assault, going so far as to name another classmate (only because he looked similar to Kavanaugh) and post floor plans of the home in which he believed the alleged assault took place. He was quickly forced to apologize after intense backlash. To top it off, the consulting firm that aided the Swift Boat Veterans helped Whelan hype the theory. The whole ordeal cost Whelan not only his dignity, but also his position atop the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Well done.
President Donald Trump: The President is full of conspiracy theories, exaggerations and lies, but his best one this year was his claim that the FBI embedded an informant in his presidential campaign. The conspiracy theory began when Trump’s devoted fans in the right-wing media pushed the claim that an FBI source who met with Trump campaign officials was actually a spy planted in the campaign by the FBI. The theory then successfully snowballed from a fringe fever dream to a presidential tweet.
Ann Coulter: Before the suspect behind the mailed bombs to Democrats was revealed to be a conspiracy meme-saturated Trump supporter with a van shipped directly from paranoid Boomer hell, Anne Coulter was convinced the bombs were a “false flag” operation. “From the Haymarket riot to the Unibomber, bombs are a liberal tactic,” Coulter declared. To be fair, she wasn’t the only far-right mouthpiece accusing Democrats of trying to bomb themselves as a campaign tactic. But she’s one of the bigger names, so she can take the nomination in honor of Rush Limbaugh, Candace Owens, and all the other MAGAbomber truthers.
Mike Pence: It’s one thing when Trump starts a conspiracy theory, but it’s a whole new ball game when Vice President Mike Pence furthers it. While Pence typically shies away from Trump’s bolder comments, he finally went out on a limb and echoed Trump’s bogus claim that there were “unknown Middle Easterners” in the migrant caravan head to the U.S. from South America. Boy, did that move backfire. Pence dug his heels in (more than Trump did) and tried to back up his claim with statistics, but his spokeswoman was forced to admit that the stats didn’t actually prove his point. Oops!
Best Campaign Trail Gaffe
Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith: The GOP senator expected smooth sailing in her deep red state until she landed herself in hot water for joking about suppressing Democratic votes and saying she’d sit in the first row at a “public hanging” if a supporter invited her. The remarks, which she refused to initially apologize for, sparked outrage from Dems and left Republicans feeling uneasy. To top off the controversy, photos of Hyde-Smith wearing a Confederate hat in 2014 subsequently surfaced. A boycott of Hyde-Smith’s campaign donations soon followed with companies as big as Google and Walmart requesting refunds. But alas, Hyde-Smith won and made history by being the first woman elected to the Senate from Mississippi.
John Cox: In the midst of his crusade to point out the failings of DMVs, the GOP candidate for California governor told a woman who’d been in line at a DMV for “close to an hour” about a conversation he’d had with a Holocaust survivor. Cox said the survivor told him that DMV lines were worse than concentration camps. After an audio recording of the remark aired, Cox’s spokesperson attempted to clean up the PR mess by claiming the GOPer “misspoke” and clarified that “(the lines) reminded (the Holocaust survivor) of 1937 Germany when you had to wait in line to get processed.”
Rep. Jason Lewis: Defending his House seat representing a Minnesota district, Republican Jason Lewis tried to pitch himself as an authentic candidate by trashing his opponent and filming himself canvassing. But he didn’t try hard enough, it seems. Analysis of his campaign video suggests that he filmed himself “canvassing” in a different district than the one he represented. Whoopsie!
Rep. Dave Brat: Republican Rep. Dave Brat faced a tough race in a suburban Virginia district this year, ultimately losing his seat. And he threw himself quite the pity party while meeting with an addiction support group at a local jail during the campaign. He compared the barrage of negative ads he faced to the struggles of one of the inmates. That takes gumption!
Rep. Kevin Cramer: While stating that he supported policies that would “keep (immigrant) families together,” GOP North Dakota Rep. Kevin Cramer insisted that there was “nothing inhumane” about keeping migrant children in chain-link cages. Cramer first justified chain-link cages by saying they’re in “playgrounds all over America” that “allow line-of-sight visual connectivity with children and families.” Cramer then doubled down on his comments later that day in another radio interview by blaming the left for trying to create “hoopla” over “an image that’s far worse in description than it is in reality.”
Literary Achievement In 280 Characters
Laura Ingraham: Parkland shooting survivor David Hogg found himself in a Twitter war with the Fox News host when she tweeted a Daily Wire story about Hogg being rejected from four colleges “with a 4.1 GPA” and “whining about it.” Ingraham’s tweet backfired when Hogg called for an advertising boycott of Ingraham resulting in several advertisers pulling their ads from her show. When Ingraham tried to apologize “in the spirit of Holy Week,” Hogg told her that “an apology in an effort just to save your advertisers is not enough.”
Ivanka Trump: As rage mounted over Trump’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy resulting in the separation of children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border, self-proclaimed children’s advocate Ivanka Trump remained eerily quiet on the matter. For days, Ivanka’s social media accounts didn’t directly address the crisis — but one particular tweet seemed to pour more salt in the wound than anything. She tweeted, “My <3! #SundayMorning” along with an image of her holding her two-year-old son, prompting online backlash over how tone-deaf the post came off.
Eddie Scarry: Rep.-Elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) is very outspoken about her working class history when discussing her socialist platform. That platform’s made conservatives pretty upset, and in a repeated effort to own her, they’ve been desperately trying to prove what a hypocrite she is for not living like a rag-covered street orphan in a Dickens novel. One such conservative is Washington Examiner reporter Eddie Scarry, who unwisely tweeted a photo of Ocasio-Cortez and suggested she didn’t “look like a girl who struggles.” The tweet reached a truly breathtaking ratio of 22k responses to a few hundred retweets/likes before Scarry finally took it down and insisted everyone was just misreading him (that tweet also got ratio’d to another planet).
Speaker Paul Ryan: After Republicans passed massive tax cuts aimed disproportionately toward high-income earners, House Speaker Paul Ryan set out to prove that the law definitely was not just a massive transfer of wealth to American billionaires. He did so with this heartwarming tale: “A secretary at a public high school in Lancaster, PA, said she was pleasantly surprised her pay went up $1.50 a week … she said [that] will more than cover her Costco membership for the year,” Ryan tweeted. Wow, a whole $1.50? Get a load of Ms. Moneybags over here! The response to the tweet was so radioactive, Ryan ended up deleting it altogether.
Rep. Thomas Massie: It is no concern of Massie’s whether or not your family has….what was it? Food? Ha, you really should’ve thought of that before you became peasants! In a tweet that embodied the full spirit of Ebenezer Scrooge, the Kentucky congressman wondered, “How long until someone runs on the platform of #FoodStampsForAll? If healthcare is a right, is food as well?” Really makes you think.
Outstanding Ineptitude In The Cabinet
Wilbur Ross: The commerce secretary found himself embroiled in a glorious slow-rolling scandal this fall as he faced a lawsuit over the push to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census. Ross conspired with the Justice Department to build a facade that the question was needed to enforce the Voting Rights Act. But alas, Ross and his associates left a pesky paper trail, forcing Ross to spin an ever-evolving tale about his collaboration with White House officials and exposing the administration’s true motive. Ross helped orchestrate a spectacular scandal surrounding the 2020 census, elevating the controversy to the Supreme Court.
Brock Long: The FEMA administrator’s spending scandal was the sleeper hit of the 2018 season. He may not have spent as much money on a life of luxury as our dear Scott Pruitt, but Long’s spending saga was full of intrigue. He spent more than $100,000 of taxpayer money traveling between D.C. and his home in North Carolina, but that’s just the beginning. Long’s habits came to light when Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen asked the inspector general to probe her colleague. When the IG referred Long for possible criminal prosecution the FEMA administrator nearly quit, but in the end he bravely persevered. Bravo!
Ryan Zinke: Where do we even start with our Interior Secretary? He’s so very committed to scandal and ineptitude that it’s hard to keep track. Zinke did not keep his scandals to just one category of ineptitude. Sure, he tried to finagle ways for the government to pay for his wife’s travel, but he also requested VIP National Park tours for his friends, compared Robert E. Lee to Martin Luther King, Jr., and said “Konnichiwa” to a congresswoman with Japanese ancestry. The man’s got range, so much so that he has a deputy lined up to take his place in the event of his eventual ouster. His spectacular mix of mini scandals and ineptitude was so elaborate and confusing, he made it easy to forget about his possible criminal probe. He stuck it out as secretary until mid-December, when he finally gave in to the torrent of scandal.
Scott Pruitt: Pruitt’s drawn-out exit from the EPA was a thrill to watch — we were constantly waiting for the next mini scandal. He sure kept us on our toes. Pruitt only lasted until July, but in that time he managed to spend taxpayer money on fancy fountain pens and have his government aides search for a Trump Hotel mattress and a job for his wife. So committed to this life of luxury, Pruitt stuck it out in the job even as his conservative allies started to notice his flare for spending scandals. When conservative groups run ads criticizing you, you know you’ve achieved ultimate ineptitude!
Ben Carson: Humble Ben Carson was not to be outdone by his flashy colleagues in the cabinet who spent thousands on soundproof booths and private jets. Carson spent taxpayer money on pricey dining set for his office. Carson deftly blamed the purchase on his wife, who for some odd reason was involved in the decision, before eventually moving to cancel the order. But don’t forget the career HUD official who was demoted in the process for pushing back against Candy Carson’s furniture selections!