Announcing: The 2019 Golden Duke Winners!

December 30, 2019 5:27 p.m.

Hear ye, hear ye! After much deliberation by our esteemed judges, it’s time to recognize our 2019 Golden Duke winners.

Ex-Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-CA), the namesake of our annual awards, got himself locked up in prison for eight years after taking some $2.4 million in bribes. Six years after his release in 2013, we here at TPM continue to honor his legacy by highlighting the year’s most ridiculous figures and fiascos in U.S. politics — a deeply competitive field that only seems to grow more bloated every passing year.

Check out all of this year’s nominees here.

First, a round of applause for our amazing panel of judges: Erin Ryan, Talia Lavin, Susie Bright, Jeet Heer, Jim Newell, and the 2,477 TPM members who cast their ballots. They had the herculean task of choosing this year’s champions of absurdity, which was no small feat in a year of impeachment investigations, lawsuits against fake cows on Twitter, and conspiracy theories about Elizabeth Warren’s alleged 24-year-old Marine boy toy.

And let’s have a second round of applause for the nominees who failed to take home the gold despite the truly impressive stains they left on modern American politics. There’s always next year!

The Categories

Click on a category to jump to section

Best Scandal General Interest

The award goes to: Rep. Duncan Hunter!
(with 3 out of 6 votes)

Talia Lavin’s choice: Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA) using donor money to bankroll his sexcapades

This story has everything: marital betrayal, vaping in Congress, sleeping with lobbyists, taking $600 from a campaign to take a rabbit on an airplane. It’s also a cautionary tale: Hunter might have called himself “Trump before Trump,” but lacked the insulating power of the presidency and a rabid millions-strong cult of personality. Love that he still got reelected, though. Democracy!

Jim Newell’s choice: Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA) using donor money to bankroll his sexcapades

The competition is stiff, but in terms of pure delight, few professional moments have offered more joy than reading Duncan Hunter’s indictment for the first time. Each of the hundreds of “overt” acts of misusing campaign funds is a blessing. My favorite, though, was when Hunter used campaign funds to “buy my Hawaii shorts” at a golf pro shop so that he could describe the purchase later as “some [golf] balls for the wounded warriors.” Hunter tried the usual excuses for a while — another deep-state plot; the wife did it! — but eventually copped to a plea. Weak! We were all set to have a primary between Hunter and Darrell Issa, too, setting up a nice travel piece to Southern California for political reporters.

Jeet Heer’s choice: President Donald Trump’s shakedown of Ukraine

President Donald Trump’s shakedown of Ukraine. I don’t think there’s any competition here. This is it: the Omega Point, the Moby Dick of scandals. Leaving aside that it’s the grounds for only the third impeachment in American history, it is also the convergence point for all Trump’s scandals: it has Ukraine/Russia, Trump’s war with the Deep State, Rudy Giuliani, it’s got it all.

Erin Gloria Ryan’s choice: The multiple high-power players in Jeffrey Epstein’s orbit

Jeffrey Epstein’s undoing, incarceration, and extremely suspicious death is the scandal of the year. Yes, the Trump-Ukraine scandal has transformed the front pages of America’s dying newspapers into litanies of difficult-to-pronounce Russian ne’er-do-wells, as it reads like a Tolstoy novel written by deeply strange dipshits. But at least that scandal will endure in history books. I fear that the scandal that made me feel like I had literally gone crazy will disappear into the “oh yeah, that happened!” part of the collective unconscious. If I could go back in time and explain to somebody in the year 1999 that 20 years from now, a reporter will uncover a sex trafficking ring run by a guy whose suspiciously close friends include Prince Andrew, Bill Clinton, future president (LMFAO! WHAT!) Donald Trump, and many other wealthy and powerful men, I would be locked up. But it happened. Scores of young women were victimized by a man (and his female companion, who is still creepily traipsing around out there) who ran with the upper crusts of New York society, who rubbed elbows with the most powerful people in the world. People had to have known! People had to have willfully ignored what was going on! Powerful people who receive lifetime achievement awards from legacy publications! How much of the world is run by a group of rich men who would do basically anything to protect their access to young women to sexually victimize, and how many powerful people are complicit in allowing this to happen? Will we ever know? Just typing this out makes me feel insane.

Susie Bright’s choice: Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA) using donor money to bankroll his sexcapades

I told you. I will not let the White House win “Best Picture” at the Dukes. They got their toilet award, that’s the best I can do. Luckily, we have competition: Pet-Bunny-Lover-in-Chief, GOP Rep. Duncan Hunter. Duncan’s a common thief, a con, a pathetic liar, a cooze-and-booze-hound who shouldn’t be let out of the house, let alone allowed in Congress. His example shows what the California Desert can do to a man. But you know what? Congressman Hunter paid big carrots, beaucoup taxpayer lettuce, to fly his pet rabbit, Eggbert, across the friendly skies, to witness ALL his crimes. What more do you need to know? Maybe this: Little Bunny Eggbert did more than just witness the end of democracy. Eggbert quivered, his eyes grew pink, and his little bunny hide trembled all over. So may we all.

Members’ choice: President Donald Trump’s shakedown of Ukraine

This nominee won with a 59.7% majority of members’ votes.

Best Scandal Local Venue

The award goes to: The three drunk Indiana judges!
(with 4 out of 6 votes)

Talia Lavin’s choice: Three Indiana judges’ drunken brawl-turned-shootout

You know the expression “sober as a judge”? I’ve always had my doubts about it — seems like you could easily strap a flask under those robes — but this story really drove the point home. Things seemed to have been really escalated by the non-judicial brawler who brought a gun to a judge fight, though. The poor judges just wanted some White Castle.

Jim Newell’s choice: The Texas House speaker’s secret crusade against members of his own party

This one might not have anything as immediately salacious as judges brawling outside a strip club, but the setting couldn’t be better. We’re watching a Texas statehouse that Republicans can’t take for granted in 2020, and the speaker is so nervous that he’s offering some nut a deal in exchange for media credentials. Who could imagine that the nut might have been recording that conversation, and then — comically — dangling it over the speaker’s head for an extended period of time, just to watch him squirm? If the Texas GOP ever loses its stranglehold over the state, this will be a landmark episode in petty late-empire decadence.

Jeet Heer’s choice: Three Indiana judges’ drunken brawl-turned-shootout

So much to love about this story: the incongruity of judges behaving like buffoons, Indiana giving Florida a run for its money as the site of baffling and appalling behavior. I’m hoping for at least one movie to come out of it.

Erin Gloria Ryan’s choice: The Baltimore mayor’s children’s book grift

There are plenty of scandals this year that involve people who I absolutely do not want to picture having sex. (Ladies! Why are we fucking Duncan Hunter? Build your self esteem! Learn to be okay on your own! Remember that quality alone time is better than substandard sex with a vaping nutsack who is just going to take the sex you gave him as encouragement to keep being the world’s most obnoxious man! Stop having sex with Duncan Hunter!) But my choice for local venue scandal is one that is decidedly PG-rated: Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh’s children’s book grift. Of all the things to end your political career, imagine it being mediocre children’s books you wrote and then tried to force the city you run to buy. Imagine having the confidence to hold a press conference where you hawk associated licensed children’s wear. Now that’s the kind of confidence of a woman who would never fuck Duncan Hunter. Surely there’s a happy medium to be found.

Susie Bright’s choice: Three Indiana judges’ drunken brawl-turned-shootout

All scandal(s) is local. I give the prize to The 3 Little Pigs, the Indiana judges’ public brawl-turned-shoot-out at the White Castle Corral. Just like Justice Sabrina Bell said after blood was on the ground, “I mean, I fully acknowledge that I drink and get mouthy; I’m fiery and I’m feisty.” Who can’t relate to them robes? But on the other hand, Judge Bell is also a blackout degenerate — and so is the rest of her menage à twats, a judicial rat pack so wasted that even the renowned Indianapolis Red Garter Gentlemen’s Club refused them all entrance! These kids don’t remember getting in a White Castle gunfight with a strapped meth freak — and only god knows how the mustard from Justices Andrew Adams and Bradley Jacobs mouths ended up on Bell’s pants. It all started with such good intentions, just like Solomon. “Around 12:30 a.m.,” the Indy Star reported, “the three were drinking with a court magistrate at another bar, throwing darts and playing cornhole.” Playing cornhole? — A euphemism for what the Circuit Court does when no one’s looking. Where was Mother Pence?

Members’ choice: Three Indiana judges’ drunken brawl-turned-shootout

This nominee won with a 42.7% plurality of members’ votes.

Meritorious Achievement in the Crazy

The award goes to: Rudy, Lev and Igor!
(with 3 out of 6 votes)

Talia Lavin’s choice: Rudy Giuliani, Lev Parnas, and Igor Fruman

Every disaffected New York liberal has their decades of grumblings about Giuliani’s fascist tendencies vindicated, and we are reminded that free lawyers can sometimes command a different kind of price. (Plus, the man responds to prank texts.)

Jim Newell’s choice: Devin Nunes (R-CA)

Is it okay to say that the only thing keeping me interested by hour seven or eight of an Intel impeachment inquiry hearing this fall was Devin Nunes’ opportunities to speak? No? Well. The terse, self-hating sarcasm laced with references to fake-the-moon-landing conspiracies: This is why I wake up in the morning. What happened to Nunes? This was a Boehner leadership ally, with seniority on “grown-up” committees like Intel and Ways and Means, who would talk to any reporter for years, typically to trash the Freedom Caucus. Now he doesn’t talk to any reporters, treating them as spies for a liberal conspiracy. He sues cows from Twitter. He’s developed a new cultural category of Brooding MAGA Gen X Dementor.

Jeet Heer’s choice: Rudy Giuliani, Lev Parnas, and Igor Fruman

As with the Indiana judges, this shows the power of trios. Call it the three stooges principle: three doofuses combined can outdo anything mere mortals can do. The video clip of Giuliani, Parnas and Fruman hanging out would work as a scene in Uncut Gems. Rudy, of course, is the star. His cable news appearances have broken new ground in unhinged TV.

Erin Gloria Ryan’s choice: Devin Nunes (R-CA)

Devin Nunes is fascinating. I truly can’t understand what makes him tick, or what his end game is on all of this. What was he thinking, co-chairing the House Intelligence Committee impeachment hearings, knowing in the back of his mind that he was actively involved in the shenanigans that led to President Trump being impeached in the first place? What was going through his head as he sat up there? What does he think he’s going to get at the end of all this? A jawline?

Susie Bright’s choice: Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin (R)

Gov. Matt Bevin, come on down: You take the Crazy Cake, and all the decapitated ladies stuffed inside of it! Departing Kentucky Governor — and Super-Duper-Sore-Loser — Matt Bevin didn’t slam the door behind him before he pardoned ALL the incarcerated psychopaths on his Xmas list. Or, at least, anyone who ever put a lollipop in his campaign war chest. But who was Bevin’s special amnesty favorite, the man everyone wants back on the streets? Why, it’s Delmar Partin, a man convicted of murder for strangling his lover before beheading her and stuffing her corpse in a barrel. Jesus take the wheel. I wonder if Bevin charitably lent Partin his Trump coat, as well. Watch out, Del — those threads might still be tainted with Bevin’s chicken pox cooties.

Members’ choice: Rudy Giuliani, Lev Parnas, and Igor Fruman

This nominee won with a 60.9% majority of members’ votes.

Most Valiant Trump Defender

The award goes to: Sen. Lindsey Graham!
(with 4 out of 6 votes)

Talia Lavin’s choice: Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA)

Not only is he suing a fictional cow, he is decidedly not cowed in his bullish attempts to defend an embattled president. He constantly looks both confused and enraged, and proved interesting enough to force Ryan Lizza to drive through cow country.

Jim Newell’s choice: Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH)

Tough competition between him and Graham, as both enthusiastically and energetically leap before cameras to defend Our President. But Graham — SHAME ON HIM — occasionally breaks from character and will chastise the president for, say, announcing a swift removal of troops from Syria because the Turkish president was nice to him on the telephone. A stain on your legacy, Mr. Graham! Jordan, meanwhile, served valiantly on both the Intel and Judiciary Committees, sitting in nearly every deposition and running the show behind the scenes during public hearings. It is he, Jim Jordan, who deserves the annual Presidential Belly Rub for Good Service.

Jeet Heer’s choice: Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC)

Nearly the entire GOP has debased itself for Trump, but Graham remains the champ chump because of his history and self-regard. We all remember Lindsey as one of the Wise Men, best buddies with John McCain, the voice of conscience and foreign policy gravitas. He went out of his way to be the defining senatorial voice of Never Trump in 2016. This makes his transformation into a lap dog all the more stunning.

Erin Gloria Ryan’s choice: Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC)

Lindsey Graham will go down in history as a bowl of cold boogers. When I’m working out and I feel like quitting, I remind myself that if I keep taking care of my body and brain, I can long outlive Lindsey Graham and use my extra golden years energy to remind future generations how much he sucked. In the meantime, I hope John McCain’s ghost, when he’s ready, haunts the hell out of him.

Susie Bright’s choice: Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC)

The sloppiest wet dream all year has been speculating what kind of kompromat Trump has on South Carolina’s most legendary closet case. It must be spectacular. Could anyone be THIS craven without cause? Which closet, you ask? Honey, there’s so many to choose from. What’s unique about Graham is that while Trump only humiliates him for his fealty, Linds just keeps popping back up, like a Gothic Plot Twist. He is going to keep on the Sunny Side! He is going to brag about buying a cute rug in Afghanistan for $5! He is not changing his mind about impeachment and he’s going to spread it on a cracker! No one has ever been more dead inside.

Members’ choice: Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC)

This nominee won with a 46.9% plurality of members’ votes.

Wildest Press Conference Moment

The award goes to: The President’s concerns about toilets!
(with 4 out of 6 votes)

Talia Lavin’s choice: Trump laments how “people are flushing toilets 10 times, 15 times”

I love that Trump admitted he has weird, huge dumps, then went back, denied his weird huge dumps, and accused his rally crowd in Battle Creek, Michigan of taking weird dumps instead. Projection, your honor.

Jim Newell’s choice: Mulvaney blatantly admits to a quid pro quo

He admitted it right there on TV, and then told everyone to “get over it.” Come on! Mulvaney has long had a reputation for vastly overstating his intelligence, but at least he had the good sense to obstruct Congress and not testify any further after that performance.

Jeet Heer’s choice: Trump laments how “people are flushing toilets 10 times, 15 times”

I’ve listened to this clip many, many times, always in disbelief. I keep asking myself, “why is he talking about this? Why does he have such strong views? Does he really think there are places with so much water they don’t know what to do with it? Why does it take so many flushes?” It’s the most amazing presidential monologue ever.

Erin Gloria Ryan’s choice: Trump laments how “people are flushing toilets 10 times, 15 times”

Do I like knowing that our big soft lazy president lays down toilet-challenging turds? No. I hate it. I truly hate knowing that a lot of his rage-tweeting and rage-governing comes from a place of total colon blockage brought on by a diet of fast food and carbonated brown sugar water. But knowing that it sometimes takes the president 10, 15 times to flush his golden toilet helps make a lot of his bad personality make sense. The man constantly has to shit, and he shits a lot. Of course he’s the way he is.

Susie Bright’s choice: Trump laments how “people are flushing toilets 10 times, 15 times”

A septic man of the people, our President is in the tank on this one. Truthfully, hasn’t everyone’s dad yelled at them for stopping up the can? Aren’t you ALL using too much teepee? Admit it. Let the grievances begin! Little Trumpy has the look of a boy whose toilet training went awry, and now we all have to pay for it. Diaper Don’s toilet obsession has followed him his entire life. The public first became aware of his kink, pre-Presidency, when The Donald paraded his solid gold toilet fixtures before the press — a classic sign of the self-made turd. Vanity Fair covered the story. Next, we learned of the Orange Man’s pathological fear of “germs,” the kind you get when you engage in affection with another human being. His rumored orgy exploits in Russia didn’t involve anything as cursory as intercourse or blow jobs — no, that’s for little people. Steele’s dossier suggested that Trump hired the bustiest blondes in his oligarch’s stable, with instructions to piss on each other, in the hotel bed of his nemeses. What a triumph! Trump voyeurized, we presume — unless, damn it, he was locked in the water closet jiggling Putin’s handle!

Members’ choice: Mulvaney blatantly admits to a quid pro quo

This nominee won with a 43.7% plurality of members’ votes.

Literary Achievement in 280 Characters

The award goes to: Bret Stephens!
(with 4 out of 6 votes)

Talia Lavin’s choice: Bret Stephens’ meltdown over a tweet calling him a “bedbug”

Do you know how many death threats I’ve gotten this year? How many times people have compared me to a sack of pork products or accused me of living off the masses like some baron because I have a patreon? Being called a “bedbug” wouldn’t even register. I need to know Bret Stephens’ skincare routine; how does he keep his hide so exquisitely thin?

Jim Newell’s choice: Brent Bozell’s galaxy brain tweet claiming Trump was elected to get rid of people like Sondland

The Bozell tweet is one of two or three signature events I’ll remember from the third impeachment of a United States president, along with the sound of the air conditioners turning on to bring the temperature of the Ways and Means hearing room to absolute zero, and the look on Matt Gaetz’s face when Hank Johnson was owning him. My only disappointment is that Bozell deleted it rather than tweeting through it, not giving President Trump enough time to retweet it.

Jeet Heer’s choice: Bret Stephens’ meltdown over a tweet calling him a “bedbug”

Stephens gets this based solely on the position he occupies. It takes no great skill to publish something demented in the Washington Times or on twitter. But Stephens is a New York Times columnist. He published an utterly bone-headed and narcissistic piece in The New York Times, a column that was (it’s been reported) line edited by James Bennet, the head of the editorial page. That’s a real feat.

Erin Gloria Ryan’s choice: The Washington Times’ “exclusive” article on AOC’s haircut

Okay, this is incredibly catty, and may count as “girl on girl crime.” But after that bizarrely bitchy article on AOC’s totally normal-cost-for-a-good-haircut-in-a-major-metropolitan-area haircut, I clicked through to see who the author of the article was. And to be frank, she has the hair of a woman who did not know how much a good haircut costs. If you catch my drift. The moral of the story is: “don’t start none, won’t be none.”

Susie Bright’s choice: Bret Stephens’ meltdown over a tweet calling him a “bedbug”

If you possess a couple of large gametes and want to write on Twitter, (hey sis!) you need to know this: Before you complete a first week of postings, you’ll be called a worthless cunt who needs decapitation and a barrel roll. No one cares; get used to it. What would you, a mere femme-peon, do about it anyway? Cry? Well, kittens, Thought Leaders like NYT columnist Bret Stephens, don’t have to put up with this guff! Bret’s not about to be bullied. He and Melania Trump spend hours talking about “How to Be Best” in a world where leftist vapor-istas prey upon the people. You can just stuff your cruel and unusual ad hominem attacks RIGHT UP YOUR BOTTOM! Stephens was plucked out of the Neo-Conservative High Wallow Bench to soar into Full Entitlement at the NYT op-ed trough. Bret isn’t a bug, he’s a feature!

Members’ choice: Bret Stephens’ meltdown over a tweet calling him a “bedbug”

This nominee won with a 49.5% plurality of members’ votes.

Most Off-The-Walls Conspiracy Theory

The award goes to: Jacob Wohl and Jack Burkman for their Elizabeth Warren conspiracy theory!
(with 4 out of 6 votes)

Talia Lavin’s choice: Elizabeth Warren: Secret Cougar

Honestly, all the other conspiracies are so depressing and I can’t think about total epistemological breakdown during the holidays. Wohl and Burkman are a bumbling duo of neofascists, but their theory on Warren honestly made me like her more. Get it Liz!!!

Jim Newell’s choice: The Ukraine-Crowdstrike theory

I didn’t know what this was until I saw it in the Trump-Zelensky phone call readout, and it’s really fake-moon-landing level or beyond. There is a very good argument (one I’ve made!) that the fact that the president… believes? this? is a more impeachable offense than the Biden stuff. He believes that there is a secret server in Ukraine hiding out in a motel, smoking a cigarette, with fake passports and some international currency all packed up in a getaway bag should the cops turn up.

Jeet Heer’s choice: Elizabeth Warren: Secret Cougar

There are a lot of conspiracy grifters out there but Wohl and Burkman are in a class of their own in the sheer outlandish incompetence of their schemes as well as their resilience. Everything falls apart for them but they just dust themselves off and start anew. In that sense, they are the Wile E. Coyote of right-wing conspiracy grift. In this case, part of the stupidity at play was not realizing that spreading the story that Warren is an insatiable sex machine was not something that would hurt her.

Erin Gloria Ryan’s choice: Elizabeth Warren: Secret Cougar

I hope Jacob Wohl never gets any less dumb, so he can call pressers in which he trips over his own dick over and over again. I hope he never learns that any self-respecting cougar would never sleep with a man under the age of 25, because (again, all women over a certain age know this) most men have no idea what they’re doing with themselves sexually until they’re at least that age. I hope he continues to believe that learning that a Harvard Law professor-turned-senator had found the spare time to have an extramarital affair with a hot Marine without affecting her work would make me less and not more likely to vote for her. I hope he stays this stupid forever. I love him.

Susie Bright’s choice: Elizabeth Warren: Secret Cougar

So many cool kids these days are saying Pete Buttigieg isn’t gay enough. Gay enough? Get real! The problem with most Democratic Presidential wannabes is that they aren’t STRAIGHT enough! The only candidate pulling her weight in libidinous gold is our lusty heroine, Liz Warren, accused of tricking with a bustin’-hot young Marine, a total stud who indulged all the Senator’s BDSM paraphernalia. Yes, a thousand times yes. I want a cougar in the White House, who can rip the old boys’ network to shreds and then lick it off her fingertips like cream. Release the boy toys! Praise the Lord and pass the lubrication!

Members’ choice: The Ukraine-Crowdstrike theory

This nominee won with a 37% plurality of members’ votes.


Erin Ryan

Erin is a writer for FXX’s hit TV show “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, the podcast host of “Hysteria” at Crooked Media, and a contributor to the Daily Beast.

Talia Lavin

Talia is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in publications such as the New Yorker, the Washington Post, and the Village Voice.

Jeet Heer

Jeet is a national affairs correspondent at the Nation, a literary critic, and a former staff writer for the New Republic.

Susie Bright

Susie Bright is the Editor-at-Large at Audible, the editor of Santa Cruz Noir, and author of Big Sex Little Death.

Jim Newell

Jim is a senior politics writer at Slate.

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