It’s that time of year again: The 2019 Golden Duke Awards are upon us.
Named for the breathtakingly corrupt former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-CA), these awards honor the people behind the biggest political disasters of the year. Whether they’ve reached new heights of corruption, stupidity, or just plan weirdness, they deserve our commendation.
Our esteemed panel of judges will consider the nominees below and render their verdict on Monday Dec. 30. In the meantime, as a new decade barrels our way, let’s take a moment to look back fondly on the messes that were.
This year, we’ve added an element: the voice of the people. Specifically, people who are TPM members. So, make sure you’re signed in, and vote.
Duncan Hunter not only stole from his campaign donors to fund a lavish lifestyle, like having his pet rabbit flown between D.C. and his California district — he allegedly did so to pay for numerous affairs with lobbyists, a member of his staff, and a GOP aide. At first, he blamed his wife for his financial troubles, but all the cheating punched holes in that narrative. (At one point, according to the DOJ, Hunter even used a hotel room reservation his wife had booked to engage in one of the affairs.) Earlier this month, the congressman pleaded guilty in federal court to conspiracy to steal campaign funds and announced he would leave Congress — but would stick around through the end of the year, and continue collecting a paycheck for his trouble. Hunter gets bonus points for his friendship with the Golden Dukes’ namesake, Randy “Duke” Cunningham.
If Trump asks you to do him a “favor,” it’s never good. If you’re the newly elected president of a small country at war with Russia, it’s probably bad. During a call on July 25, Trump extorted Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky to dig up dirt that would smear Joe Biden, cast doubt on Russian election meddling in 2016, and rehabilitate Paul Manafort. We all know the story, though aspects of a substory involving Rudy Giuliani, Lev Parnas, Igor Fruman, and some Ukrainain oligarchs are still coming out. Now Trump’s being impeached.
In the days after the now-dead Epstein was arrested and indicted on sex charges, stories about his elbow rubbing with the rich and powerful got another round of scrutiny. Among his list of friends was the current president, former President Bill Clinton, politicians from other countries, a member of the British monarchy, academics, artists and journalists. It raised plenty of questions — many of which now look likely to remain unanswered.
Yep, it’s still happening. Foreign dignitaries and U.S. government officials are doing business with Trump properties and then thanking the President for the experience. On that infamous July 25 call, Zelensky happened to mention that “I stayed at the Trump Tower.” When Pence had meetings in Dublin, he decided to stay on the other side of Ireland, at a Trump resort in Doonbeg. The U.S. Airforce, meanwhile is staying at a Trump property in Turnberry, Scotland.
In 2018, Avenatti visited Iowa and flirted with running for president. In 2019, he’s facing decades in prison. The one-time hero of the #Resistance and lawyer for Stormy Daniels was hit with a slew of charges in March and April, including stealing money from Daniels, extorting Nike, bank fraud, wire fraud, and tax evasion. Imagine what an Avenatti 2020 campaign would’ve looked like!
Not one, not two, but three extremely wasted Indiana county judges got into a nasty fight with strangers in a White Castle parking lot in Indianapolis after the three of them unsuccessfully attempted to enter a strip club. There’s a lot going on in this story, but the long and short of it is this: After hours of heavy drinking, Judges Andrew Adams, Bradley B. Jacobs and Sabrina R. Bell got into a verbal, then physical altercation with two men, Adams and Jacobs were both shot in the melee (they survived their injuries), and now all three of the judges have been temporarily suspended by the Indiana Supreme Court.
Iowa Department of Human Services director and Tupac superfan Jerry Foxhoven, a 66-year-old civil servant known for regularly emailing inspiring Tupac lyrics to his employees and holding “Tupac Fridays,” was suddenly fired in June. Though Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) refused to tell the press why she had asked Foxhoven to step down, a mass email he had sent the day before his ouster to 4,300 employees reminding them of Tupac’s upcoming birthday caused people to suspect that Foxhoven’s obsession with the late ‘90s rapper was his downfall. Then Foxhoven filed a lawsuit against the state government for “whistleblower wrongful discharge,” and the alleged cause for his mysterious firing came to light: He was about to expose how Reynolds’ office had been pressuring him to continue paying a former employee who had left his agency to become the governor’s chief of staff.
Tennessee House Speaker Glen Casada (R) was forced to resign in August after a series of his sexually explicit texts to his then-chief of staff Cade Cothren were leaked. Cothren himself had resigned in May after his racist texts (some of which were sent to Casada in a group chat) weare leaked. The aide had also sent a text bragging about snorting cocaine in the legislative building and texted an intern soliciting oral sex. The moral of the story? Some people really shouldn’t be allowed to own or even touch cell phones.
Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh (D) pleaded guilty to four counts of wire and tax fraud in November after she got caught running a three-year self-dealing scheme with her “Healthy Holly” children’s books. After an organization would pay her thousands of dollars (in some cases, over $100,000) for the books, Pugh would set aside several thousand copies she had printed and keep them in a warehouse instead of completing the order. She’d then re-sell the hidden books when other companies put in their orders. Her campaign promise — to crack down on corruption in Baltimore — didn’t work out so well.
In June, Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen (R) secretly gave right-wing activist Michael Sullivan a list of 10 Republicans who Bonnen wanted Sullivan to target in the 2020 primaries with his super PAC, believing them to be vulnerable to Democratic challengers. Unfortunately for the lawmaker, Sullivan recorded their conversation and played the audio for several Republicans who were on the list. Now surrounded by furious GOP colleagues, Bonnen announced in October that he will not run for reelection.
Trump’s personal lawyer qualified for this category many, many times over this year as he and his one-time buddies Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman pursued a scheme to oust the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and put pressure on that country’s president, all while looking for business opportunities. But if there’s one episode that sums up this wild ride, it might be the evening in September when the news of Trump’s pressure campaign broke and an unwell-looking Giuliani popped up on CNN to ramble for several minutes to a baffled Chris Cuomo — openly blabbing the details of his Ukraine scheme. “So you did ask Ukraine to look into Joe Biden?” Cuomo asked. “Of course I did,” Giuliani declared.
The recently defeated Matt Bevin was perhaps underappreciated for his crazy. He did, after all, admit to sending all nine of his kids to hang out with some neighbors who had chickenpox, rather than vaccinating them. He campaigned while wearing a blazer entirely decorated with Trump’s head. And when he lost the election, he peddled the utterly baseless claim that the results were fraudulent. He eventually conceded but was still smarting about it a month later, when he accused Democrats of “harvesting votes” in “urban communities.”
The NRA was once among the most powerful forces in American politics. Now it spends its time suing the PR company that once produced the fringey NRATV, and that PR company, Ackerman McQueen, spends its time suing the NRA right back. In the midst of this, there was some kind of attempted coup in which Oliver North, the Iran-Contra fellow and then-president of the NRA, allegedly tried to extort and oust NRA chief executive Wayne LaPierre, failed, and ended up ousted himself. It’s been a highly entertaining saga, which has caught New York Attorney General Letitia James’ attention.
One of the strangest things we’ve covered this year happened in a far-off town in Eastern Washington state. Sometime in March, according to prosecutors, a small-time militia leader there adopted a new identity: Alessio Don De Grande, drug cartel kingpin and extortionist. “De Grande” left letters at the homes of the members of Bolton’s militia, promising violence if they didn’t pay him. When the militia members went to the police, the militia leader fled the state and was eventually arrested by a SWAT team. He’s pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial.
Cranky Trump defender Devin Nunes does not appreciate being the butt of a joke. This year, the congressman got litigious. He sued two Twitter parody accounts, one purporting to be his “mom” and one his upset “cow.” He also sued McClatchy, CNN, Esquire magazine as well as a one-time reporter for it, Ryan Lizza, and a California farmer who signed a petition asking that Nunes not call himself a farmer. For someone with his hands in quite a few controversies, Nunes has an impressively thin skin.
Of all of Trump’s Republican allies in the Senate, none have as vociferously howled against the House’s impeachment proceedings or slavishly carried out Trump’s PR campaign as the South Carolina senator. Graham’s gone all-out by attempting to get the Senate to formally condemn the House’s investigation, accusing EU Ambassador Gordon Sondland (who donated $1 million to Trump’s inauguration) of conspiring with Democrats, launching a Senate investigation into Biden in an effort to legitimize Trump’s bogus conspiracy theory, and vowing to use his position as Judiciary chair to unmask the whistleblower who prompted the impeachment probe. And even if none of those gambits pan out, Graham’s made it crystal-clear that nothing will convince him to hold Trump accountable for his wrongdoing, whether it’s Trump’s attempt to obstruct Robert Mueller’s investigation (“I don’t care”) or Trump’s Ukraine scheme (“I made my mind up. There’s nothing there”).
Jordan often led press conferences to rail against the impeachment investigation as his fellow Trump lackeys stood behind him. His role as Trump’s attack dog was solidified when House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) temporarily assigned him to the House Intelligence Committee when the public hearings began. During the hearings, the Ohio Republican provided a sideshow of grandstanding and rapidly-fired questions blatantly aimed to undermine crucial witnesses in the investigation. Though Jordan’s participation did little to neutralize the damaging testimonies, Trump applauded his performance on Twitter anyway and lo, Jordan got the shiny gold star he was fishing for.
Not to be outdone, Gaetz led a mob of angry Republicans to barge into a secure hearing room in the middle of a closed-door impeachment testimony and disrupt the proceedings on October 23. Although Republicans on the committees leading the impeachment probe were obviously allowed to participate in the hearings, Gaetz and his colleagues moaned that Democrats were locking out their GOP counterparts in their cloak-and-dagger operation against Trump. The circus was clearly meant to distract from the damning testimony Ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor had given the day before, during which he told investigators that that military aid to Ukraine and a White House meeting with Trump were incumbent upon President Volodmyr Zelensky announcing an investigation into Joe Biden.
As the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, Nunes took it upon himself to heroically shield Trump from the impeachment investigation his committee was leading by spewing Trump’s debunked conspiracy theories about Biden and loudly complaining about the existence of the investigation during the hearings. And then in a sudden plot twist, Nunes himself was revealed to be more entangled in the scandal than he’d let on: Phone records in House Intel Democrats’ impeachment report showed that the Republican lawmaker had had multiple calls with Rudy Giuliani and Lev Parnas around the time when the two men were conspiring to get then-Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch fired. Additionally, Parnas now alleges that Nunes met with ousted Ukrainian Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin in Vienna last year to dig up dirt on Biden. Oof.
While not quite as prominent in the Trump Impeachment Defense Squad as the other nominees in this category, Ratcliffe made an impressive debut as one of Trump’s most loyal flunkies earlier in the year during Robert Mueller’s hearings. After Ratcliffe chewed out the special counsel for not exonerating Trump in the Russia probe, the President generously rewarded the Texas lawmaker by nominating him to be the Director of National Intelligence. Sadly, that nomination quickly went down in flames after it was revealed Ratcliffe had no intelligence experience or even much interest in the subject.
In an October press conference that began as a stunning display of apathy regarding the Trump administration’s decision to hold the next G-7 at Trump’s Doral golf court, Mulvaney nonchalantly told the reporters that yes, there was indeed a quid pro quo between Trump and Zelensky, and that’s totally normal, so “get over it.” The relationship between Trump and Mulvaney went downhill from there as the President became increasingly frustrated by Mulvaney’s messy attempts to clean up his quid pro quo admission after the presser. And it wasn’t just Trump who was alarmed — the fallout continued with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo distancing himself from Mulvaney, and condemnation from GOP lawmakers such as Reps. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Francis Rooney (R-FL) and Adam Kinzinger (R-IL).
In the moments after Trump announced an executive order to obtain citizenship information about people living in the U.S. during a Rose Garden event, a scuffle broke out amongst far-right influencers and members of the White House press corps. The brawl escalated to the point where conservative pundit Sebastian Gorka was heard calling a reporter a “punk.” By then, Trump had left the event without taking questions.
Trump had a lot on his mind during a small business roundtable at the White House, where he was addressing a deadly shooting at a Naval base in Pensacola, Florida. Pivoting abruptly, Trump began to complain about environmentally friendly lightbulbs that give him “an orange look” and the lack of sufficient water pressure in American plumbing. Trump then claimed that he directed the Environmental Protection Agency to look at opening up water standards “very strongly” given how “people are flushing toilets 10 times, 15 times, as opposed to once” and “end up using more water.”
A Finnish reporter at a joint press conference featuring Trump and Finnish President Sauli Niinistö kept it blunt, as Finns do, when she asked the question on everyone’s minds in the midst of the Ukraine scandal. After first asking Trump about how the political storm will affect U.S. foreign policy, MTV News Finland reporter Mari Karppinen followed up with a more pointed question directed at Niinistö: “Because this is the biggest issue here at the moment, I have to ask: What kind of favors has Mr. Trump asked from you?” Cue awkward responses from both Trump and Niinistö, topped with audible laughter from some attendees of the presser.
As Hurricane Dorian raged toward the U.S., Trump repeatedly insisted that forecasters expected the storm to hit Alabama, even as meteorologists repeatedly refuted the claim. Trump was undeterred. During a press conference in the Oval Office with Acting DHS Secretary Kevin McAleenan, he displayed a map of the hurricane’s forecasted path that appeared to feature a bubble scribbled on to include Alabama. Even after a White House official identified the amateur cartographer as the President himself, Trump kept defending his bogus Alabama hurricane theory and vented to Fox News’ John Roberts about it.
Of all the flack Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) has gotten from conservatives since emerging as one of the most progressive lawmakers in Congress, there was nothing that could get the Washington Times worked up more than the supposed cost of the Democratic freshman’s … haircut. In its report claiming that Ocasio-Cortez “spent nearly $300 on her hairdo at a pricey salon she frequents in downtown Washington,” the Times indignantly described how the scandalous haircut contradicts the message of “the self-declared socialist” who “rails against the rich and complains about the cost of living inside the Beltway.” The day after the report was unwisely published and tweeted, Ocasio-Cortez shot back via Twitter by pointing out how “the right-wing want you to blame Democratic socialism for their own moral failures” and that Vice President Mike Pence used taxpayer funds “to spend several thousand haircuts’ worth of public money on a visit to Trump golf courses.”
We’re just as puzzled as you are. After EU Ambassador Gordon Sondland’s damning testimony blew holes in substantive rebuttals put forth by Republicans and White House officials seeking to defend Trump amid the impeachment inquiry, the founder of conservative site CNSNews.com Brent Bozell offered his own “chicken or the egg” take in the form of a baffling tweet: “Listen to Sondland and you’ll understand why America elected Donald Trump president to get rid of people like Sondland.” It didn’t take long for Bozell to delete the tweet after several Twitter users pointed out that it was Trump who personally appointed Sondland after the hotel magnate donated $1 million to his inauguration.
Conservative New York Times columnist Bret Stephens was so bugged by George Washington University media professor David Karpf, who had virtually no Twitter presence before the debacle, comparing him to “bedbugs” that he sent Karpf an angry email and copied the professor’s boss on it. Although Stephens claimed that he wasn’t trying to get Karpf punished by his superiors, it only took a few days for him to publish an op-ed that seemed to draw parallels between the bedbug tweet and Nazi-era anti-Semitism, writing that “today the rhetoric of infestation is back.” (Both Stephens and Karpf are Jewish.) He suspended his Twitter account after people mocked him relentlessly for writing a million articles complaining about the fragility of lefty college students, only to lose his mind over being called an insect.
Yikes, the attempt by the University of Missouri’s athletic department to contribute to the NCAA’s inclusion week couldn’t have backfired harder. The now-deleted tweet, which was intended to celebrate how student athletes are “more than a student athlete,” featured images of two white athletes and two black athletes. The post was met with backlash over the glaringly disparate image text between the white and black athletes: While the messages on the white athletes were career-oriented (i.e “I am a future doctor”), the text over the black athletes simply stated the obvious (i.e “I am an African-American woman”). In its apology, Mizzou Athletics deleted the original tweet, acknowledged its tone-deafness and shared another video that they believed “better represents our intent to celebrate our diversity.”
One of the President’s Large Adult Sons threw a fit over the audacity of Washington Post reporter David Fahrenthold exercising the basic rules of journalism. In a Friday afternoon tweet, the President’s son attacked Fahrenthold for reaching out to a Trump Organization employee as a potential source. Trump was particularly offended by Fahrenthold’s “tactics” of offering the employee an opportunity to speak on background or send documents anonymously — apparently very nefarious ploys that jeopardize the integrity of American journalism. It didn’t take long for reporters and media personalities nationwide to dunk on Trump’s dumbfounding media gripe.
After winning the 2018 Golden Dukes for their doomed fake Mueller accuser scheme, ever-grifting dynamic duo Jacob Wohl and Jack Burkman made an admirable effort to outdo themselves this year with a series of truly embarrassing press conferences at which they peddled colorful accusations against various Democratic candidates. In one notable instance, the two clowns fabricated a steamy sex scandal about Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) allegedly hiring a 24/25-year-old Marine to carry out her outrageous BDSM fantasies. The man who claimed to be Warren’s boytoy did appear at Wohl and Burkman’s press conference (unlike Mueller’s alleged accuser last year), though his inability to read his statement on the affair with a straight face threw his credibility into question somewhat.
Of all the various conspiracy theories Trump chose to raise with the President of Ukraine, this one — specifically Trump’s version of it — is the weirdest. It’s a long story, but it alleges that Russia did not in fact hack the DNC in 2016, Ukraine did, and that Crowdstrike, the cybersecurity firm the DNC hired to investigate the hack, covered it up. Trump threw in some extra zest when he implied that the DNC’s servers are now hidden somewhere in Ukraine, presumably to conceal the evidence. One can imagine Joe Biden pushed the car with the servers in its trunk into the Dnieper River himself. Maybe President Zelensky can find them!
When Notre Dame caught fire earlier this year, prosecutors soon announced that it was the result of a tragic accident. But conspiracy theorists on the far right were already busy. Speculation suggested that the fire was set by immigrants, Satanists, or (because apparently we’re living in 1952) perhaps Communists.
When Trump visited Alabama this spring to tour tornado devastation, Twitter observed that the first lady looked a bit … different? Was this “Melania” in fact a body double? Hey, we’re just asking questions! However, there was no reason to believe this Melania was anything less than the real woman, and the Melania doppelganger discourse would have eventually died — had Trump not chose to comment on it and fueled people’s suspicions anew. “The Fake News photoshopped pictures of Melania, then propelled conspiracy theories that it’s actually not her by my side in Alabama and other places,” the President declared on Twitter. Oh, okay then. No reason to doubt our ever-truthful POTUS.
Many of this year’s nominees for this “conspiracy theory” category can fit somewhere within QAnon, a mega-conspiracy theory derived from Pizzagate and born around the dawn of the Trump presidency. As 2020 draws nearer, Q still lives and breathes. This year, a Staten Island man suggested that Q had something to do with his decision to murder a Gambino family member. Meanwhile, Rep. Ilhan Omar’s GOP challenger is a Q believer (or is at least pretending to be). And she isn’t the only Q proponent to run for office.
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 is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in publications such as the New Yorker, the Washington Post, and the Village Voice.
Jeet is a national affairs correspondent at the Nation, a literary critic, and a former staff writer for the New Republic.
Susie Bright is the Editor-at-Large at Audible, the editor of Santa Cruz Noir, and author of Big Sex Little Death.
Jim is a senior politics writer at Slate.