Covering Up a President’s Misconduct (or Antisemitism)

by Rafael Medoff

How far will a president’s admirers go to cover up evidence of his misconduct? The final report of the January 6 committee raises troubling questions about the Secret Service and then-President Trump, but he is not the first president to benefit from his supporters’ zealotry—and in at least two cases, it was evidence of a president’s antisemitism that was the object of the coverup.

During the televised hearings of the January 6 committee earlier this year, former Trump loyalist Cassidy Hutchinson testified that then-Deputy Chief of Staff Anthony Ornato told her Trump tried to grab the steering wheel of his limousine when his driver refused to take him to join the crowd marching on the Capitol. At the time of Hutchinson’s testimony, anonymous Secret Service agents claimed the incident never happened. But it turns out that when those agents were later placed under oath, it was another story.

According to the committee’s final report, a second high-ranking White House staffer testified to hearing the same thing from Ornato about the steering wheel incident. But Ornato and two Secret Service agents who were questioned by the committee claimed they “could not recall” anything about what happened with Trump in the limo. In fact, the transcripts of the committee’s witness interviews are filled with claims by Trump loyalists that they “could not recall” significant facts and events.

President Ronald Reagan inspired similarly intense loyalty from some of his admirers. Former White House aide Oliver North testified in congressional hearings in 1987 that he and then-CIA Director William J. Casey altered or destroyed documents related to the Iran-Contra scandal because they were “concerned that the President not be damaged by it.”

Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman also benefited from such loyalty.

At the Yalta Conference in 1945, President Roosevelt mentioned to Soviet dictator Josef Stalin that he would be meeting with Saudi Arabia’s king, Ibn Saud. Stalin asked if he intended to make any concessions to Saud. According to the official transcript of the conversation, “The President replied that there was only one concession he thought he might offer and that was to give him the six million Jews in the United States.”

When the transcript was made public only ten years later, Roosevelt’s “joke” about the jews was replaced by a line of asterisks. A Washington Post editorial criticized the deletion as  “pernicious” and an attempt to “doctor history.” U.S. News and World Report somehow obtained the full text and published it a few days later, but critics denied it, pointed to the fact that U.S. News had been unsympathetic to FDR’s New Deal.

Two months later, a State Department official, Deputy Assistant Secretary Burke Wilkinson, acknowledged in response to an inquiry that FDR did make “an off-hand comment… concerning the Jews,” but Wilkinson would not say what the comment was. Wilkinson explained that it had been omitted “for the reason that it would give needless offense, while contributing nothing to policy.”

Eventually, in 1973, the U.S. News account was confirmed in the autobiography of Charles E. Bohlen, the State Department official who was FDR’s chief translator and minute-taker. But by then, the 1955 controversy had been long forgotten.

Antisemitic remarks by President Harry Truman were twice suppressed by his admirers.

Historian John Morton Blum revealed the first episode when he was interviewing Henry Morgenthau III, the son of Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr., in 1984. Blum said that many years earlier, he had uncovered an entry in the diary of Secretary of War Henry Stimson in 1945 in which Stimson quoted Truman as referring to Secretary Morgenthau and White House adviser Bernard Baruch as “Jew boys.”

Blum discussed it with Secretary Morgenthau, because he was then in the process of editing Morgenthau’s diaries. According to Blum, Morgenthau urged Blum to “take that out” of the forthcoming book. “I’m sure if Mr. Stimson put it down, President Truman said it,” Morgenthau told Blum, “but I don’t like the phrase ‘Jew boy’ in the mouth of any President of the United States.”

To judge by Blum’s description, Secretary Morgenthau Jr. evidently was motivated not so much by a desire to protect Truman’s name but a concern that an expression of antisemitism coming from “the mouth of the president” would give a certain legitimacy to anti-Jewish bigotry. Regardless of Morgenthau’s motive, the practical impact of Blum’s decision to suppress the Stimson diary entry was to shield Truman’s antisemitism from public view.

There has been at least one additional instance of a cover-up of Truman’s bigotry. William Hillman, a journalist, was hired to assist Truman in preparing his memoirs and other papers for publication. The first volume, Mr. President, appeared in 1953.

Hillman included a June 1945 memo by Truman which included a passage deriding for Jews for believing that God “picked ‘em out for special privilege.” But the version that appeared in Mr. President omitted the section about Jews. In Hillman’s version, that paragraph read simply:  “…I never thought God picked any favorites. It is my studied opinion that any race, creed or color can be God’s favorites if they act the part–and very few of ‘em do that.”

Personal loyalty to a president is an admirable quality—up to a point. In Cassidy Hutchinson’s case, she remained loyal to President Trump even after January 6. But loyalty to the truth should be the standard to which everyone aspires. Hutchinson eventually came to realize that, but the Secret Service members and other Trump aides who are now suffering from selective amnesia have not yet reached that point. Nor, unfortunately, did those who covered up antisemitic remarks by two other presidents.

(December 2022)