From Ukraine to Virginia: The top 7 political scandals of 2019
As 2019 comes to a close, so does another year of jaw-dropping, and in some cases historic, political scandals. While the biggest was undoubtedly the chain of events leading to President Trump’s impeachment, the commander-in-chief was hardly the only political figure at the center of a firestorm this year.
Here are the top political scandals of 2019:
Trump calls Ukraine … the rest is history
The Ukraine controversy led to Trump becoming the third president in U.S. history to be impeached. The entire process is now in a holding pattern as Speaker Nancy Pelosi sits on the two articles of impeachment in a bid to extract favorable terms for a Senate trial. But the road to get here has been the political news event of the year.
The saga began when a whistleblower alerted officials about Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky — leading the White House to release the transcript of the call. The document showed Trump pressing Zelensky to open investigations into alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election and also former Vice President Joe Biden’s role ousting a Ukrainian prosecutor who had been looking into the energy firm where son Hunter had a lucrative board position. Some Republicans claim that the latter might end up being the bigger political scandal.
But Democrats allege Trump’s efforts represented a quid pro quo in return for withheld military aid and a White House meeting. Trump has denied that claim, and noted that the military aid was eventually unlocked. Additionally, Zelensky said his government was not pressured.
House Democrats eventually voted to impeach him on two articles — obstruction of Congress and abuse of power — in a virtual party-line vote. Presuming Pelosi eventually transmits the charges to the Senate, Trump would almost certainly be acquitted with the help of majority Republicans.
Katie Hill’s photo fiasco
Freshman Democratic Rep. Katie Hill, D-Calif., resigned in October after a string of reports that included an alleged affair with her legislative director that sparked a House Committee investigation.
The congresswoman fought back against reports of an affair with a congressional staffer, as well as reports she was in a so-called “throuple” relationship with husband Kenny Heslep and a campaign staffer.
The openly bisexual congresswoman was also hit by a series of photo leaks to conservative websites that showed compromising photographs include an alleged nude photo of Hill brushing the staffer’s hair.
Hill ultimately resigned, acknowledging that in the final years of what she called an “abusive marriage,” she began a relationship with the unnamed campaign staffer.
“This is what needs to happen so that the good people who supported me will no longer be subjected to the pain inflicted by my abusive husband and the brutality of hateful political operatives who seem to happily provide a platform to a monster who is driving a smear campaign built around cyber exploitation,” she said.
Virginia ‘blackface’ scandal
It may seem like eons ago — especially because everyone implicated was able to survive the storm — but Richmond was scandal central earlier this year. Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam was hit by a torrent of calls from those within his own Democratic Party to resign after a picture emerged in February from his 1984 medical school yearbook of two men, dressed in blackface and a Ku Klux Klan costume.
Northam initially said he was in the picture and apologized — but later said it wasn’t him and he didn’t know how it got onto his yearbook page. He did, however, admit to darkening his face during a Michael Jackson impression for a talent contest in San Antonio the same year.
Despite the enormous furor surrounding the photo, he held onto his job and promised to spend the remaining three years of his term pursuing “equity.”
“I have a lot more to learn …The more I know, the more I can do,” Northam told The Washington Post. “I want to heal that pain, and I want to make sure that all Virginians have equal opportunity…and I think I’m the person that can do that for Virginia.”
Duncan Hunter becomes the hunted
Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter of California pleaded guilty in December to misusing campaign funds, marking a reversal after he spent a year calling the charges brought against him and his wife a “witch hunt.”
Federal prosecutors said the couple spent more than $250,000 in campaign money for golf outings, family vacations to Italy and Hawaii, tequila shots and airline tickets for their pet rabbit.
Prosecutors also alleged Hunter spent some of the money on romantic relationships with lobbyists and congressional aides.
He later announced he intends to resign from his House seat “shortly after the holidays.”
Feds throw the book at Baltimore mayor
Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh was indicted in November on federal charges related to what prosecutors said was a plot to enrich herself through sales of self-published children’s books.
The former mayor, who resigned her post in May amid the controversy, is charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud, seven counts of wire fraud, conspiracy to defraud the United States and two counts of tax evasion.
The government claimed Pugh arranged fraudulent sales of her “Healthy Holly” book to schools, libraries and a medical system to pay for her mayoral bid as well as to buy and renovate a house in Baltimore City.
Pugh’s books have included “Healthy Holly: Exercising is Fun” and “Healthy Holly: Fruits Come in Colors like the Rainbow.” Most were sold directly to nonprofits and foundations that did – or tried to do – business with the state or with Baltimore.
Fallout from Epstein’s arrest
The arrest of billionaire financier Jeffrey Epstein, who had ties to a number of high-level politicians around the world, on sex trafficking charges over the summer had a number of political repercussions.
In the U.K., it led to the downfall of Prince Andrew who, while not a politician, saw his high-ranking duties as a member of the British Royal Family diminished as he was forced to step away from public life due to his connections with the disgraced financier.
In the U.S., meanwhile, it led to questions for both former President Bill Clinton and Trump about their past relationships with Epstein. Trump has said he fell out with Epstein and banned him from his Mar-a-Lago estate for allegedly sexually assaulting an underage girl at the club.
Clinton acknowledged having flown on Epstein’s private jet four times. Separately, claims in court show that Trump may have flown on the jet at least once as well.
But the scandal did bring one political career down, before Epstein was later found dead in his cell. Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta stepped down over his past involvement in a highly controversial plea deal for Epstein that resulted in an 18-month sentence — he served just 13 months.
“I called the president today … I submitted my resignation,” Acosta said. “It would be selfish for me to stay in this position and continue talking about a case that is 12 years old rather than the incredible economy we have today.”
Ilhan Omar’s wedge of ‘allegiance’
Freshman Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., came under repeated fire earlier this year for echoing anti-Semitic tropes.
In February, Omar drew bipartisan criticism after suggesting that politicians in the U.S. were bought by AIPAC, the powerful pro-Israel organization.
“It’s all about the Benjamins baby,” Omar wrote in a since-deleted tweet.
Omar apologized but just weeks later said that supporters of Israel were pushing for U.S. politicians to declare “allegiance” to that nation.
“I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country,” Omar said. “I want to ask why is it OK for me to talk about the influence of the NRA, of fossil fuel industries, or big pharma, and not talk about a powerful lobbying movement that is influencing policy?”
This invited accusations she was echoing the “dual loyalty” smear. As she stood by her remarks, this ramped up pressure on Democrats to condemn them — leading ultimately to a resolution against bigotry that passed. However, the resolution did not mention Omar by name and was criticized as watered-down.
Fox News’ Talia Kaplan, Barnini Chakraborty, Lukas Mikelionis, Brooke Singman and The Associated Press contributed to this report.