In each case, popular outcry over alleged misconduct by high executive officials forced the President to appoint a special prosecutor to restore public confidence.
In each case, the high public salience of the resulting investigation gave the President’s supporters powerful incentives to attack the special prosecutor.
The duty was to preside over the deposition of President Ulysses S. Grant.
But his beloved chief of staff, Orville Babcock, was facing federal bribery charges in St. Louis, and Grant could not be dissuaded.
The local boss of this operation—the literal “ring-leader”—was General John McDonald, a rough-hewn former army comrade of President Grant.
The real brains, however, belonged to General Orville Babcock, Grant’s handsome, intelligent and smoothly duplicitous chief of staff.
When Bristow presented Grant with the evidence he had gathered, including Babcock’s telegrams, Grant appointed the first special prosecutor in U.S. history to investigate.
Amid the burgeoning Whiskey Ring scandal, Grant removed William Patrick, the U.S. attorney for St. Louis, who was rumored to be intimate with several of the chief suspects.
Dyer recommended that Grant appoint John B. Henderson, a former U.S. senator and Union general, as special prosecutor to head up the Whiskey Ring investigation.
But his replacement of the St. Louis U.S. attorney and appointment of Henderson were unquestionably aimed at restoring public confidence in the integrity of federal law enforcement.
The evidence against Babcock was nearly as damning, but Grant’s chief of staff was a schemer of unusually insidious brilliance.
Highly partisan attacks, which Babcock helped orchestrate, persuaded Grant that Henderson’s investigation was a direct attack on the presidency.
Outraged, the president fired Henderson just on the eve of Babcock’s trial, scuttling many months of careful preparation.
To his credit, Grant swiftly appointed another special prosecutor to succeed Henderson.
On the evening of February 9, 1876, Secretary of State Hamilton Fish recorded the event in his diary: “the President manifested a great deal of excitement and complained that they had taken from him his secretaries, and clerks, his messengers, and doorkeepers; that the prosecution was aimed at himself and that they were putting him on trial; that he was as confident as he lived of Babcock’s innocence, and that he knew he was not guilty.”
Only Fish’s fervent pleading dissuaded Grant from appearing at Babcock’s trial in person.
Besides Chief Justice Waite and President Grant, the participants included lawyers Lucien Eaton, for the prosecution, and William A. Cook, for the defense.
Eaton and Cook then took turns questioning the president about his knowledge of the Whiskey Ring and the allegations against Babcock.
Five days later, Babcock’s defense attorney read the president’s testimony aloud in a packed St. Louis courtroom.
Political pressure forced Grant to appoint Henderson, who convicted McDonald and dozens of lower level conspirators.
On the other hand the political pressure that prompted Henderson’s appointment was too weak to protect his investigation when it became irksome to the president.
Grant paid no personal political price for scuttling the prosecution of Babcock, the most important and highly connected of the Whiskey Ring defendants.
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