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A history of U.S. presidents and hush money payments

Former President Donald Trump is arraigned in New York on Tuesday over charges of falsifying business records with "intent to commit another crime and aid and conceal the commission thereof." The allegations stem from a scheme to silence an adult film star who said she was having an extramarital affair with Trump. Past presidents have also been accused of making hush money payments.
Seth Wenig
/
AP
Former President Donald Trump is arraigned in New York on Tuesday over charges of falsifying business records with "intent to commit another crime and aid and conceal the commission thereof." The allegations stem from a scheme to silence an adult film star who said she was having an extramarital affair with Trump. Past presidents have also been accused of making hush money payments.

Former President Donald Trump is now the first president in U.S. history to be arraigned on charges of falsifying business records as part of a cover-up of payments to an adult film star with whom he allegedly had an extramarital affair.

Or, a hush money scheme.

It's a concise shorthand for a practice that's sometimes legal: One person tries to persuade another through the use of cash or goods to keep quiet about something unsavory.

Trump may be the most recent U.S president implicated in hush money scandal — but he's not the first.

In terms of its origins, most scholars attribute the two-word phrase to Richard Steele, a politician, playwright and journalist who often wrote about morality and how people should conduct themselves in respectable society.

"I expect hush-money to be regularly sent for every folly or vice any one commits in this whole town," Steele wrote in a 1709 article about London.

The term has been in linked to U.S. presidents for nearly as long as the United States of America has been a country.

Thomas Jefferson

The country's third president, Thomas Jefferson, wrote about his part in an alleged hush money scheme to his friend, James Monroe.

In the 1801 letter, Jefferson said he'd given money "from time to time" to journalist James Thomson Callender, "a man of genius suffering under persecution."

But Callender was now telling people that the gifts were actually payments for writing articles defaming John Adams and George Washington as well as others exposing an extramarital affair involving Alexander Hamilton.

According to Jefferson, Callender told a messenger he received the money "not as a charity but a due, in fact as hushmoney."

The move infuriated Jefferson, and he swore never to send Callender any more money.

"Such a misconstruction of my charities puts an end to them for ever," he wrote to Monroe.

About a year later, Callender wrote an article publicizing Jefferson's relationship with Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman on his estate, and the existence of their children.

Warren Harding

A batch of letters released by the Library of Congress revealed that the 29th president, Warren Harding, was embroiled in at least two hush money agreements.

"To escape ruin in the eyes of those who have trusted me in public life — where I have never betrayed — I will, if you demand it as the price — retire at the end of my term, and never come back to [Marion, Ohio] to reside," Harding wrote to Carrie Fulton Phillips, his longtime lover, in a 31-page letter dated Feb. 2, 1920.

"I will avoid any elevation but retire completely to obscurity."

But, he added, if Fulton Phillips believed he might "be more helpful by having a public position and influence ... I will pay you $5,000 per year in March each year, so long as I am in public service."

He added: "I will, I must abide by your decision."

Ultimately, he paid her that money to stay silent about their affair while he was president from 1921 to 1923. In today's dollars, that would be the equivalent of nearly $260,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics calculator.

Harding also made regular payments to woman named Nan Britton, with whom he had a child.

In a tell-all book called The President's Daughter, Britton wrote about her yearslong relationship with Harding, which she said lasted until he died. She provided details about coming to an agreement with the politician to have her sister and brother-in-law adopt the child.

"I produced a small piece of paper on which my sister had entered necessary monthly expenses," Britton wrote. "He agreed to the amount, saying if such an arrangement would make me happier than would an arrangement such as he had suggested ... he was agreeable to it."

Richard Nixon

On March 21, 1973, Richard Nixon — president No. 37 — was recorded discussing hush money payments related to the Watergate cover-up — although whether the phrase was actually uttered on some of the recordings was central to several legal battles.

He and his lawyer, John Dean III, are heard talking about collecting money to pay off the men who broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Washington, D.C., Watergate Office Building.

The recordings ultimately led to Nixon's resignation — making him the only president in U.S. history to leave the office in such disgrace.

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Vanessa Romo is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers breaking news on a wide range of topics, weighing in daily on everything from immigration and the treatment of migrant children, to a war-crimes trial where a witness claimed he was the actual killer, to an alleged sex cult. She has also covered the occasional cat-clinging-to-the-hood-of-a-car story.
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