Attorney General Bill Barr is in trouble. Barr invoked President Trump’s ire last Wednesday after admitting that he had found no evidence of widespread election fraud. The same day, however, Barr elevated U.S. Attorney John Durham—who has been investigating the origins of the Russia probe—to special counsel status, an act almost certainly designed to please Trump. Barr’s convoluted balancing act resembles the tense 1952 downfall of J. Howard McGrath, President Truman’s Attorney General, who unsuccessfully tried to use a special prosecutor to stop another political circus. 

Attorney General Howard McGrath was a longtime Truman ally. A former Governor and Senator from Rhode Island, McGrath pivoted to become Chairman of the Democratic National Committee and steered Truman’s upset 1948 victory over New York Governor Thomas Dewey. Truman rewarded McGrath by handing him one of his administration’s most plum appointments: control over the Department of Justice. Yet McGrath—more of a schmoozer than an administrator—watched anxiously as a series of cascading corruption scandals threatened to engulf Truman’s term. The scandals look mostly silly by contemporary standards: T. Lamar Caudle, the DOJ’s Tax Division head, allegedly turned a blind eye to fraud by a powerful St. Louis shoe salesman; Truman’s military aide Harry Vaughan stood accused of gifting several state-of-the-art deep freezers, including one to Truman’s wife, Bess. Finance official Merl Young accepted a mink coat for his wife from a powerful Washington attorney.   

Truman had already decided not to seek re-election—he’d served in the office almost two full terms, given his ascendency from the Vice Presidency following FDR’s death. But the scandals still had the potential to become a major issue for the Democrats during the 1952 presidential election. The Republicans, on the brink of announcing the candidacy of heroic general Dwight D. Eisenhower, were feverishly invoking the “mess in Washington.” Feeling pressure to improve his party’s reputation—and believing, arguably naively, that transparency would save him—Truman in early 1952 instructed McGrath to find a special prosecutor to investigate the government, top to bottom. 

McGrath chose Newbold Morris. Morris was a respected, middle-aged reformer in New York City politics and law. He had served as an aide to Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia before mounting two unsuccessful mayoral runs of his own. He was a descendent of Gouverneur Morris, who wrote the preamble to the Constitution. His father-in-law was Learned Hand, the legendary district and appellate court judge. And perhaps most importantly, he was a registered Republican, which helped reinforce the concept that he’d be independent. 

Morris lasted only two months in Washington. New Yorker journalist Richard Rovere wrote an expansive and extremely funny account of what went wrong, based on interviews conducted with a stunned Morris upon his return to New York. Morris recounted meeting with McGrath and President Truman on February 1st, 1952 and told Rovere that Truman had demanded a totally independent investigation. After their talk, reporters at the White House asked Morris where he would start. The flustered prosecutor stammered. McGrath cut in, “with a flourish of his cigar,” and said, “I would be the first to welcome an investigation.” “Well, I guess we might just as well start at the Department of Justice,” Morris responded.

McGrath next whisked Morris to lunch at the 1925 F Street Club, then arguably the most exclusive of Washington haunts, for lunch and drinks that Morris said “made me numb at the base of the brain.” Morris became a little anxious after McGrath demanded he call him “Howard” and when he learned of all the  perks—including a private elevator—that he’d have in his office at Main Justice. 

Morris, recognizing that many of the Truman administration scandals stemmed from inappropriate kickbacks or financial relationships, proposed the creation of an income questionnaire, which he planned to distribute to 500 officials. Truman approved, even issuing an executive order “directing all departments and agencies of the government to cooperate fully with Mr. Morris.” 

Morris, however, had not recognized the potential for congressional Republicans to weaponize his own economic entanglements against him. In early March, the Senate Subcommittee on Investigations—led by Wisconsin Republican Joseph McCarthy, on the upswing of his paranoid reign—revealed that a group of businessmen, including retired Fleet Admiral William Halsey, sold several oil tankers that ended up delivering crude to Communist China. 

Morris’ law firm brokered the deal, while Morris himself had used the excess profits from the sales to organize scholarships for Chinese students fleeing Mao. McCarthy, invoking China’s role in fighting against the U.S. in the Korean War, said that Morris was “soaked in blood.” Morris responded that McCarthy and his ally, California Senator Richard Nixon, were “diseased minds.” 

Despite the embarrassment of the Republican tanker attacks, Morris initially powered through and compiled a list of Department of Justice employees to give the first batch of income questionnaires. For a time, McGrath even continued to invite Morris to “prolonged lunches” at the F Street Club. Behind the scenes, however, the Attorney General was chafing at Morris’ seriousness. Morris came to believe that “the smooth sailing of the penultimate weeks was a mere illusion” based on McGrath’s hopes that Morris “would not really do a serious job on the investigation.” 

As the moment for questionnaire distribution approached, McGrath began to publicly turn. On the eve of St. Patrick’s Day, a likely drunk McGrath gave a bizarre speech at an Irish club in Rhode Island, arguing that Morris’ probe concerned issues of “race and religion” and that, “When the clouds have passed, I will have something to say that will shake this country as it has never before been.” He never really explained what he was talking about.  

During a meeting with Truman the next week, McGrath told the President that the questionnaires were a “violation of personal rights.” McGrath decided to take his opposition public, telling the Senate he was not sure he would even fill out his questionnaire and suggesting that he would not have appointed Morris had he known he’d be so aggressive. 

The Truman-Morris-McGrath triangulation came to a head the next week. On April 2nd, while waiting together at Washington National Airport for the arrival of Queen Juliana of the Netherlands, the President and McGrath—out of earshot but in full view of the cameras—had a heated argument. McGrath allegedly threatened to “blow the lid off” the administration if Truman didn’t fire Morris. Again, McGrath never revealed what he was talking about. 

Without further consultation with Truman, McGrath the next morning relieved the special prosecutor of his duties. Hours later, Truman called McGrath and demanded his resignation. “I hate to do this to Howard,” Truman told his staff in the Oval Office. “I hate to do this to anyone. He was crying at the end.” 

The tax scandals soon gave way to far grander crises involving public seizure of the steel industry and the escalating pain of the Korean War. But, for a brief moment, Howard McGrath’s futile attempts to protect his own reputation and to honor his president’s wishes was the tragic talk of Washington. Only time will tell whether Bill Barr escapes without a similarly full-scale blowup during Trump’s final days in office…

For more on Howard McGrath, check out Debra Mulligan’s 2019 Democratic Repairman: The Political Life of J. Howard McGrath. For overviews of Truman’s tumultuous last presidential years, read Robert J. Donovan’s Tumultuous Years: The Presidency of Harry S. Truman, 1949-1953. And for more connecting the Truman dysfunction to the Trump presidency, read law professor Andrew Coan’s History News Network piece “How Do You Fire a Special Prosecutor?”

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