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A history of presidential rages and tantrums, from Adams to Trump

President Donald Trump shouts at members of the media as he returns to the White House on Oct. 3, 2019. (Win Mcnamee/Getty Images)
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In the last days of President Donald Trump’s term, he cussed up a storm, attacked a Secret Service agent and threw his lunch, causing ketchup to drip down the White House walls, according to Tuesday’s congressional testimony from White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson. She also said there were other times she was aware of Trump “throwing dishes” or “flipping the tablecloth” to express anger.

These were some of the more colorful claims on a day full of bombshells. But how uncommon is it really for a president to turn the Executive Mansion into a hostile work environment?

Turns out, not that uncommon. Throughout American history, from Founding Fathers to Tricky Dick, a handful of presidents have been saddled with fragile egos, sharp tongues and even flailing fists.

John Adams, the country’s second president, is infamous for having such a thin skin that he passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, making it illegal for anyone to publicly insult him. Adams didn’t practice what he preached, though; he enjoyed insulting people, repeatedly writing to friends that Alexander Hamilton was a “bastard brat of a Scotch ped[d]ler.” After he flew into a rage at a Cabinet meeting, his secretary of war resigned. Adams was still mad a few days later and fired his secretary of state.

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He even called George Washington a “muttonhead” and “too illiterate, unlearned, unread, for his station and reputation.”

Speaking of Washington, in 1796, freshman congressman and future president Andrew Jackson was so mad about Washington’s policies that when the first president delivered his final address to Congress, Jackson refused to applaud.

Jackson was also involved in a number of duels as a younger man. As president, he generally confined his outbursts to insults and threats, like proposing to hang his vice president, John C. Calhoun. There was one (perhaps understandable) exception in 1835. While Jackson was leaving the Capitol, a man attempted to shoot him. Both of the would-be assassin’s pistols failed. Jackson proceeded to beat the ever-loving daylights out of him with a cane until a congressman pulled the president off the guy.

Warren G. Harding is little remembered now, and if he is, it’s usually related to the recent revelation that he fathered a child with a mistress. But he also allegedly attacked his head of the Veteran’s Bureau, Charles Forbes, who was getting kickbacks for government contracts. A visitor arriving early for an appointment found Harding with his hands around Forbes’s throat, shouting “you double-crossing bastard!” according to a widespread rumor at the time. The president only released Forbes when he realized they were no longer alone.

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Historian Rosemary Stevens points to an unknown journalist as the likely “visitor” who told the story. True or not, she wrote, Harding and his aides never denied it, believing it made him look good.

More memorable presidents had bad tempers, too. Historian Mark Perry, writing for Politico Magazine, described Dwight D. Eisenhower’s struggles to control his rage. When angry, he would try to calm himself down by reciting a proverb or writing down names to put in an “anger drawer.” He even took up golf to help him mellow out.

Still, White House staff called him “the terrible-tempered Mr. Bang,” Perry wrote, and he once got so mad on the golf course that he threw a sand wedge and nearly broke another man’s leg.

At least Eisenhower tried. Lyndon B. Johnson seemed to savor scaring pretty much everyone around him. He yelled at, cursed at and loomed over aides and other politicians on the daily. Once during an off-the-record briefing, when journalists pressed him about why the United States was fighting the Vietnam War, he exposed himself and said, “This is why.” Amazingly, none of the reporters present said a word about it at the time – perhaps respecting the off-the-record agreement, or maybe just because they were so afraid of Johnson.

When Richard M. Nixon found out about the Watergate break-in in 1972, he threw an ashtray in a rage, according to testimony from aide Charles Colson. A few months later, Nixon got so annoyed with his press secretary, Ron Ziegler, outside an event that he stuck his finger in Ziegler’s chest, physically turned him around and then shoved him away – in full view of Dan Rather, who soon reported the incident on CBS News.

Nixon railed about “Jewish cabals” and “f---ing academics” and frequently made racist remarks about a variety of ethnic groups. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said several times, “If the president had his way, we’d have a nuclear war every week,” according to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in their book “The Final Days.”

In the nights before his resignation, Nixon began drinking heavily and talking to paintings of other presidents. The secretary of defense was so concerned he told generals not to follow any orders from Nixon without checking with him first — a move that was almost certainly unconstitutional, though perhaps understandable when your commander in chief is having a chat with a picture of a dead guy.

A few presidents have blown up at one another in the flesh. Both Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt could be vindictive, and when the latter beat the former in the 1932 presidential election, they spent months fighting over policies during the transition. This was back when new presidents weren’t inaugurated until March, so the conflict lasted four months.

Hoover thought Roosevelt was “ignorant” and a “madman” and felt his New Deal plans were doomed. He released their terse telegrams to the public. At a White House tea gathering with their families, they got into a shouting match. Roosevelt said his son wanted to punch the outgoing president in the face. The night before Roosevelt was set to take office, Hoover called him over and over again, well past midnight, to keep arguing.

The next morning, on the way to Roosevelt’s inauguration, Hoover refused even to look at the president-elect, let alone speak to him. The episode was long seen as perhaps the bitterest moment in the history of peaceful transfers of presidential power.

That is, until the 2020 election and Trump, who to this day has not conceded to President Biden.