Underwood's Crooked Path to Oval Office
By Tom Hammerschmidt
President Underwood’s ascent to the Oval Office may be the product of illegal activity and a years-long strategy of character assassination and manipulation, according to several high-ranking current and former officials, including former President Garrett Walker.
In exclusive interviews with the Washington Herald, these officials claim that Underwood engineered the impeachment and resignation of his predecessor in the White House in a complex scheme that began not long after he connived to sideline and replace former Vice President Jim Matthews. This series of intrigues allegedly includes perjury and quid-pro-quos, and it leaves some officials wondering what else Underwood is capable of. Almost as extraordinary as the list of accusations is the willingness of several high-ranking current and former officials to go on the record to discuss them, including Walker, Deputy Minority Whip Rep. Jacqueline Sharp (D-Calif.), and former White House Chief of Staff Remy Danton.
Underwood allegedly hatched the scheme to oust Walker when he learned of investment company Clayton West CEO Raymond Tusk’s illegal campaign finance plan, which involved funneling money from Chinese billionaire Xander Feng to a super PAC through a Missouri casino. He was determined to use the information to taint Walker, a close ally of Tusk’s. Former White House Chief of Staff Remy Danton, then a lobbyist for Clayton West, claims that Underwood’s chief of staff, Doug Stamper, investigated the scheme and that Underwood was fully aware of it – meaning his later testimony to the contrary constituted perjury. Furthermore, Danton claims Underwood knew that Walker had no part in the money-laundering scheme. Walker, for his part, continues to claim he learned of Tusk’s arrangement only when news of it broke, prompting the appointment of a special prosecutor. “I knew nothing about the casino or the Chinese super PAC money,” Walker claims. “Frank Underwood set me up.”
Special Prosecutor Heather Dunbar was tasked with investigating Walker’s connection to the scheme. When questions arose about Underwood’s back-channel trade negotiations with Feng, Underwood volunteered his travel logs, ostensibly to demonstrate full cooperation. According to Walker, this was a setup to force him to follow suit. “Frank turned in his travel logs, so I had to do the same or risk the appearance of hiding something. What Heather found in my travel logs were repeated visits to my ill friend Richard Keith. Frank knew those might raise a red flag.”
Walker and his wife, Tricia, had been visiting Keith in part to hide their marriage counseling sessions. Dr. Thomas Larkin would meet the two at the Keiths’ home. It also turned out that Walker was hiding more. After Walker waived therapist-patient confidentiality, Dunbar learned through Larkin’s deposition that he had prescribed psychiatric medication for Walker. More importantly, she discovered that the White House had coached Dr. Larkin to withhold that fact. “The public turned on me,” Walker said.
With Walker’s public support dwindling, members of his own party became more concerned about their own position, leaving them susceptible to the argument that they should vote for impeachment to protect Democrats’ chances in the midterm elections. And according to Deputy Minority Whip Jackie Sharp, who was responsible for whipping Democrats’ votes on the impeachment motion, Underwood used this argument to urge her to support impeachment. “He said he needed to publicly support Walker, so I had to fight for impeachment in the House,” Sharp explained. “Meanwhile, he was whipping votes against. He wanted to win back Walker’s trust.”
The turning point in Dunbar’s enquiry was the testimony by Raymond Tusk in which he claimed that Walker knew about the entire Chinese money-moving scheme. According to Danton, this was a lie made in exchange for a presidential pardon from Frank Underwood. It was enough to prompt the house to vote to pursue impeachment, after which Walker resigned. Walker blamed Underwood’s smear campaign. “I resigned because the public had already made up their minds,” he said. “My presidency was over whether I left on my own or was pushed out by Congress. So I resigned with dignity.” Frank Underwood was sworn in as president of the United States moments after Walker’s resignation.
As for how Underwood had come to hold the vice presidency, Walker now claims that then-Majority Whip Underwood worked to sideline Vice President Jim Matthews and position himself as a trusted adviser to the president. Underwood used this access to drive a wedge between Walker and Matthews, according to the former president. “Any opportunity he could find to undercut Jim Matthews’ expertise or reasoning, he took it,” Walker said. “I came to see Jim as unhelpful. In truth, Jim Matthews is an incredibly shrewd and capable statesman.”
At the same time that Matthews was becoming frustrated with his relegation to ceremonial duties, Underwood was concocting an exit strategy for the vice president. Underwood supported an unlikely candidate for the Democratic nomination in the special election to replace Matthews as governor of Pennsylvania – Peter Russo, a low-profile congressman from South Philadelphia whose candidacy seemed destined to self-destruct. Records from Russo’s campaign show that Frank Underwood was closely involved. He assembled the Congressman’s campaign team, mentored him, and taught him how to navigate the press. One campaign press strategy was to discuss his issues with alcohol addiction in a profile by Janine Sikorsky of the political blog Slugline.
Public disclosure of his addiction was followed months later by the embarrassing public revelation of his relapse, when the congressman appeared to be inebriated during a live radio interview. A few days later, Russo was found dead in his garage of carbon monoxide inhalation. His death was ruled a suicide.
Russo’s death occurred only weeks before the special election, leaving little time to sell Pennsylvania on a new Democratic candidate. According to Walker, Underwood convinced Matthews that the only way to keep the state in Democratic hands was for him to take the opportunity to run for his old seat. After Matthews successfully did just that, Walker appointed his trusted adviser, Underwood, to replace Matthews as vice president in November 2013.
In hindsight, Russo’s self-destruction as a candidate – though not necessarily his suicide – seemed guaranteed: he was ill-prepared for the campaign and the pressure, and he was reportedly already struggling with his sobriety. Walker blames Underwood outright: “I believe Frank Underwood intentionally drove Peter Russo to suicide in order to open up the Governor’s race and give Jim a compelling reason to leave the White House,” he said. “I believe he’s capable and I believe he’s responsible.”
President Underwood declined to comment for this story.