Scoundrels: Political Scandals in American History—Anthony Weiner
Anthony Weiner’s case is the strangest, most appalling episode discussed in my forthcoming book, Scoundrels: Political Scandals in American History. A seven-term United States congressman, he was an arrogant, gruff politico who was on his way up in the hierarchy when his political career was engulfed by a controversy of his own making. Weiner used his Twitter account in May 2011 to send a sexually explicit photograph of himself to a woman who followed him on social media. It was not his first episode of “sexting,” nor would it be his last. Even after he resigned from Congress in June 2011, Weiner would not or could prevent himself from self-destructing. Two years later, as he was campaigning for mayor of New York City, he sent a sexually explicit photograph of himself to another woman using the nom de guerre “Carlos Danger.” In 2016, he did it again, this time showing himself lying in bed with his young son. He also sent a sexually explicit photograph to a 15-year-old girl, which earned him a 21-month sentence in prison. Although many of the political figures profiled in Scoundrels acted in risky ways that all but ensured that they would be caught, these men typically attempted to gratify their sexual urges and cover them up. It was not admirable behavior, but understandable. Anthony Weiner’s actions are far more inexplicable, strongly suggesting that he wanted to be caught. Perhaps his acts of self-flagellation reinforced long-held feelings of self-loathing.
Before he became a national punchline for comedians and cynical observers who delighted in commenting on the peccadilloes of elected officials, Anthony Weiner was a young man who held great promise. He was born on September 4, 1964, to a lawyer, Mort Weiner, and his wife, a high school math teacher, Frances, in Brooklyn, New York. Anthony was the middle son. He was raised in the Jewish faith.
After graduating from Brooklyn Technical School in 1981, he attended the State University of New York at Plattsburgh. He spent his junior year at the College of William & Mary, where he met the future comedian Jon Stewart. During his college years, Weiner immersed himself in student government, even earning an award as the most effective state senator. He earned a B.A. degree in political science in 1985.
Like many young people interested in politics, Weiner gravitated to Washington, D.C. He worked in the office of Congressman Charles “Chuck” Schumer, who later became a United States senator and eventually Senate minority leader. After three years working in Washington, Weiner transferred to Schumer’s district office in Brooklyn. Schumer was aware of the young man’s interest in politics and encouraged Weiner to consider running for elective office.
After the New York City Council expanded from 35 to 51 seats in 1991, Weiner spied an opportunity to realize his ambitions. He threw himself into a campaign to join the city council, but he was considered a long shot. His opponents in the primary race enjoyed higher name recognition and had more funding. Despite the long odds, Weiner eked out a narrow victory, defeating his opponent, Adele Cohen, by fewer than 200 votes. The closing weeks of the campaign were especially acrimonious as Weiner’s campaign workers disseminated leaflets tying Cohen to civil rights activist Jesse Jackson and Mayor David Dinkins, two black political figures who were viewed as antagonistic to Jewish residents during the August 1991 Crown Heights riots. It was an ugly smear tactic that demonstrated Weiner’s willingness to play ruthless, hardball politics.
Because of the overwhelmingly Democratic character of the district, when he won the primary race, Weiner was a shoo-in for the general election. At 27, he was the youngest councilman in the city’s history. He wasted no time in making his mark. Weiner’s abrasive personality and sharp elbows could be off-putting to some critics, but he established a reputation as a relentless, driven, and effective councilman.
Weiner’s mentor, Chuck Schumer, decided to run for a seat in the United States Senate in 1998. With Schumer’s House seat vacant, Weiner filed to run for the post. He won the primary race in a heavily Democratic district that included a portion of southern Brooklyn as well as south and central Queens. In November 1998, he won the general election. At age 34, he was on his way to Washington, D.C. as a member of Congress.
In a House career that spanned a dozen years, Anthony Weiner became known as an outspoken, fiery, combative political liberal. He supported pro-choice issues, Medicare health coverage for all Americans, and unwavering assistance to Israel. He occasionally adopted positions out of line with his party—such as voting to grant President George W. Bush authorization to use military force in Iraq—but for all intents and purposes, he was proudly a traditional liberal Democratic Jewish politician from New York. Unlike some politicians who establish a conciliatory public persona to smooth over rough edges, Weiner enjoyed politics as a blood sport. He was unafraid to use angry, intemperate language, and his in-your-face rants delighted leftists as it angered rightwing politicians.
Weiner considered campaigning for mayor of New York City in 2005 and 2009, but it was not yet his time. Anticipating a race in 2013, he began collecting funds. In July 2010, he had $3.9 million on hand, and by March 2013, he had $5.1 million in his war chest, second only to Christine Quinn, speaker of the New York City Council.
Weiner’s name recognition steadily increased during these years, and it rose markedly after he married Huma Abedin, Hillary Clinton’s chief assistant, on July 10, 2010. Former President Bill Clinton officiated at their wedding. Commenting on her closeness to Abedin, Hillary Clinton offered this insight at her aide’s wedding. “I have one daughter. But if I had a second daughter, it would [be] Huma.” In December 2011, Weiner and Abedin celebrated the birth of their son.
Anthony Weiner seemed to have it all. He was a well-known member of Congress, a favorite to win the New York City mayoral election in 2013, and husband to the chief assistant of the powerful Clinton family. He appeared to live a storied life.
His compelling narrative changed radically beginning on Friday, May 27, 2011, when a young woman received a sexually provocative photograph sent from Weiner’s Twitter account. The photograph was quickly deleted. The next day, another Twitter user who saw the photograph shared it with friends and alerted Andrew Breitbart, a notorious ring-wing ideologue who operated a website devoted to attacking politically liberal politicians. Weiner took to Twitter and insisted that his Facebook account had been hacked. Despite this plausible explanation, Breitbart posted the photograph on his website, BigGovernment.com.
For the next 10 days, Weiner and his staff fielded numerous inquiries about the photograph. The congressman initially stuck to his “I was hacked” story. A spokesman indicated that Weiner was consulting a lawyer to determine whether any criminal laws had been violated. Yet his story also began to change, which worried people who knew him. In response to one query, he admitted that he could not “say with certitude” that he was not pictured in the photograph.
Finally, the congressman called an extraordinary 27-minute press conference on June 6, 2011. Weeping and at times stammering, he admitted that he had snapped racy photographs of himself in various stages of undress and had shared them with a multitude of women. “Over the past few years, I have engaged in several inappropriate conversations conducted over Twitter, Facebook, email and occasionally on the phone with women I met online,” he said. He had never met the women, nor had he planned to meet them. Something about the virtual nature of the sexual contact gratified him. “I don’t know what I was thinking,” he confessed. In a stunning understatement, he conceded that this “was a destructive thing to do. I apologize for doing it.”
It was a political bombshell. A man who had been a rising star in the Democratic Party suddenly became a laughingstock. He had humiliated himself, to be sure, but he had also hurt his wife and, by extension, the Clintons. He acknowledged that Huma Abedin was hurt by his actions. “We have been through a great deal together, and we will—we will weather this,” he predicted. “I love her very much, and she loves me.”
Recognizing that he could not stay in office under the circumstances, Weiner scheduled a second press conference for June 16, 2011. “I am here today to again apologize for the personal mistakes I have made and the embarrassment I have caused,” he said. Hecklers called him a pervert and other unflattering names as he addressed a crowd of reporters along with a smattering of constituents.
“I am announcing my resignation from Congress, so my colleagues can get back to work, my neighbors can choose a new representative and most important so that my wife and I can continue to heal from the damage I have caused,” he said. His wife, Huma Abedin, was not at his side as he faced the crowd.
The press conference marked the end of Weiner’s congressional career, but it did not end the public fascination with his case. Pundits endlessly debated his reasons for acting so recklessly. Late-night comedians mocked his actions, and voters wondered how they could have misjudged him so badly. Ginger Lee, an exotic dancer and former pornographic film actress, had called for the congressman to step down, leading one Twitter correspondent to comment, “Hey Ginger Lee! Glad to hear you think Weiner should resign for lying. Now how about you resign that pink lip gloss? Just a thought.” Comedian John Fugelsang commented that “Anthony Weiner resigns after no sex, no crimes, no complaints. If only he’d hired a hooker like a normal congressman.”
Two years after the 2011 scandal, Weiner announced another run for mayor of New York City. It was a long shot effort, but he assured former supporters and constituents that he had learned much from his wilderness years and he was ready to lead. F. Scott Fitzgerald claimed that there are no second acts in American lives, but Weiner was banking on the equally plausible notion that citizens allow repentant sinners a chance at redemption.
Redemption, however, requires genuine penitence, and Weiner failed to clear that bar. In July 2013, Dirty, a website that posts gossip and satire about public figures, revealed that Weiner had been sexting with a woman beginning in 2012, the year after he resigned from Congress. The website did not reveal her name, but resourceful reporters tracked her down, anyway. She was 23-year-old Sydney Leathers of Princeton, Indiana. A few days before the story broke, Leathers had sent a series of screenshots to Nik Richie, host of the Dirty website, showing her online exchanges with a character who styled himself “Carlos Danger.”
Carlos told the woman in explicit detail the sexual acts he had fantasized performing with her. Describing himself as an “argumentative, perpetually horny middle-aged man,” he sent along a picture of his penis as well. He had never met her, but Señor Danger told “the walking fantasy” that he loved her. He wanted to meet for sex. As an afterthought, Carlos asked her to “do me a solid. Could you hard delete all our chats?”
Alas, Leathers did not do him the solid; she kept the messages and images. As soon as they became public, it was clear that Carlos Danger’s alter ago was Anthony Weiner. A firestorm erupted, a repeat of the outrage and disbelief of 2011. After initially resisting her turn in the spotlight, Leathers threw herself into the arena with gusto. She appeared on the tabloid television program Inside Edition and parlayed her notoriety into a budding pornographic film career.
As for Carlos Danger, it became Weingergate, the sequel. Just when you thought it was safe to go back into politics…along comes this Latin American social media alter ego, Señor Danger. In a hastily called news conference on July 23, 2013, a chagrined Anthony Weiner acknowledged that he was guilty as charged. He insisted that his social media adventures were “in our rearview mirror…but it’s not that far.”
He confessed that Sydney Leathers was not his only correspondent, but he could not provide a fixed number. “There were more than—there are a few,” he said. “I don’t have a specific number for you. Sometimes they didn’t go consistently. Whatever.” He estimated that he had sent messages to at least 10 women.
Huma Abedin stood by her man. She had been invisible during his 2011 troubles, but she appeared at the 2013 press conferences by his side. She admitted that staying with him after he revealed his proclivity for sexting was “not an easy choice.” “Anthony’s made some horrible mistakes, both before he resigned from Congress and after,” she said. Nonetheless, she supported him and his political ambitions without reservation. “We discussed all of this before Anthony decided he would run for mayor, so really what I want to say is, I love him, I have forgiven him, I believe in him.”
Humiliated almost beyond belief, Abedin was willing to forgive, but many voters were not. Weiner resolved to stay in the race despite the controversy. He had been leading in the polls before the Sydney Leathers revelations, but his support plummeted in the wake of the latest scandal. On primary election night, September 10, 2013, he placed fifth, earning just shy of five percent of the vote. Carlos Danger seemed to have been deposited into the ashbin of history.
Three years passed before Anthony Weiner appeared in the headlines again. On August 28, 2016, the New York Post reported that the incorrigible sexter was at it again. This time, he posed in photographs with his four-year-old son lying next to him. It was too much for Huma Abedin to take. She announced that she was separating from her husband. “After long and painful consideration and work on my marriage, I have made the decision to separate from my husband,” she said in a statement released to the press. “Anthony and I remain devoted to doing what is best for our son, who is the light of our life. During this difficult time, I ask for respect for our privacy.”
It was Weiner’s third sex scandal in five years. Most Democratic leaders and many constituents expressed disgust at his actions and exhaustion at the number of incidents. “It’s sad and a little bit ironic that a guy who understood the intersection of politics and technology and media better than anyone and exploited it better than anyone to fuel his rise, fell because of it,” said Stu Loeser, who had worked with Weiner on Schumer’s staff during the early 2000s. “Removing himself from the public conversation, he’s taking himself out of the part of the equation that has proven again and again to be part of his downfall.”
As bad as the 2011 and 2013 incidents were, the 2016 incident was worse. By involving his four-year-old son in the photographs, Weiner raised questions of whether child abuse had occurred. The New York City Administration for Children’s Services launched an investigation into the matter to determine whether the child had been endangered.
Even more damaging was the revelation that one of Weiner’s correspondents was a 15-year-old girl from North Carolina. According to the girl, whose identity was withheld because she was a minor, they met online. During their initial chat, Weiner told her she was “kinda sorta gorgeous.” They agreed to speak during a Skype call. Their initial conversation was not overtly sexual, consisting mostly of idle chit chat. He asked her where she went to school, and she told him the name of the high school, indicating that he knew she was not an adult. The conversations stretched across several months. They even joked about his Carlos Danger persona. His online alias this time around was “T Dog.”
After a few months, T Dog could no longer control himself. He told the girl about his rape fantasies and urged her to wear “schoolgirl” outfits. While his son was being bathed downstairs, Weiner gave in to his id. The girl recalled that “he asked me to take my clothes off and just started saying these really sexual things. He would tell me to say his name as I was touching myself.” He sent her a photograph of himself, shirtless, with his hands placed on his genitals.
During one exchange that Weiner sent using an encryption app, Weiner promised the girl that if they had a sexual encounter, she would “limp for a week.” In another message, he wrote, “I thought of you this morning. Hard.” The teenage girl said that he sent her nude photographs of himself using a confidential message that deleted the file as soon as it was read. He also sent her pornographic videos and provided explicit commentary on scenes in the video.
Because he had been exchanging sexually explicit material with a minor child across state lines, T Dog’s behavior was a federal criminal matter. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) opened a criminal probe. As investigators sifted through Weiner’s emails and electronic communications, they discovered a laptop containing Weiner’s private messages as well as emails between Huma Abedin and her boss, Hillary Clinton.
Weiner’s actions affected Abedin, of course, but they also involved Clinton. By 2016, Hillary Clinton was campaigning for the presidency, and Abedin remained her closest aide. As secretary of state, Clinton had mixed personal and private emails, and the FBI had logged months trying to ascertain whether she had compromised any classified material. The Bureau had decided that Clinton had been reckless in the way she handled State Department emails, but she had not violated the law. Clinton was relieved when the FBI closed its file on what she saw as a minor matter.
With the revelation that Weiner’s laptop contained some of Clinton’s emails, however, FBI Director James Comey announced that he was directing his agents to reexamine the Clinton case. Although the Bureau decided that nothing on the laptop changed the initial assessment that the former secretary of state had not broken the law, the decision to reopen the case 11 days before the 2016 presidential election—which amounted to the proverbial “October surprise” that every candidate fears—probably contributed to Clinton’s loss to Republican Donald J. Trump in the Electoral College.
Clinton’s loss could not be laid completely at Weiner’s feet, but he played a part. His antics had destroyed his life and the lives of his loved ones. By 2017, he was facing criminal liability as well. Sending sexually explicit materials to a child violated federal law.
Rather than subject his family, friends, and Democratic Party colleagues to a lengthy trial, Weiner waived his rights and agreed to plead guilty. On Friday, May 19, 2017, he surrendered to the FBI. Agents transported him to federal court, where he formally pleaded guilty to one count of transferring obscene material to a minor. The offense carried a maximum term of 10 years in prison.
As he stood, weeping, before the judge, Weiner admitted that “I knew this was morally wrong as well as lawful. I have a sickness, but I do not have an excuse.” Prosecutors asked for a sentence of between 21 and 27 months.
Judge Denise Cote of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York remarked that “This was a serious crime and it’s a serious crime that deserves a serious punishment.” Although she understood defense counsel’s plea that Weiner avoid prison and be required to undergo extensive treatment, the judge concluded that Weiner had a history of this behavior. He had caused irreparable damage to an adolescent girl. “She was a minor. She was a victim. She’s entitled to the law’s full protection.” Judge Cote sentenced Weiner to serve 21 months in prison, beginning on November 6, 2017. He would be supervised for three years following his release.
Huma Abedin was noticeably absent from his side during his sentencing hearing. She had separated from her husband when the third scandal became public in August 2016. Shortly after he appeared in court on May 19, she filed for divorce. In January 2018, however, she withdrew the petition, saying that she and Weiner would resolve their differences privately to avoid further public embarrassment for their son.
In the meantime, Anthony Weiner served 15 months of his sentence at the Federal Medical Center, Devens, a facility in Ayer, Massachusetts, for male inmates who require specialized or long-term medical or mental health treatment. During the last three months, Weiner lived in a halfway house in Brooklyn. With three months shaved off his sentence for good behavior, the former congressman was released from custody on May 15, 2019.
Facing reporters following his release, Weiner said that he was a changed man. “It’s good to be out. I hope to be able to live a life of integrity and service. I’m glad this chapter of my life is behind me.”
It was unclear exactly what a "life of integrity and service" Weiner meant, but his priority was to earn a living. He shopped a book proposal to New York publishers in 2019, but no one seemed interested. Sex scandals sometimes sell books, but Weiner’s story appeared pathetic and perverted—as opposed to daring and salacious—hardly the type of book that flies off the shelves.
He had already entered popular culture. In 2016, two filmmakers, Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg, produced a “fly on the wall” documentary, Weiner, about the 2013 mayoral race. Kriegman had served as Weiner’s chief of staff for some of his years in Congress, and he hoped to chronicle the candidate’s return to electoral politics. For a brief time, it appeared that the documentary would capture one of the greatest comebacks in American political history. With the revelations about Weiner’s 2013 behavior, the film became a behind-the-scenes story of a deeply flawed candidate with a seriously disturbed psyche.
Aside from the documentary, Weiner enjoyed cameo roles in the campy film Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No, where he played the head of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, as well as a short-run television program, a political satire created by cartoonist Gary Trudeau, that ran in 2013 and 2014. A 2013 theater production, The Weiner Monologues, examined media coverage of Weiner’s sexting scandals.
Despite his remarks upon leaving prison, Weiner’s contribution to political discourse is not about living a life of integrity and service but providing a cautionary tale for public figures. People who thrust themselves into the limelight, and especially those politicians who seek elective office to effect public policy, must establish a brand that reflects the values and beliefs of their constituents. Public figures who gratify their own interests and desires at the expense of the common good risk becoming, like Weiner, a punchline to a sick, sad joke.