WASHINGTON – There has never been a set of presidential scandals like this one.
Of course, there has never been a president like Donald Trump.
While predecessors like Richard Nixon, Andrew Johnson, Ulysses S. Grant, Warren Harding and Bill Clinton faced their share of allegations, no president has been the subject of such an array of inquiries as Trump, ranging from the handling of classified material to accusations of inciting an insurrection.
Just this week, Trump became the first former president to have his home searched. Two days later, he became the first to invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, when he gave a deposition in a New York state inquiry into past business practices.
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“There’s never been anything like this,” said Julia Azari, a political science professor at Marquette University who specializes in presidential politics. “The whole Trump phenomenon is unique when it comes to pushing back on institutions and norms,” as well as “the extent of the post-presidency legal issues.”
Johnson and Clinton were impeached, and Nixon was on his way to impeachment when he resigned in 1974.
Until Trump, however, no president had been impeached twice – first over pressuring Ukraine to investigate then-candidate Joe Biden, then for his behavior before and during the Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021.
“Allegations against presidents go way back,” said Thomas Alan Schwartz, professor of history and political science at Vanderbilt University. “The idea of an actual criminal probe of a former president? That’s actually new. … It’s really pretty unprecedented.”
In Trump’s case, it’s multiple investigations.
A special congressional committee, a district attorney’s office in Atlanta and the Department of Justice in Washington are looking at Trump over his attempts to overturn his 2020 election loss to Biden and his role in the attack on the Capitol by a mob of his supporters.
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Past problems range from alleged payoffs to mistresses to Russian efforts to help Trump in his 2016 presidential campaign against Democrat Hillary Clinton.
The FBI search of Trump’s home at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida was part of yet another investigation, this one involving the handling of documents and classified material as he exited the White House on Jan. 20, 2021.
In denouncing the search, Trump claimed another distinction: first U.S. president to suggest the FBI may have planted evidence against him – without an iota of proof. As for the search itself, he said: “Nothing like this has ever happened to a President of the United States before.”
Trump came in as a unique president – the first to win without holding office or military experience – and he says his battle against the establishment is at the root of these investigations. “I stood up to America’s bureaucratic corruption,” he said, and “the establishment hated it.”
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The former president also said political enemies are trying to block him from running for president again in 2024: “They are trying to stop me, and the Republican Party, once more.”
Several presidents saw their administrations marred by traditional forms of scandal and investigation: fights with Congress, suspected financial chicanery, covering up incidents of misbehavior, and lying to Americans.
A partial list and abbreviated summary:
Andrew Johnson (1865-69). Johnson became president after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. His frequent clashes with Congress over how to treat the South after the Civil War led to the first impeachment of a president.
The charges revolved around the Tenure of Office Act, a law that said presidents could not fire Cabinet members and other officials without the consent of the Senate. Johnson fired War Secretary Edwin Stanton anyway, despite congressional objections.
The House voted to impeach Johnson, and the Senate acquitted him – by a single vote.
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Ulysses S. Grant (1869-77). Grant lacked electoral experience, but his leadership during the Civil War made him an obvious choice for president in the election of 1868, following Johnson.
The Grant administration faced a number of financial scandals. They included the “gold panic” of 1869, the “salary grab” of 1873, and the “Whiskey Ring,” in which distillers bribed Treasury Department agents to avoid excise taxes on liquor.
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None of those scandals reached Grant himself.
Warren Harding (1921-23). The Harding scandals include Teapot Dome, in which Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall took bribes in exchange for oil leases at Navy petroleum reserves in California and at Teapot Dome, Wyoming.
Fall became the first Cabinet member to go to prison.
Investigations of the Harding administration also included illegal financial dealings with the Veterans Bureau and the activities of his pals in the “Ohio Gang.”
Harding – a newspaper publisher and civic booster from Marion, Ohio, before entering politics – was untouched personally by the scandals. But some historians wonder if that would have held – the beleaguered president died of a heart attack in 1923 before any serious inquiries had a chance to go very far.
During his presidency, Harding also guarded against rumors that he had fathered a child with a mistress. That scandal didn’t burst forth until 1927, when Nan Britton wrote a book called “The President’s Daughter.”
Richard Nixon (1969-74). Nixon represents the former gold standard of presidential scandal.
The House Judiciary Committee investigated Nixon over his taxes and his secret bombing of Cambodia. It approved articles of impeachment over Nixon’s reaction to the break-in of Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate office complex in June 1972.
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After a court-ordered release of White House tapes showed that Nixon did indeed seek to kill an investigation into the Watergate break-in – and had lied about it for more than two years – he preempted a full House impeachment vote by resigning on Aug. 9, 1974.
When he left the White House that day, Nixon faced the possibility of criminal investigation and prosecution, a la Trump nearly five decades later. But Nixon’s successor, President Gerald Ford, voided those possibilities by issuing a presidential pardon.
Bill Clinton (1993-2001). The Clinton administration was beset with an array of investigations, from the Whitewater land deal to the operation of the White House Travel Office to his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
White House officials said Republicans ginned up those efforts in an effort to take down a Democratic president.
The Republican-led House impeached Clinton in late 1998 over allegations of perjury and obstruction of justice with respect to his conduct with Lewinsky.
The Senate could not muster the two-thirds vote necessary to convict Clinton in 1999, similar to what would happen to Trump in 2020 (Ukraine) and 2021 (Jan. 6).
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People can and will argue whether this or that allegation against Trump is worse or more benign than allegations against past presidents. But it’s hard to dispute the claim that no president has faced the volume and intensity of the accusations than Donald Trump.
The Trump presidency was “prone to an astounding pace and variety of scandal,” in the words of Marc Horger, a senior lecturer with the Department of Human Sciences at Ohio State University who has written on these issues.
Yet Trump has survived them – so far – and is still considered the favorite for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024.
One reason for this – and for Trump’s behavior in general – is his attitude as an outsider who is eager to defy the rules, Horger said. And Trump’s base of voters include millions of people who dislike Washington and the government in general and don’t really mind Trump’s malfeasance.
“Part of his appeal has always been his lack of qualifications,” he said.
Trump says the entire set of his investigations stems from his battle against an establishment that wants to block him from running again in 2024.
Hours after the FBI searched Mar-a-Lago, the former president said that “the political persecution of President Donald J. Trump has been going on for years.”
“It just never ends,” he said. “It is political targeting at the highest level!”
WASHINGTON – There has never been a set of presidential scandals like this one.