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Biggest Political Scandals in U.S. History

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Donald Trump
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Send Lawyers, Guns, and Money

For a country that’s only been around for a couple of centuries, America has had its fair share of political scandals. Some involved money, but more revolved around sex, and a few others were tied to abuse of power. They all rattled the nation to varying degrees, shaking people’s trust in their government and its leaders and leaving them a little more cynical. Here are some of the biggest.


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The Aaron Burr Conspiracy
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The Aaron Burr Conspiracy

If you know Aaron Burr only as “the damn fool” who killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel, you might not know that the former vice president stood trial for treason following what was believed to be “an attempt to detatch the Western states and the Louisiana Territory from the Union,” PBS says. On the outs with President Thomas Jefferson and his political career all but over after killing Hamilton, “Burr led a group of well-armed colonists toward New Orleans” in 1806. He was arrested and charged with treason but was acquitted “because he had not engaged in an ‘overt act,’ a requirement of treason as specified by the U.S. Constitution,” according to History.com.


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Andrew Johnson’s Impeachment
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Andrew Johnson’s Impeachment

Johnson, who became president when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, attempted to test the constitutionality of the Tenure of Office Act (which Congress passed over his veto) by removing Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton from office in 1868. “Stanton refused to yield, barricading himself in his office,” according to History.com, while the House of Representatives initiated impeachment proceedings. Johnson became the first president to be impeached, but was narrowly acquitted in the Senate.


President Ulysses S. Grant
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Grant and the Whiskey Ring

A group led by President Ulysses S. Grant’s private secretary Gen. Orville E. Babcock conspired to skim tax revenue to help fund Grant’s re-election campaign in 1871. “The ring made money by selling more whiskey than it reported to the Treasury Department,” a feat that “required collusion at every point of the production, distribution, and taxation process,” according to the National Archives. The scheme continued after Grant’s re-election, being “a purely criminal enterprise, defrauding the federal treasury of an estimated $1.5 million a year.” A special prosecutor was appointed in 1875. Grant’s legacy “was marred by the corruption of his associates, appointees, and trusted friends” with this and other scandals, History.com says.


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Albert B. Fall Sitting in Wheelchair
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The Teapot Dome Scandal

This 1920s scandal had it all: “ornery oil tycoons, poker-playing politicians, illegal liquor sales, a murder-suicide, a womanizing president and a bagful for bribery cash delivered on the sly,” says History.com. President Warren G. Harding’s legacy is largely tied to the scandal involving government-owned oil fields in Wyoming and California where his Secretary of the Interior, Albert Fall, “had bypassed the open-bid process in awarding leases for government oil land to private oil companies” for a $100,000 gift, according to Ohio History Central. Fall became the first U.S. Cabinet official to serve time “for a felony committed while in office.”  


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The Bonus Marchers
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The Bonus Marchers

In the summer of 1932, in the depths of the Great Depression, thousands of World War I veterans came to Washington to ask Congress to accelerate payment of the $1,000 bonus they were promised for their service. The bonus wasn’t due until 1945 but the veterans and their families needed the money. When Congress refused their request, many veterans remained in the city in makeshift campsites. A month later, “heavily armed federal troops, led by Gen. Douglas MacArthur and Majors Dwight Eisenhower and George Patton, torched and gassed the veterans’ camps, killing several and wounding many” on President Herbert Hoover’s orders, says the U.S. Senate website. “As Hoover campaigned for re-election that summer, his actions turned an already sour public opinion of him ever further bottomward,” says U.S. History.org.

Nixon Checkers Speech
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Nixon Checkers Speech

During the 1952 presidential campaign, Republican vice-presidential candidate Richard Nixon took to the airwaves to refute allegations that he personally received $18,000 intended for campaign expenses. He did, however, admit that his family had been sent a black and white cocker spaniel that his children named Checkers. “And you know, the kids, like all kids, loved the dog and I just want to say this right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we’re going to keep it.” Nixon and Dwight D. Eisenhower won the election a few weeks later.


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Senator Joseph McCarthy
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McCarthy and the Red Scare

Paranoia about communism in the U.S. “reached a fever pitch between 1950 and 1954 when Sen. Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin, a right-wing Republican, launched a series of highly publicized probes into alleged Communist penetration of the State Department, the White House, the Treasury, and even the U.S. Army,” according to the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, which specializes in political history and public policy. McCarthy’s crusade continued “until his colleagues formally denounced his tactics in 1954 during the Army-McCarthy hearing when Army lawyer Joseph Welch famously asked McCarthy, ‘Have you no decency?’ ” says History.com. McCarthy died a few years later from alcohol abuse.

Chappaquiddick Kennedy
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Chappaquiddick

Late in the evening on July 18, 1969, Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy’s car went off a bridge on the tiny island of Chappaquiddick, near Martha’s Vineyard, landing upside down in a tidal pond. Kennedy escaped, but 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne died in the accident. Kennedy said he dove into the water several times to try to save her before going for help. But no one — not Kennedy, his cousin Joseph Gargan, or aide Paul Markham — contacted the police that night. “As a result, Mary Jo Kopechne remained underwater for some nine hours until her body was recovered the next morning,” says History.com. “Kennedy pled guilty to the charge of leaving the scene of the accident and received a two-month jail sentence (which was suspended) and a temporary driving ban.” Questions remain about the incident.

Missouri Sen. Thomas Eagleton
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The Eagleton Affair

Back when political conventions weren’t scripted for the national television audience, George McGovern came to Miami in 1972 with only an idea of who would be his running mate. Repeatedly rebuffed by Sen. Edward Kennedy, he turned to Missouri Sen. Thomas Eagleton and offered him the spot after a short conversation, says NPR.org. Within days, the campaign came to find out that “on three occasions in the 1960s, Eagleton was hospitalized for depression and had undergone electroshock treatment.” Eighteen days later — seen as unfit to possibly be the man with his finger on the nuclear button — Eagleton stepped aside, forever changing the way vice presidential candidates are chosen.

Watergate
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Watergate

The June 1972 break-in of the Democratic National Committee offices in the Watergate complex by burglars connected to President Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign originally didn’t get much attention. Despite Nixon’s denials of White House involvement in the break-in, Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein eventually raised enough questions to begin a Senate investigation and an independent prosecutor was named. Nixon — who had won the 1972 campaign in a landslide without the benefit of anything gained in the break-in — resigned under pressure of impeachment on Aug. 8, 1974.


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Spiro Agnew Resigns
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Spiro Agnew Resigns

Lost in the headlines surrounding Watergate was Vice President Spiro T. Agnew’s resignation following a plea of no contest to charges of federal income tax evasion — a deal that allowed him to avoid charges of political corruption, History.com says. “The U.S. Justice Department uncovered widespread evidence of his political corruption, including allegations that his practice of accepting bribes had continued into his tenure as U.S. vice president.” He resigned in 1973 and was replaced by Michigan Rep. Gerald Ford, who became president the following year when Nixon resigned.

ABSCAM
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ABSCAM

What started as an FBI undercover sting to recover stolen artwork morphed into a much bigger operation that made banner headlines in 1980, uncovering political corruption and netting 31 public officials including six congressmen and a U.S. senator. “FBI agents posed as representatives of Abdul Enterprises Ltd., a fictional business owned by an Arab sheik,” says History.com. “Under FBI video surveillance, the agents met with the officials and offered them money or other compensations in exchange for special favors, such as the approval of government contracts for companies in which the sheik had invested.” The FBI says “the case reaffirmed the importance of undercover operations and led to stronger rules and safeguards on these kinds of investigations within the FBI.”

The Iran-Contra Affair
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The Iran-Contra Affair

In an attempt to illegally fund Nicaraguan Contra rebels fighting the Cuban-backed Sandinista government, members of President Ronald Reagan’s administration gave the green light to the equally illegal sale of arms to Iran (which was in a war with Iraq at the time) in exchange for the release of American hostages, diverting millions of dollars from the arms sales to the Contras. When the convoluted affair came to light, an independent counsel was named and 14 people eventually were charged with crimes, says PBS.org. In the end, one conviction was overturned on a technicality, and President George H.W. Bush (Reagan’s vice president) issued six pardons to officials involved in the scandal. While Reagan was never directly implicated, his reputation was tarnished, says Britannica.com.

Colorado Sen. Gary Hart
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Gary Hart

In 1987, Colorado Sen. Gary Hart seemed to have the Democratic presidential nomination sewn up despite persistent rumors of his “womanizing.” The issue prompted Hart to challenge reporters to follow him. “I’m serious,” he was quoted by the New York Times and others. “If anybody wants to put a tail on me, go ahead. They’d be very bored.” As it turned out, the Miami Herald was already watching him, reporting that “Mr. Hart spent much of the weekend in his Washington townhouse with a young actress from Miami, Donna Rice, while his wife, Lee, was in Colorado.” Despite denials of an affair, Hart dropped out of the race on May 8, 1987.

Lincoln Savings & Loan
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The Keating Five

With his Lincoln Savings & Loan drifting toward ruin due to risky investments and under investigation by the FBI and government regulators, Charles H. Keating Jr. turned to five senators he’d donated to for help. Democrats Alan Cranston (Calif.), Donald W. Riegle Jr. (Mich.), John Glenn (Ohio), Dennis DeConcini (Ariz.), and Republican John McCain (Ariz.) all intervened with regulators on Keating’s behalf, convincing them to back off “with disastrous results for depositors and investors,” says the New York Times. When the S&L system collapsed, eventually costing taxpayers $124 billion, Keating was convicted of fraud, racketeering, and conspiracy. The senators “insisted they had done nothing improper,” and the Senate Ethics Committee “concluded in 1991 that none had violated laws” but rebuked Cranston, DeConcini, and Riegle, the Times says. “Sen. Glenn and Sen. McCain were cleared, but criticized for ‘poor judgment.’”

Bill Clinton
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The Monica Lewinsky Affair

A sexual relationship between President Bill Clinton and White House intern Monica Lewinsky between 1995 and 1997 made news in 1998 with the president famously saying, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinksy,” says History.com. Under oath, he later admitted “inappropriate intimate physical contact” to a grand jury and apologized to a national TV audience for his behavior. The House of Representatives voted to impeach Clinton for perjury and obstruction of justice, but he was acquitted following a five-week trial in the Senate in 1999 and finished out his second term.

John Edwards Affair
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John Edwards Affair

John Edwards was a rising star in Democratic politics until “an illicit affair with a 2008 presidential campaign aide, followed by a love child, and an intense cover-up” – all while his wife was dying of cancer – ended his political career, according to ABC News. The National Enquirer broke the story in October 2007 and Edwards eventually suspended the campaign in January 2008. After his wife’s death in 2010, Edwards came clean about the affair and admitted that he was the baby’s father. He was indicted in 2011 for using campaign funds to cover up the affair but was acquitted of violating campaign finance rules, and prosecution on five other criminal counts ended in a mistrial.


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Valerie Plame "Fair Game"
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Scooter Libby Outs Valerie Plame

After President George W. Bush falsely claimed in the 2003 State of the Union speech that Iraqi leader “Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa,” former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson publicly contradicted the statement following the U.S. invasion of Iraq, according to NPR. Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, was subsequently revealed to be a CIA operative through a media leak. Vice presidential adviser I. “Scooter” Libby was indicted in 2005 and later convicted of obstruction, perjury, and lying to the FBI concerning the leak. He was sentenced to prison and fined $250,000; the sentence was commuted by President Bush in 2007.

David Petraeus
Handout / Getty

The David Petraeus Affair

The retired four-star general and CIA director — “once seen as a potential presidential candidate,” according to the Washington Post — resigned in 2012 after acknowledging an extramarital affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell, a shocking revelation that was the byproduct of “a high-level FBI investigation,” says The New York Times. The general later “pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of mishandling classified material related to eight personal notebooks he’d shared with Ms. Broadwell.” He was sentenced to probation and a $100,000 fine.

Donald Trump
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Donald Trump’s ‘Big Lie’ and More

From the time he came down the Trump Tower escalator to announce his candidacy in 2015 to, well, right now, Donald Trump has found himself embroiled in various personal and political scandals including accusations of “tax evasion, profiting from the presidency, payoffs to a pornographic film actress, and fraudulent activities by his charitable foundation,” the New York Times writes. He became the third American president to be impeached and the first to achieve that dubious distinction twice — first for coercing the president of Ukraine to find dirt on his political opponent and then for inciting the Jan. 6 insurrection based on the lie that he actually won the 2020 election. Controversy continues to dog him as the Department of Justice investigates why the former president illegally took sensitive government documents with him when he left office in 2021.


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