On the campaign trail in 2016, Trump commented during a Michigan rally that, “if Hillary is elected, she will be under protracted criminal investigation likely followed by the trial of a sitting president... This is just what we need.” Considering the FBI investigation launched against Trump during the dawn of his presidency, the statement now reads as painfully ironic.
However, it may surprise you to know Trump's situation is far from unique. How many presidents have been under investigation for federal political scandals while occupying the Oval Office? As it turns out, the list of presidents investigated by the FBI is frighteningly long, with a history of FBI investigations into sitting presidents going back to Richard Nixon.
The number of US presidents investigated while in office leads one to believe that such a thing is almost routine, and that the current scandal embroiling the Trump presidency is just business as usual. In fact, Trump himself would likely be dismayed to learn that Barack Obama is the sole president since Nixon to not be subject to a major investigation. Here, you'll find a closer look at presidents who have been under criminal investigation, how they responded to it, and the political fallout - or lack thereof - that ensued.
- Photo: Metaweb (FB) / Public domain
The Scandal: Watergate
The Story: On June 17, 1972, five men were arrested after being caught attempting to bug the Democratic National Committee's office in the DC complex known as Watergate. The question of what exactly they hoped to discover is still unanswered, but it would turn out this foiled break-in was just the tip of the iceberg when it came to the criminal activities of Nixon’s administration.
Nixon’s White House had an investigative unit, known as the “plumbers," who engaged in all manners of political debauchery, not remotely limited to the Watergate break in. While Nixon managed to dodge a surprising amount of heat for various corrupt activities carried out by his White House, the personal hand Nixon took in covering up plumber activity ultimately led to his downfall. In the aftermath of the break in, Nixon asked the CIA to disrupt the FBI investigation, paid co-conspirators for their silence, and attempted to manufacture evidence exonerating himself and others to give to the judge involved in the case.
The Investigation: The investigation into just how high up the chain of command that Watergate scandal reached was a multiyear joint effort between the FBI and a number of journalists, most notably Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward of the Washington Post. The pair were receiving insider info from FBI second-in-command Mark Felt. Eventually, the Senate set-up a special independent counsel to investigate and a grand jury was formed.
The Result: With the investigation back in the hands of the Justice Department, the House Judiciary Committee approved three articles of impeachment against Nixon, but he resigned before any actual impeachment or conviction could occur. Nixon was subsequently - and infamously - pardoned by his successor, Gerald Ford.
- Age: Dec. at 81 (1913-1994)
- Presidency: 37
- V.P.: Gerald Ford, Spiro Agnew
Scandal #1: Watergate (Continued)
The Story: The Watergate scandal went well beyond the initial break-in and extended far into Richard Nixon’s second term as president, with Gerald Ford replacing the disgraced Spiro Agnew as vice president.
The Investigation: The investigation into the crimes of Nixon’s administration did not end with his resignation, and many - including the FBI - naturally questioned whether Ford had been complicit in any way. These questions intensified when Ford’s infamous pardon of Nixon raised allegations of dirty dealing. His approval ratings plummeted from 71 to 49 percent and there was general public speculation Ford and Nixon had struck some kind of corrupt agreement behind closed doors.
The Result: No charges were ever raised against Ford in connection with the Watergate scandal specifically.
Scandal #2: The Rockefeller Commission
The Story: Public trust in the government was bleak after the Watergate Scandal and more and more information came to light about potentially illegal activities carried out by various government organizations. Ford's vice president launched an investigation meant to uncover CIA corruption and present previously disclosed information to the American public in a transparent fashion. Known as the Rockefeller Commission, the endeavor ultimately did more harm than good.
It was eventually discovered Ford’s administration had heavily censored their report before it was released. Of note, the White House Chief of Staff, Dick Cheney, had ordered the removal of an 86-page section regarding CIA assassinations.
The Investigation: The matter was investigated but nothing ever came of it, although the resulting evidence against Cheney was eventually leaked to the press and public.
The Result: Little came of the allegations of intelligence community’s potential crimes under Nixon and Ford until Democrats took over Congress in the ‘70s and launched the Church Commission. The investigation uncovered disturbing information, including warrantless NSA surveillance and the fact the CIA and FBI had spied on and harassed various citizens.
- Age: Dec. at 93 (1913-2006)
- Presidency: 38
- V.P.: Nelson Rockefeller
- Photo: Pinterest
The Scandal: The Peanut Farm Saga
The Story: Carter was well into his presidency when it emerged that his family peanut business had received potentially inappropriate loans. To make matters worse, it was alleged that Carter had gone on to use money from these loans to fund his presidential campaign in 1976.
The Investigation: A special counsel, Paul J. Curran, was appointed to investigate the manner, and he did so over a period of seven months, mostly out of the public spotlight but with the involvement of a federal grand jury. No evidence of inappropriate campaign funding was ever found.
The Result: Carter was firmly cleared of all potential charges in the final report of Curran, which stated there was no evidence of any criminal activity. Carter still gave up the farm.
- Age: 95
- Presidency: 39
- V.P.: Walter Mondale
Scandal #1: Debategate
The Story: In a world of complicated presidential scandals, Debategate offers delightful simplicity—someone up and stole the prep notes of Jimmy Carter before an important televised debate and passed them on to Reagan’s team. Reagan destroyed Carter with preplanned counterpoints in the debate and cruised to an election win.
The Investigation: An investigation by the Justice Department was launched, and lasted for eight months, but ultimately found no evidence of criminal conduct. Democrats and certain media outlets cried out for some sort of Special Counsel to be appointed, but none ever were.
The Result: No criminal charges came as a result of Debategate.
Scandal #2: Iran/Contra
The Story: In 1985, the government of Iran, under embargo due in part to their current war with Iraq, reached a secret deal with the Reagan administration. This involved the US illegally trading arms to Iran in exchange for the release of American hostages. This broke both international law and Reagan’s campaign promise to never negotiate with terrorists. To make matters worse, the money gained from the deal was funneled into Contra militants fighting against communist Sandinistas in Nicaragua.
The Investigation: At first, the Reagan-appointed Tower Commission looked into the matter, investigating how much the president knew of the secret dealings. Eventually, an independent counsel, Lawrence Walsh, was appointed to take over the investigation.
The Result: No evidence officially linking Reagan to the Iran/Contra affair was ever uncovered. Walsh's investigation lasted for eight years total, spanning beyond the Reagan presidency. Fourteen people were eventually charged with operational and cover-up crimes, but few players faced any consequences. A large number of the convictions for high-ranking Reagan officials were overturned by pardons from new president George H.W. Bush. Oliver North, an army colonel who had admitted to diverting funds to the Contras, was convicted, but his conviction was later overturned on a technicality.
- Age: Dec. at 93 (1911-2004)
- Presidency: 40
- V.P.: George H. W. Bush