Presidential Scandals: Why Would Trump's Presidency Be Any Different?

Author: David Yee
Created: 19 November, 2016
Updated: 17 October, 2022
7 min read

The last ten days has been nothing but a constant buzzing in the media, rumor mills, and outright political lie manufacturers -- all ready to pounce on president-elect Donald Trump's seemingly endless potential for presidential scandal.

And while the internet is ready to give us whatever dose of outrage we need at the current moment, are we really so blind to not see that scandal is the norm for the Oval Office?

All but one full-term president, from George Washington to Barack Obama has faced scandal and controversies -- from Washington's shady slave-swapping to avoid state laws in Pennsylvania to Obama's intelligence gathering scandals.

The only other scandal-free president was William Harrison, who really didn't have much time on his hands to develop controversies or scandals -- dying 31 days into his presidency.  But he did leave the nation with John Tyler -- the vice-president that nobody wanted in charge.

While we should expect more from the Oval Office, looking back at some of the 'better' scandals, including some from our most beloved presidents, serves to help us remember history the actual way it happened -- and not hold our current politicians to some mythical honor code that never existed.

George Washington's 'slave-swapping' and the Jay Treaty

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania was our nation's first capital -- with very rigid anti-slavery laws that had been put into place in the 1780's to gradually outlaw the practice within the commonwealth.

Under the Pennsylvania’s Gradual Abolition Act of 1780, any slaves brought into the commonwealth for a period of greater than 6 months were automatically freed.

Washington circumvented the loss of any slaves by constantly rotating his slaves in Philadelphia with ones from Mount Vernon.

While Washington was able to keep this secretive during his presidency, history has judged him harshly by his actions.

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The Jay Treaty was a wholly different story -- with many of Washington's closest political allies disagreeing with the move to 'normalize' relations with England.

In 1795, Washington approved the Jay Treaty, giving the British preferential trade status and bridging the divide still left from the Revolution.

Thomas Jefferson, who had already resigned as Secretary of State, called Washington a traitor -- and this treaty served as the catalyst for Jefferson's formation of a political party and his unsuccessful run for the White House in 1796.

History proved Jefferson correct, and in only 17 years another war would be fought with the British.

Adams and Jefferson's inability to control VP's:  The 12th Amendment, 'A New Hope?'

The Electoral College's original design led to an interesting conundrum for our 2nd and 3rd presidents -- vice-presidents that were of different parties with different objectives.

Of these two, Aaron Burr was the most outrageous, eventually leaving his post as VP and trying to form his own nation to the west of the Mississippi River.

Needless to say, Pinckney and Burr didn't exactly fulfill the role of the vice-president being the president's faithful attack-dog.

The problems with Burr's conspiracy moved Congress to act quickly on the 12th Amendment, and three-fourths of the states ratified in less than 7 months.

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Later presidents would still occasionally face embarrassment and scandal from their vice-president (Spiro Agnew for instance), but at least it wasn't along the lines of political ideology with the vice-president ready and willing to undermine the president.

John Quincy Adams: The Electoral College Strikes Back

A four-way race in the election of 1824 left America with a president elected by the House of Representatives. While Jackson won the popular vote plurality and won more states, he didn't reach an Electoral College majority.

Adams never lived down the scandal surrounding the back-room deals that gave him the election, and he was soundly 'stomped' in 1828 by vengeful Jackson supporters gaining overwhelming popularity.

James Garfield: 'Saved' by Assassination

Even in a short presidency of 200 days during 1881, Garfield managed to take part in one of the biggest federal frauds on the American people, with millions of dollars being siphoned off of phony mail routes.

Garfield was assassinated only a week after the scandal broke and the national disruption created by having to replace the president left the scandal largely unresolved -- other than the practice of phony mail routes ending.

Chester A. Arthur: Scandal-free, But Otherwise Forgotten

Arthur cleaned house after Garfield's assassination, but is largely forgotten as a president -- but being the only full term president to not face any major scandals was quite a feat.

He didn't exactly live up to his expectations as a politician, known for corruption in previous posts. But as president, he was either a great scandal-free president or exceptionally good at hiding it.

But he's one of the presidents we usually forget about, other than schools bearing his name, his presidency largely remains an obscure question in trivia games.

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Teddy Roosevelt: The Overthrow of Panama

The Monroe Doctrine firmly establish the U.S. as the dominate force in the Western Hemisphere, but Teddy Roosevelt took it a bit too far when he arranged for the overthrowing of the Panamanian government to establish a 'friendly' government willing to allow America's completion of the Panama Canal.

While the Panama Canal became America's incredible strategic advantage during both WWI and WWII, Roosevelt never quite lived down the controversy surrounding the coup.

Sometimes the ends justify the means, though in the modern military the Canal has lost much of its strategic importance due to the ever increasing size of ships.

Jimmy Carter: More Panama Canal Woes

While Carter is best known for the Iranian scandal that would haunt him, the American people largely viewed his signage of the Panama Canal Treaty and Neutrality Treaty as a strategic blunder.

Even though the treaty was ratified by both chambers of Congress, the public scandal of Carter's decision to give control of the Canal back to Panama only added to the overall perception of his weakness in foreign policy.

With the Cold War 'heating up,' Carter's image as a weak president would be his undoing -- with Ronald Reagan carrying all but 6 states and D.C. in 1980.

2016: Revenge of the Electoral College?

The movement to block Donald Trump's presidency has employed almost every imaginable tactic to avoid his election -- but have seemingly missed a 'nuclear option' in our election process, one that could become one of the greatest scandals ever if employed.

Since 1887, 3 U.S.C. 15 sets the method for objections to electoral votes -- with the Congress having the power to reject any particular elector's vote or even an entire state's vote.

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During the Joint Session of Congress when Electoral votes are counted, members of Congress can object to the votes initiating a codified procedure to resolve the objections.

It's a remarkably simple process, only needing the written objection of at least one senator and one representative -- and then a simple majority vote in both chambers.

This has happened twice, in 1969 and 2005, with both chambers rejecting the written objections.

But can you imagine the incredible scandal this would create?

It would go down as a legal 'robbing' of an election -- possibly becoming the greatest political crisis and scandal ever faced.

It's highly unlikely with a Republican-controlled House and Senate that such a strategy would work, but we would certainly face chaos as a nation if it did work out that way.

We're going to see scandals in the Trump presidency, it's an historical axiom that seems unbreakable. Scandals come from political mistakes and overt political jockeying -- with opponents ready to pounce at a moment's notice.

What we need to decide as an American people is whether or not we'll make the problem worse by the constant bombardment of outrage media questioning every move made by the president.

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While politics is ugly and definitely needs improvement, we're all on the same 'sinking ship' in the end -- are we going to bail or try to make the ship sink faster?

We should hold our president to the highest standards and we should definitely not excuse intentionally scandalous or unlawful behavior.

But, in the end, we can't just automatically drive the scandal outrage machine just because of partisanship, hatred, or fear -- because that just makes us look stupid to the rest of the world.

Photo Credit: Everett Historical / Shutterstock.com

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