Three major scandals have surfaced over the past few weeks in Washington, escalating into a perfect storm that involves money, media and security. With the IRS targeting tea party tax-exempt groups, the Department of Justice seizing Associated Press records and the resurfacing of concerns about the handling of the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, many are wondering what the Obama administration's role is in all of these affairs. But scandal and controversy are nothing new to Washington — as long as there have been presidents, there has been controversy. Here is a look back at the most controversial events of each United States president.
While the nation’s first president is viewed universally with love, George Washington often had a rocky and contentious relationship with his Congress.
In 1795, George Washington approved of the Jay Treaty, attempting to normalize the still-volatile relations with Great Britain. In return for the pulling of British troops out of forts across the West and compensation for seized merchant ships, the British were given favored-nation trade status. The Jeffersonian party of Congress reacted violently to the treaty, favoring the French over the British. Thomas Jefferson repeatedly accused Washington of treason.
In Washington’s farewell address, he planned to spend a considerable portion of it refuting these charges, but the speech was later edited and ended up warning of political parties.
Early in John Adams presidency, he faced the prospect of war with France after the French navy had increased its efforts of stopping American ships trading with the British Empire after the signing of the Jay Treaty. Adams attempted to send delegates to negotiate with the French, but the French minister demanded bribes before negotiations would begin. The Americans refused, and the information was leaked to the public, becoming the XYZ Affair — X,Y and Z standing for the names of French officials in documents released by the Adams administration.
American and French naval forces engaged in an undeclared war for several months, known as the Quasi-War, before the situation was finally settled. During the period of hostilities, both the Federalists and the Republican-Democratic parties used the events to heavily push their own narratives.
While he is better remembered for killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel, Aaron Burr, Thomas Jefferson’s first-term vice president, was eventually arrested for an alleged plan to create an independent nation in the center of North America using land from Spain and the Louisiana Purchase.
Burr set up a complex conspiracy. It involved the commanding general of the Army, the British and the Spanish. Allegedly, they would lease out Texas and then conquer surrounding Spanish and Mexican territory in a war he hoped to orchestrate between the United States and Spain. Jefferson was informed of Burr’s plans and had him arrested and charged with treason. Though Burr was acquitted, the scandal effectively ended his already-flagging political career.
Thomas Jefferson’s successor, James Madison, would have to deal with the repercussions of Aaron Burr's conspiracy. Burr had enlisted the help of the general of the Army, James Wilkinson, to supply U.S. Army troops to achieve his goals. Though it was known that Wilkinson was corrupt and had even attempted to get Kentucky to secede from the union, Jefferson kept him on in his position as military governor of Louisiana in order to secure Republican votes in Wilkinson’s home state of Pennsylvania.
Madison, for the same reasons as Jefferson, chose to keep Wilkinson on, even after a two-year congressional investigation about the man. It was only after reports of heavy-handed abuses of power and his inept handling of military affairs that Madison order Wilkinson court-martialed, which found Wilkinson not guilty. It eventually took disastrous military campaigns during the War of 1812 before Wilkinson was removed.
Perhaps best known for The Monroe Doctrine, the foreign policy of the United States for almost 100 years, James Monroe faced a controversial presidency when it came to the issue of slavery. Even if he remained a popular president, his decision in the Missouri compromise — paring Missouri as a slave state and Maine as a free state — was a controversial topic of debate at the time and would set the stage for the heated debate and endless compromise up until the Civil War.
John Quincy Adams had the misfortune of running against Andrew Jackson. In the election of 1824, Jackson won the popular vote by a reasonable margin but failed to gain enough electoral votes. In backroom deals that were considered corrupt then and now, the House elected John Quincy Adams to the office of president. Jackson was not one to forget something like that, and Adams' presidency would be constantly hounded by calls of illegitimacy for the rest of his term.
In 1832, Andrew Jackson implemented a new tariff on goods. South Carolina, led by Andrew Jackson's former vice president and ardent states' right supporter John C. Calhoun, claimed that it could nullify the order from the federal government and not implement it. Jackson, a staunch proponent of the central government, made it very clear that he would use military might to force South Carolina to accept the tariff if they did not do it peacefully. It was one the more public displays of infighting between states and the central government before the Civil War.
In 1839, the president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Joseph Smith, went to president Martin Van Buren to ask him to help Mormons in Missouri when the governor of the state, Lilburn Boggs, had issued an extermination order. Reportedly, Van Buren said, "Your cause is just, but I can do nothing for you; if I take up for you, I shall lose the vote of Missouri."
Harrison avoids scandal and controversy, but only by dying from a fever after giving a nearly two-hour long inauguration speech, riding on a horse during a cold rainstorm followed by hosting three separate inauguration balls. So while not exactly scandalous or controversial, it was ill advised.
The first vice president to take office after the death of an incumbent, John Tyler would find his entire presidency plagued by a Congress that didn’t want him. While technically a member of the Whig Party, he would veto several pieces of their legislation while in office and was expelled from the party. Most of his cabinet resigned. With the Democratic Party disliking him as well, he became the only sitting president to not belong to any political party at one point during a presidency.
While generally considered one of the more influential presidents in American history, James Polk, while still popular amongst his supporters, drew a lot of controversy from his opponents for his foreign policy, which included the Mexican-American war and the settling of the Oregon border with Canada. His Whig opponents constantly scrutinized him for being an imperialist. Historians would later conclude that the pressure he took over his handling of the war would lead to his death three months after his presidency was over.
Though only president for 16 months, Zachary Taylor still had time for a scandal when in the last months of his presidency, news surfaced that his secretary of war, George Crawford, had pushed through a law giving the Galphin family compensation for their land seized by the federal government nearly 70 years earlier. In exchange for getting the family their compensation, Crawford took 50 percent of the money, nearly $94,000. When the public found out, Crawford was forced to resign, but amidst the rush of Taylor's death, he was never prosecuted.
Consistently ranked in the bottom 10 of presidents, Millard Fillmore was not exactly a popular president — for the North at least — but few things caused as much of a stir as his dealings with the Compromise of 1850, which allowed slavery in the newly acquired state of Texas and would allow territories such as Utah and New Mexico to vote to be slave states. Aside from enraging the North, Fillmore’s actions were in direct contradiction of Zachary Taylor’s, the former president, intentions. Fillmore’s entire cabinet would resign over the issue.
Though perhaps better known for the ill-thought-out Kansas-Nebraska Act, Franklin Pierce also generated a lot of controversy over his Ostend Manifesto, a document Peirce and his staff drafted to push the Spanish Empire into either allowing the U.S. to buy Cuba and admit it as a slave state, or force the U.S. to declare war in order to liberate it. Pierce’s ambassadors in Europe made no secret that they were drafting the proposal, and thus when it was finally put forth to the House, Spain had already refused and the public outcry had already began. Pierce backed down, accomplishing none of his goals and giving the North a rallying cry against his administration.
Within two days of James Buchanan’s inauguration, the Supreme Court ruled on the Dred Scott Case, declaring that the government had no right to exclude slavery from states, and as such the Missouri Compromise was declared unconstitutional. While not immediately known, it would later surface that in order for the court to be able to issue such a broad decision, Buchanan had to contact Justice Robert Crier, a fellow Pennsylvanian, and convince him to throw his support from opposing the decision to supporting it. Abraham Lincoln would accuse Buchanan of being in a conspiracy to tare down legal barriers to slavery.
In 1862, Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of war, Simon Cameron, was forced to resign after allegations of corruption. So notorious was Cameron’s corruption that Sen. Thaddeus Stevens would remark, "I don't think that he would steal a red-hot stove," when discussing Cameron’s honesty with Lincoln. When Cameron asked for Stevens to retract the statement, Steven’s replied, “I believe I told you he would not steal a red-hot stove. I will now take that back."
When Lincoln's vice president, Andrew Johnson, became president after Lincoln's assassination, he was so disliked by his Congress that he became the first president to be impeached, and only avoided losing the presidency by one vote. His working relationship with Congress was non-existent. He would fail in carrying out laws and orders they passed, he sacked political officials without the consent of Congress and he is seen as having failed in leading the nation through reconstruction. He is generally considered one of the worst presidents.
One of the biggest scandals of Ulysses Grant’s administration was the so-called Whiskey Ring. Large rackets were set up by top Republican officials throughout the country to siphon off millions of dollars from the federal whiskey tax. Although not directly involved, the fact that it happened under Grant’s administration made him appear guilty by association. Though later historians would give Grant extra points for his foreign policy, he would never escape the scandals of politicians during his tenure.
When President Rutherford Hayes nominated Stanley Matthew as a Supreme Court justice near the end of his term, he expected it to be a quick process. However, members of the Senate were disgruntled with Matthew’s closeness to several railroads and corporations. Rather than vote on the president’s final Supreme Court nominee, the Senate simply refused to vote on the measure, and Hayes' term ended before the issue could be brought up again. As such, the Senate avoided voting on the nomination. President Garfield would push Matthews’ nomination once he took power, and his nomination was accepted by a vote of 24-23, the closest vote for a justice’s nomination ever.
President for just 200 days before being assassinated, James Garfield’s biggest scandal came in the final weeks of his presidency, when it was reveled that federal post office corruption rackets stole millions of dollars by setting up bogus “star routes” — daily delivery routes. Garfield was assassinated before the scandal could be fully resolved, but his vice president, Chester Arthur, would eventually clean things up after taking over.
A man who had been tossed out of past political offices for corruption, Chester Arthur surprised everyone by being one of two presidents on this list to go without a major scandal or controversy during his presidency. The New York World would later sum up Arthur's presidency at his death in 1886: "No duty was neglected in his administration, and no adventurous project alarmed the nation."
Grover Cleveland, known as the only president to serve two non-consecutive terms, was noted for running as a morally superior candidate. So when his Republican opponents found that he had fathered an illegitimate child when he was a lawyer in Buffalo, N.Y., Republicans would go to his campaign rallies and chant, “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?” Cleveland’s response was to tell the truth and admit to the scandal, something that in the end earned the respect of the voters.
Benjamin Harrison found himself inheriting a massive budget surplus left over from past administrations that had existed since the Civil War. The reason for the surplus was large tariffs on imported goods, combined with little government spending. Harrison would go on to use much of this surplus, marking the first time federal spending went more than $1 billion a year. Combined with the fact that he kept the tariffs high, this proved to draw much criticism from political opponents and the public.
When American military forces defeated the Spanish empire in the Spanish-American War, the United States found itself with a large naval and Marine force in the Philippines. The Filipinos quickly created their own independent republic, expecting for support from the United States. Instead, William McKinley ordered American forces to occupy the Philippines, and in the end a brutal and repressive war was waged by American forces against the Philippine Republic and the ensuing insurgency. The war was so immensely unpopular that citizens offered to buy the Philippines from the government to give it its independence.
Originally started by the French, the Panama Canal was intended to drastically shorten the travel time of ships going between the Pacific and the Atlantic. The French project turned out to be a disaster, and they were eager to hand the project off. So when Theodore Roosevelt offered to buy it, they were more than willing. However, the United States Congress was less eager to spend the money. In order to speed things up, Roosevelt helped organize a revolution that overthrew the government of Panama and replaced it with a nation whose constitution had been written by Americans and whose flag had been designed by the wife of a pro-intervention congressmen. Roosevelt’s actions would remain controversial for the rest of his life.
Contributing to the split of the Republican Party in 1912 was the Ballinger Controversy. Chief of field divisions of the General Land Office, Louis Glavis, accused President William Taft’s head of the Department of the Interior, Richard Ballinger, of interfering in an investigation into coal mining in Idaho. Taft had Glavis fired for insubordination and exonerated Ballinger. Press scandal followed, and the progressive wing of the Republican Party would split and join the Democrats by the 1912 election.
In 1919, the U.S. Navy launched an investigation into claims of homosexual interactions between naval personal and civilians at Newport, R.I., initiated by then-Secretary of the Navy, Franklin Roosevelt. The methods of the investigation — keeping it almost exclusively within the Navy — drew criticism from the press, and in the end the investigators themselves were accused of homosexuality after the reports were filed. Wilson, already facing criticism for his handling of World War I, found himself drawn into the scandal when the inhabitants of Newport wrote to him directly, complaining of the Navy’s handling of the investigation.
Under Warren Harding’s administration, it was revealed in a sensational investigation by Sen. Thomas Walsh, that members of Harding’s administration had taken bribes to lease oil reserves at Teapot Dome in Wyoming to private companies. Though Harding would die while in office, he would face criticism even after dying for allowing scandals such as Teapot to occur.
Notorious for saying practically nothing when not giving a public speech, Calvin Coolidge takes the second spot of controversial-free presidents on this list. His no-nonsense presidency restored public faith in the office after the scandal-wracked presidency of Harding.
When veterans of World War I gathered in the capitol to demand pay bonuses they were promised after many were left jobless from the Great Depression, President Herbert Hoover ordered the Army to go in and break up the protesters. Unfortunately for Hoover, the general in charge of Army troops, Douglas MacArthur, was under the impression that he was breaking up a socialist gathering, and was especially harsh in the methods he used to disperse the veterans. Already unpopular for his handling of the Depression, the brutal crushing of veterans earned him no love from the public, and he would find himself voted out at the end of his first term.
Franklin D. Roosevelt found himself facing allegations from Republican leaders in Congress putting forth a story that he had left his dog, Fala, in the Aleutian Islands after a family trip. At the taxpayers expense he supposedly sent a Navy destroyer to rescue his dog.
In response to the controversy, FDR would say, "These Republican leaders have not been content with attacks on me, or my wife, or on my sons. No, not content with that, they now include my little dog, Fala. Well, of course, I don't resent attacks, and my family doesn't resent attacks — but Fala does resent them. You know, Fala is Scotch, and being a Scottie, as soon as he learned that the Republican fiction writers in Congress and out had concocted a story that I had left him behind on the Aleutian Islands and had sent a destroyer back to find him — at a cost to the taxpayers of two or three, or eight or 20 million dollars — his Scotch soul was furious. He has not been the same dog since! I am accustomed to hearing malicious falsehoods about myself — such as that old, worm-eaten chestnut that I have represented myself as indispensable. But I think I have a right to resent, to object to libelous statements about my dog."
Similar to current headlines, Harry Truman would find himself embroiled in scandal when an investigation into the IRS lead to the firing of 166 IRS employees. Truman was stained with allegations of corruption in the aftermath.
While Eisenhower’s era would be dominated by McCarthyism in the Senate, Eisenhower’s administration would come under its share of investigation after several members of his administration, including his vice president, would find themselves under investigation as to how many of their “gifts” and personal purchases were allegedly funded by taxpayer money. Eisenhower’s vice president Richard Nixon was called to defend $18,000 in gifts; he replied that the only personal gift he ever received from the White House was a dog.
Before his assassination, and in between various Cold War crises, John F. Kennedy was in constant scandal about his supposed relationships with a number of women. From White House secretaries to supermodel Marilyn Monroe, JFK’s supposed list of romances was heavily speculated upon, while he was in office and after.
While the Vietnam War was controversial during his presidency, it wasn’t until after Lyndon Johnson left office that the true level of controversy was revealed. The Pentagon Papers were splashed across the front page of the New York Times, indicating that the president had systematically lied to the American people about American involvement and actions in the Southeast Asian region.
The crown jewel of presidential scandals, Richard Nixon’s Watergate forever changed the public perception of the executive office. Nixon ordered the break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office complex in Washington, D.C. While the act itself was bad, it was the ensuing cover-up attempted by the Nixon administration that became truly infamous, with Nixon’s constant dodging of questions and reluctance to hand over evidence eventually leading to the obvious threat of impeachment and Nixon’s resignation, the only president to resign from office.
One of Gerald Ford's first acts upon taking over the office of president after Richard Nixon’s resignation in the face of Watergate was to unconditionally pardon Nixon, relieving him of any duty to stand before a congressional trial. Effectively clearing Nixon, Ford would face criticism from both parties for this act for the remainder of his presidency.
When Iranian mobs stormed the American Embassy in Tehran and took 52 hostages in 1979, Jimmy Carter was thrust into the crisis limelight. Though today we know of such actions to get extra Americans out — see last year’s best picture winner, “Argo” – Carter was criticized for what seemed to be a timid response in the face of a clear attack on America. When the military operation tasked with getting the hostages out failed spectacularly, Carter’s public image was effectively doomed and he would lose to Ronald Regan, who had promised tough action on Iran, in the 1980 election.
In 1986, President Ronald Reagan found himself in the middle of the Iran-Contra affair. Senior administration officials secretly facilitated the sale of arms to Iran.
The plan was further deepened when funds from the arms sales were used to fund anti-communist death squads in Nicaragua. While there is little evidence that directly links Reagan with the funding of the rebels in Nicaragua, his administration has been accused of actively sabotaging the investigation by withholding or destroying evidence.
George H. W. Bush’s Secretary of the Treasury Catalina Villapando was arrested and sentenced to prison for, of all things, tax evasion and obstruction of justice. To this day, Villapando remains the only sitting treasurer to be sent to prison.
Bill Clinton found himself facing allegations of a sexual relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, pushed by Republicans in Congress. Clinton repeatedly denied having sexual relations with Lewinsky before finally admitting that he had an “improper physical relationship” with her. He was then impeached for perjury, but after a 21-day trial was acquitted and all charges were dropped.
In 2006 it came to public attention that 11 Republican federal prosecutors all appointed by George W. Bush were then fired. Supposedly they were fired for prosecuting Republicans and not prosecuting Democrats. When the investigation began, numerous individuals in the Bush administration refused to testify under executive privilege and instead resigned, including Karl Rove.
History may judge differently, but to this point, the Obama administration's possible cover-up of events in Benghazi, Libya, seems to be Obama's largest scandal.
On Sept. 11, 2012, amidst several riots around American embassies around the world, an attack was launched on the U.S. consulate and a nearby safe house in Benghazi, Libya, resulting the deaths of four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens. The administration has faced backlash for its handling of the attack and their public response in the aftermath. Several hearings headed by the GOP have investigated whether or not there was a cover-up launched by the Obama administration for political reasons.