6 times a U.S. President (or cabinet member) avoided felony charges

Need to get caught up quickly with what’s happening at Reckon? Subscribe to the Reckon Report for a weekly rundown.

After turning himself in to New York authorities on Tuesday, Donald Trump is now the first former American president to face criminal charges.

The 45th president is facing 34 felony counts of falsifying business records and that could lead to jail time. But he isn’t the first president or high-ranking political official to be implicated in criminal activity.

The Watergate Scandal

Arguably one of the most popular scandals of them all, the Watergate Scandal saw five men breaking into the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters in D.C.’s Watergate Hotel back in 1972.

Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, aided by an informant - “Deep Throat” - first broke the news of this development. They followed a trail of key information provided by the anonymous whistleblower that eventually led to incriminating tape recordings made of conversations held in the Oval Office by President Richard Nixon and his administration.

Facing a potential impeachment for breaking the law, Nixon stepped down as president and was later pardoned by his successor – and second vice president – President Gerald Ford.

Close to a dozen of President Nixon’s associates and advisors got prison terms. But for Nixon, the man known as ‘Tricky Dick,” did not.

Teapot Dome Scandal

On April 2nd, 1922, President Warren Harding transferred control of two large oil reserves – Elk Hills in California, and Teapot Dome in Wyoming – from the U.S. Navy to his Secretary of Interior, Albert Fall.

Fall then released control of those oil reserves to two oil tycoons. Elk Hills went to Edward L. Doheny of the Pan American Petroleum Company while Teapot Dome went to Harry F. Sinclair of Mammoth Oil.

Congressional investigations into the Teapot Dome Scandal revealed that Fall received as much as $400,000 (equivalent to about $7 million today) from at least one of the oil tycoons for the land leases, which was eventually terminated by Congress.

The Secretary was convicted of accepting bribes and became the first sitting cabinet member to be imprisoned for one year

Although President Harding was never personally implicated by this scandal, historians stated that the stress took a toll on his health and the 57-year-old died in office.

Iran-Contra Affair

In the early 1980s, President Ronald Reagan faced two major issues: an Islamist militant group with ties to Iran had taken American hostages in Lebanon and a new revolutionary communist government has just been established in Nicaragua.

His administration came up with a plan of selling arms to Iran in hopes that the terrorists would release the hostages, then give a portion of the profits from those sales to provide military support to the Contras – the anti-communist rebels in Nicaragua.

The plan was completely illegal.

Since most of the funds for the Contras originated from the drug trade, Congress had previously passed the Boland Amendment, banning the U.S. government from funding the rebels.

There was also a U.S. trade embargo with Iran at the time, which meant both selling arms to Iran and funding the Contras broke U.S. laws.

When the news broke of the Iran arms deal, President Reagan initially denied any negotiations with the terrorists, something he famously said he’d never do.

But he later admitted to the illegal trade in a televised address to the nation.

Reagan also denied knowing the full extent of his administration’s actions but took full responsibility for them.

Congressional hearings followed, but there were no convictions made.

Chappaquiddick incident

While these next two scandals didn’t occur with former or sitting presidents, they did prevent two promising presidential candidates who were practically next in line, from reaching the Oval Office.

U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy was a member of the prestigious political family who produced President John F. Kennedy, along with U.S. Attorney General and promising presidential candidate Robert Kennedy.

But Ted Kennedy’s chances of following his brother’s footsteps were cut short by his role in the death of a 28-year-old woman.

Kennedy drove his car off a small bridge on Chappaquiddick Island in Massachusetts on July 18, 1969, with Mary Jo Kopechne as the sole passenger in it.

Kopechne reportedly drowned in the car and was found the next morning.

Kennedy claimed to have tried to rescue Kopechne, but later said that he’d been injured and disoriented after the accident.

Ten hours had passed before Kennedy reported the incident to law enforcement.

He was never charged and got re-elected to his senate seat. But the scandal may have cost him his only chance at the White House in 1980. Incumbent President Jimmy Carter was selected as the Democratic Party’s nominee that year. Carter lost to Reagan.

VP Spiro Agnew’s Resignation

Less than a year before President Nixon stepped down from office, his first vice president, Spiro Agnew, became the second VP to resign after being accused of tax evasion and bribery.

Before becoming vice president, Agnew was a Baltimore County executive and served as governor of Maryland.

In 1973, he was implicated in taking bribes and kickbacks that reportedly began during his previous roles and continued into his tenure as vice president.

Despite his September 1973 declaration of not resigning if indicted, Agnew left the office in October in exchange for a plea bargain that kept him out of jail.

Nixon appointed then-U.S. House Representative Minority Leader Gerald Ford as Agnew’s replacement.

President Grant’s Arrest

President Ulysses S. Grant was arrested in 1872 for speeding on a Washington street, where he had been driving a two-horse carriage.

He and several of his friends had apparently been racing each other.

And this was his second time speeding in two days. The first led to a warning issued by the policeman who stopped the president.

Grant was arrested along with his friends and taken to a police station. He put up a $20 bail that what was described as “collateral” in the news. This sum would be equivalent to $500 today.

While this wasn’t covered by the press at the time, the incident came to light in a published interview with the policeman, William West, who pulled over the 18th U.S. President. West spoke with The Sunday Star of Washington years later in 1908.

According to this news account, President Grant was good-natured about the arrest and even drove West in his own carriage to the police station to process Grant’s arrest.

The case against the president and the other men was heard in Police Court the next day. The judge put up heavy fines against President Grant’s friends, who protested and criticized Officer West’s conduct.

But when President Grant’s name was called, the news account reports that there was no response and his $20 was forfeited.

Naina Rao

Naina Rao

Naina Rao is Reckon's daily news reporter. She formerly worked at NPR producing for Morning Edition and the Culture Desk, and has experience covering Religion, Arts & Culture, and international news. Naina is fluent in Bahasa Indonesia, proficient in Malay, and is working on her Hindi.

Kavolshaia Howze

Kavolshaia Howze

Kavolshaia has been a member of the Reckon staff since October 2019. She is a Fairfield, Alabama native with fusions of the Bayou & Volunteer states after spending 15 years in Louisiana and Tennessee. She is a proud alumna of Grambling State University (B.A.) and Northwestern State University of Louisiana (M.S.).

The Reckon Report.
Sign up to receive the Reckon Report newsletter in your inbox every Tuesday.