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A Short History of US Presidential Legal Problems

New York City police block off the street near Trump Tower, Monday, April 3, 2023. Former President Donald Trump is expected to travel to New York to face charges related to hush money payments. (AP Photo/Bryan Woolston)
New York City police block off the street near Trump Tower, Monday, April 3, 2023. Former President Donald Trump is expected to travel to New York to face charges related to hush money payments. (AP Photo/Bryan Woolston)
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Former American President Donald Trump is expected to appear Tuesday before a New York State judge to answer his indictment.

A grand jury voted last week to indict, or charge, Trump with a crime or crimes. The vote came after the grand jury heard evidence related to payments made to adult movie actress Stormy Daniels during the 2016 presidential campaign.

Trump also faces other legal problems after he launched a third campaign for the presidency.

The U.S. Justice Department is investigating the treatment of top-secret government documents when Trump left the White House in 2021. Federal investigators are also looking into Trump’s possible responsibility in the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol building on January 6, 2021.

In the southern state of Georgia, the Fulton County District Attorney’s office has been investigating whether Trump and his allies illegally interfered in the 2020 election.

However, Trump is not the first U.S. president, in or out of office, to have faced legal trouble. Several others have in U.S. history.

Andrew Johnson

During his presidency, Trump was impeached two times. The first time was over his dealings with Ukraine. The second time was over actions that led to the January 6 attack at the U.S. Capitol.

But the dishonor of being the first impeached president belongs to Andrew Johnson in 1868.

During the years immediately following the Civil War, President Andrew Johnson clashed repeatedly with the Republican-controlled Congress over the reconstruction of the defeated South. Johnson was a member of the Democratic Party.

The House of Representatives voted to impeach Johnson, but the Senate did not have the two-thirds majority required to remove Johnson from office.

Bill Clinton

In 1998, Bill Clinton became the second American president to be impeached for lying under oath and obstructing an investigation related to his sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky, a White House aide.

The investigation grew out of unrelated scandals from before Clinton’s time in the White House. They were a land deal in Arkansas known as Whitewater and a sexual harassment case brought by Paula Jones.

Clinton’s law license in his native state of Arkansas was suspended for five years after he reached a deal at the end of his second term in office.

Richard Nixon

In 1974, former President Richard Nixon might have avoided criminal charges related to the Watergate scandal when then-President Gerald Ford pardoned him just weeks after Nixon resigned.

Nixon resigned following the discovery of recordings showing that he had ordered a cover-up of the 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington.

By 1974, the Watergate scandal had expanded beyond the break-in. Many of Nixon’s top aides stepped down and some were sentenced to prison. Nixon himself was a possible target of the Watergate special counsel, a special investigator appointed by the government.

Ford said that an “indictment, a trial, a conviction, [of Nixon]” would have distracted the country from more immediate problems.

John A. Farrell wrote Richard Nixon: The Life, a prize-winning book published in 2017. He said, “There were partisans in Congress and on the special counsel’s staff who would have liked to see Nixon indicted after the resignation — or at least believed that the pardon was premature.”

Farrell noted that Nixon was so worried about his legal trouble that it affected his health. He added, “His very worried family reached out to the White House, alerting Ford’s aides of the ex-president’s deteriorating condition.”

Warren Harding

Some historians wonder about President Warren Harding’s fate had he not died in office, in 1923. “The walls were closing in on him,” presidential historian Douglas Brinkley said of Harding.

Several officials around him were charged with crimes related to corrupt land dealings known as the Teapot Dome Scandal. His Interior Secretary Albert B. Fall was the first Cabinet officer convicted and sent to prison for accepting illegal payments.

Ulysses Grant

Nixon and Harding faced major scandals without being charged.

Ulysses Grant was a general and hero of the American Civil War. But members of his presidential administration were involved in many different kinds of financial wrongdoing.

Grant himself was caught for minor offenses. In 1872, during his first term, he was stopped twice for riding his horse carriage too fast.

“The second time Grant had to pay a $20 fine, but never spent a night in jail,” says historian Ron Chernow. His book about Grant’s life was published in 2017.

I’m Dorothy Gundy.

Hillel Italie reported this story for the Associated Press. Hai Do adapted it for VOA Learning English with additional materials from U.S. history.


Words in This Story

indictment –n. an official statement presented by a prosecuting official saying that a jury (such as a grand jury) is charging a person or persons for a crime

grand jury –n. a jury that examines accusations against a person or persons and votes on whether to bring official charges

impeach –v. to charge a public official with a crime before a body that is detailed in the law

scandal –n. an happening or action that causes people to be shocked or upset because it is morally wrong or illegal

conviction –n. the act of declaring someone guilty of a crime in a court of law under the rule of law

partisan –n. a person who strongly supports a leader, group, cause or political party

staff –n. (pl.) people who assist a director, or work for an organization

deteriorate –v. to become worse with the passing of time


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