It’s become a common refrain: the shambolic US administration of Donald Trump encounters, in an average week, a scandal that would end a normal presidency.
Early this month, The Washington Post described “the misconduct revealed during just one day this week” as “worse than what presidents normally experience during an entire term”. Meanwhile, the ABC wondered early last year, “how many controversies can Trump survive?”(correctly concluding it would be quite a few).
Such was the lack of faith in Trump’s integrity that talk of his impeachment even predated his first day in office — but is he uniquely scandal prone? We delved into the history books, revisiting the key scandals of the last three presidents to examine whether Trump’s disasters would have sunk his predecessors.
In the lead-up to the 1992 presidential election, Clinton — who had been campaigning on a “tough on crime” platform — travels to his home state of Arkansas (of which he was then governor) to oversee the execution of Ricky Ray Rector. Rector had — after fatally shooting a civilian and a police officer — attempted suicide, succeeding only in effectively lobotomising himself. Clinton rejected his application for clemency.
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Paula Jones sues Clinton for sexual harassment, alleging that, in 1991 when she was a state worker in Arkansas, Clinton had propositioned her and exposed himself to her in a hotel room.
Clinton’s affair with an unpaid, 21-year-old intern Monica Lewinsky over 1995 and 1996 becomes public. Clinton initially had spread — through his staff — rumours that she was a liar, blackmailer and stalker.
The Republican-controlled congress issues articles of impeachment charging Clinton with lying under oath (during the Jones lawsuit, about his affair with Lewinsky) and obstruction of justice.
On August 20 — coincidentally the same day Monica Lewinsky returned to the grand jury to continue her testimony — Clinton authorises the bombing of what he said was a nerve gas factory with ties to al-Qaeda in Sudan. It turned out to be the El Shifa pharmaceutical factory, responsible for 50% of Sudan’s medicine.
Kathleen Willey alleges that Clinton had groped her in the white house corridor in 1993. A piece in Vanity Fair at the time notes Clinton’s “routine use of staff members, lawyers, and private investigators to tar the reputation of any woman who tries to call him to account for his actions”.
Former volunteer Juanita Broaddrick alleges that, in the late 1970s, Clinton raped her in her hotel room. As The Atlantic recently pointed out, in a post #MeToo re-examination of Clinton, “it was a pattern of behavior; it included an alleged violent assault; the women involved had far more credible evidence than many of the most notorious accusations that have come to light in the past five weeks”.
George W Bush
In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington, Bush issues an executive order (still to be made public) that allowed warrantless surveillance. Congress and others opposed the move as unconstitutional overreach. It would later be revealed, unsurprisingly, that this order led to the interception of several communications beyond its already broad scope.
Based on the argument that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, Bush launches America into a poorly planned war in Iraq that would cost hundreds of thousands of lives, trap America in a quagmire lasting nearly a decade, tear the region to shreds and paved the way for Islamic State.
60 Minutes II broadcasts graphic photos from Abu Ghraib — a notorious prison during the time of Saddam Hussein that had been taken over by US forces after the invasion — showing the torture, degradation and humiliation of prisoners by US forces.
It was first reported that, in 2002, the administration authorised the use of waterboarding, and other euphemistically named “enhanced interrogation techniques” on suspects in the War on Terror.
Amnesty International reports that prisoners at the US facility in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba are subject to torture. The Bush administration denied this, but also argued that detainees at the facility were not subject to the Geneva Convention. Susan Crawford, the official in charge of deciding whether Guantanamo Bay inmates be brought to trial, later concluded torture had taken place.
In August, Hurricane Katrina devastates New Orleans. Bush stayed on holiday for a day after the hurricane hit, and was criticised for the lack of preparation for the disaster, despite being warned days beforehand of the potential gravity.
George Bush suspends habeas corpus — the requirement that government provide a legal rationale for a prisoner’s continued imprisonment — for the 430 detainees in Guantanamo.
A few days into his administration, Obama authorises the first fatal airstrike of his presidency, in northwest Pakistan, which kills up to 11 civilians, including one child. It will be the first of hundreds of fatal drone attacks launched under his presidency.
Having campaigned on a platform of disentangling the the US from wars in the Middle East, Obama, with NATO, launches an attack on Libya. It leaves the country deeply unstable.
An attack on the American embassy in Benghazi, Libya, claims the lives of four Americans. Obama and then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton are both roundly criticised for their failure to take heed of intelligence warnings leading up to the attack.
An air strike in the Afghanistan city of Kunduz destroys a hospital run by medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres and kills 44 aid workers.
Bear in mind, these are just the highlights. Clinton and Bush, in particular, can and do have entire articles dedicated to their various mishaps in office. Clinton survived his impeachment, and all three served their maximum term. All worth keeping in mind next time someone claims Trump’s presidency is markedly more disastrous than his predecessors.