These Are the Most Shocking U.S. Political Scandals of All Time

Political scandals have been around since the beginning of American history. Though we hope to elect morally upright people to lead us, politics and dishonesty can go hand-in-hand. From Watergate to recent election controversy, these are the 18 most shocking political scandals of all time. We’ll never forget the most infamous affair of all time (page 9).

1. The Pentagon Papers

Military analyst Daniel Ellsberg speaks to the media

Military analyst Daniel Ellsberg (R) speaks to the media. | Youtube

In 1971, military analyst and former marine, Daniel Ellsberg, started a political maelstrom when he leaked classified documents detailing the United States’ military and political involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967. The New York Times received his top-secret information, which revealed that the U.S. had lied to Congress and American citizens throughout four presidential administrations.

Claiming executive authority, President Nixon tried to suspend the publication of the Pentagon Papers. But the Supreme Court ruled in favor of “press freedom,” allowing newspapers to publish the classified study.

Next: This unsettling scandal remains unresolved.

2. Russian interference with the 2016 election

paul manafort in a dark suit and blue tie leaves his indictment

Paul Manafort leaves U.S. District Court after pleading not guilty following his indictment on federal charges. | Win McNamee/Getty Images

Granted, we don’t know a lot about the Russian interference scandal, which is still being explored. But it’s certainly the biggest thing in politics right now. We do know a Trump campaign adviser, George Papadopoulos, had extensive talks with people linked to the Russian government concerning Hillary Clinton. We also know that other senior campaign officials were also willing to discuss the election with the Russians, as well as Donald Trump Jr.

Then there are the charges against Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, and Rick Gates, a political consultant. “Manafort and Gates were charged with secretly working as agents of a foreign (Russian-backed) government for years, hiding their income from that work and lying about it to federal investigators,” reads the New York Times.

Next: Hillary Clinton will never live this scandal down.

3. Hillary Clinton’s emails

Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton’s emails were a point of contention during the 2016 election. | Drew Angerer/Getty Images

A year prior to her race against Trump, in 2015, it came out that Clinton used a private email server for official communications during her time as Secretary of State. Her correspondences included 110 emails containing classified information (at the time of being sent) and about 2,100 emails that were not initially marked classified, but were eventually marked as such by the State Department.

In the midst of the 2016 presidential election, the FBI held an investigation regarding Clinton’s emails. On July 5, 2016, FBI Director James Comey announced that Clinton’s actions were “extremely careless,” but he didn’t think she should face any charges. The day after, Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced that no charges would be filed.

Next: Would you bend the law to appease terrorists?

4. The Iran-Contra affair

President Reagan with his cabinet

President Reagan traded arms to Iran for hostages. | Wikimedia Commons

In 1985, President Ronald Reagan did something he swore he’d never do: negotiate with terrorists. According to The Washington Post, the Iran-Contra Affair consisted of three parts:

First, the Reagan administration sold arms to Iran, a country desperate for material during its lengthy war with Iraq. Then, Iran was to use its influence to help gain the release of Americans hostages in Lebanon. Lastly, the arms were purchased at high prices, with the excess profits diverted to fund the Reagan-favored “contras [right-wing militant groups who opposed the socialist government]” fighting Nicaragua’s Sandinista government.

Reagan admitted he sold the weapons but denied discussing the release of hostages in exchange for arms (he later admitted to it in 1987). Attorney General Edwin Meese later revealed that some proceeds from the missile exchange were missing. “Oliver North, an aide to Reagan’s National Security Council, had diverted the funds to bankroll the contras,” reports US News.

Next: A not-so-secret invasion results in death.

5. Bay of Pigs


The Bay of Pigs is largely viewed as JFK’s biggest failure. | National Archive/Newsmakers

When Fidel Castro overthrew General Fulgencio Batista with his guerilla army in 1959, the U.S. State Department and the CIA knew they had to do something. For the next two years they tried to remove Castro from power to no avail. Finally, they devised a plan they thought would finally overthrow Castro: A secret invasion with 1,400 U.S.-trained Cubans who had fled when Castro took over.

Castro learned of the invasion and was ready to fight as soon as the invaders arrived. The hugely outnumbered Cubans surrendered after less than 24 hours of fighting. Castro and his army killed 114 and took over 1,100 prisoner.

Next: This informant learned that secrets are no fun.

6. Edward Snowden’s exile

Edward Snowden

NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden | The Guardian via Getty Images

After giving thousands of classified documents to the media, former National Security Agency employee Edward Snowden “received charges of DOJ with espionage,” according to CNN. He quickly flew to Russia to seek asylum.

Snowden’s position — that “authorities have access to phone calls, e-mails and other communications far beyond constitutional bounds” — has inspired millions to reconsider the access that government has to their information. In 2015, the White House maintained that Snowden should return to the U.S., rejecting a petition to pardon him.

However, with his asylum in Russia extended until 2020, Edward Snowden can continue his crusade for government transparency and information privacy. He maintains that “mass surveillance is a global problem and needs a global solution.”

Next: The sexual assault comment heard ’round the world

7. ‘Grab them by the p—-‘

On Oct. 7, 2016, The Washington Post released a video of 2017 Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump, graphically and aggressively speaking with TV host Billy Bush about how he sexually assaults women, because “when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.”

While Democrats thought the video would cost Trump the race, Republican reactions varied. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Trump’s running mate Mike Pence, and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus all voiced disappointment about Trump’s philosophy concerning women but did not withdraw their support.

After the tape released, Trump faced numerous allegations of sexual assault and misconduct from women before going on to win the election.

Next: This CIA Director’s mistress had access to classified info.

8. David Petraeus’s messy affair

Posing for a photo, David Petraeus and Paula shake hands.

David Petraeus and Paula Broadwell’s affair just got messier and messier. | YouTube

Retired General David Petraeus saw his career go down the drain when the public learned of his affair with Paula Broadwell, his former biographer. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the then-Director of the CIA had leaked classified information to Broadwell during their time together from November 2011 to July 2012.

Throughout the investigation, the FBI found eight binders of classified material in an unlocked desk drawer at Petraeus’s home. He resigned from the CIA in November 2012. However, Petraeus later pled guilty to mishandling classified information. He received two years probation as well as a $100,000 fine — more than double the amount requested by the U.S. Justice Department.

Next: This presidential affair may be the most notorious of all time.

9. The Lewinsky scandal

Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton

Monica Lewinsky and President Clinton admitted they were close. | Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Soon after her unpaid internship began, Monica Lewinsky and President Clinton began their affair. By December, she earned a paid position in the White House. (The Washington Post said, if nothing else, she was an extremely hard worker.)

In April 1996, Lewinsky moved to a job in the Pentagon because some expressed concern that she spent too much time with the president. While there, she opened up to co-worker Linda Tripp about the affair. But Tripp was secretly recording their conversations, according to US News.

Tripp eventually sent the recordings to Kenneth Starr, who investigated Clinton’s alleged sexual harassment of Arkansas state employee, Paula Jones. Clinton repeatedly denied claims of his relationship with Lewinsky until he admitted on August 17, 1998 to “having a relationship with Miss Lewinsky that was not appropriate.”

Next: You can’t make up this kind of political drama … 

10. Watergate

Phone bug during Watergate

The burglars planted microphones in the rooms. | Wikimedia Commons

Possibly the most recognizable political scandal is Watergate. On the morning of June 17, 1972, police arrested a burglars in the Democratic National Committee office, located in the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C. This group orchestrated a similar break-in a month prior to steal copies of top-secret documents and bug the office phones. But the wiretaps didn’t work the first time, so they tried again during the June 17 break-in.

Though it wasn’t immediately clear whether the Watergate intruders had connections to Richard Nixon, suspicions ran high, especially thanks to the Washington Post. Reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein played a critical role in exposing Nixon, along with their anonymous source, “Deep Throat,” later revealed as former Associate Director of the FBI, Mark Felt.

Next: Blurring the line between business and politics

11.  Trump’s use of public office for private gain

Ivanka Trump Launches Her Spring 2011 Lifestyle Collection Of Footwear At The Topanga Nordstrom

The Trump camp supported Ivanka’s fashion line. | Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Despite the legal rules against it, Trump has used his presidential position to benefit the various businesses owned by himself and his family. Starting with the first lady’s White House bio, which featured Melania’s jewelry line: “‘Melania™ Timepieces & Jewelry,’ on QVC.”

Other examples include Kellyanne Conway’s endorsement of Ivanka’s clothing line: “Go buy Ivanka’s stuff!” she urged Americans, and Mar-a-Lago’s doubled initiation fee since Trump became president. Additionally, Federal Election Commission reports revealed thatTrump’s campaign paid $12.8 million to his own companies over the course of the 2016 election.”

Next: The first major sex scandal

12. The Reynolds Pamphlet

Portait of Alexander Hamilton

His lover’s husband blackmailed Hamilton for his affair. | Wikimedia Commons

If you’re a Hamilton fan, you’ll recognize this scandal from disc two of the hit Broadway musical. In 1791, the nation’s first major sex scandal occurred. Alexander Hamilton was Secretary of Treasury when he began his affair with a married woman, Maria Reynolds. The affair ended up being a setup orchestrated by Reynolds’s husband, James. He demanded over $1,000 to not go public with the information.

Hamilton obliged, and the affair continued. But, in 1792, James Reynolds leaked the information to government investigators. Hamilton chose to take matters into his own hands and published a pamphlet of his own, explaining his extortion.

Next: A duel proves deadly

13. Aaron Burr’s new western empire

Aaron Burr Portrait

Aaron Burr was planning on taking over the West. | Wikimedia Commons

If you’re not a Hamilton fan, you might not know that Aaron Burr shot and killed Hamilton in a duel. Less than two years later, Burr led a plot to create a new western empire with the intention of ruling it himself, but not without invading Spanish territories.

According to Biography, there’s also evidence that he planned to spark a revolution to divide the western territories of the Louisiana Purchase from the United States. To help him with this plan, he sought out U.S. General James Wilkinson, a Spanish spy. In a year’s time, he organized recruits and military equipment on an island located on the Ohio River. However, in 1806, Wilkinson chose not to participate in Burr’s plan and told President Thomas Jefferson everything.

Next: Scandal hits the White House during Andrew Jackson’s presidency.

14. In defense of Ms. Eaton

Margaret Eaton

Peggy O’Neal a.k.a. Margaret Eaton was so famous that her scandal even played out on cigar boxes. | Wikimedia Commons

The “petticoat affair” revolved around Margaret Eaton, the wife of Andrew Jackson’s Secretary of War. Eaton married her husband a few months after her first husband committed suicide. This, along with her outspoken nature, earned her a scarlet letter of sorts among the people of the Washington. Right away, President Jackson took an interest in Eaton and defended her vehemently. He went so far as to interrogate her critics and even held a cabinet meeting to defend her further.

According to History, when the rumors didn’t subside, Jackson became convinced that they were all part of a larger plan to cause tension between those in his administration. He became so paranoid that he fired or accepted the resignation of almost all of his cabinet members.

Next: A legislator gets expelled from the Senate.

15. Blount’s expulsion

Portrait of William Blount

Congressman Wiliam Blount conspired with Britain. | Wikimedia Commons

William Blount was the first person expelled from the U.S. Senate. In 1796, he planned to help the British seize what is now Louisiana and Florida (Spanish-held territory at the time). He planned for Cherokee Indians and frontiersmen to fight against the Spanish and force them to the Gulf Coast.  

Unfortunately for Blount, President John Adams discovered a letter Blount wrote about the plan. Though the Senate voted to expel him, Blount went on to serve on the Tennessee state legislature as an appointed speaker.

Next: An affair turns deadly.

16. A crime of passion

Daniel Sickles and Barton Key

A portrayal of Daniel Sickles killing Philip Barton Key in front of the White House. | Wikimedia Commons

This scandal involved New York Congressman Daniel Sickles, his wife, Teresa, and his close friend Philip Barton Key II (District Attorney and son of “The Star-Spangled Banner” author, Francis Scott Key). Teresa and Key had an affair unbeknownst to Sickles but known by just about everyone else. Key supposedly even hung a handkerchief from his window whenever he wanted to call upon Teresa. One day, Sickles received an anonymous letter informing him of the affair.

Days later, an outraged Sickles approached Key just outside the White House and shot him to death in front of multiple witnesses. During Sickles’s trial in 1859, his lawyers tried a new approach. They claimed “temporary insanity,” which no legal team had attempted in an American court. The claim worked and the court acquitted Sickles.

Next: This politician accepted bribes from oil companies.

17. Teapot Dome

Albert Fall

He was one shady politician. | Wikimedia Commons

Known womanizer and former Secretary of the Interior, Albert Fall, accepted bribes from oil companies in exchange for the right to drill on federal land that had been set aside in case of emergency. The scandal earned its name thanks to a teapot-shaped plot of land known as Teapot Dome that was involved in the agreement.

In April 1922, rumors started circulating concerning shady oil activity. Local Wyoming oilmen started noticing trucks hauling oilfield equipment up to Teapot Dome. The Wall Street Journal was the publication to break the news.

Next: Whiskey, bribes, and the Republican party

18. The Whiskey Ring

Grant faced a lot of backlash for the scandal.| Wikimedia Commons

The Whiskey Ring was a scandal that happened under the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant. The scandal involved a bribe between distillers and government officials. At the time, whiskey was supposed to be taxed at 70 cents a gallon, but, per their agreement, distillers instead paid officials 35 cents per gallon though the whiskey was marked as having paid the full tax. Prior to being exposed in 1875, the group of politicians involved (many whom were close to Grant) successfully siphoned off millions of dollars in federal taxes.    

Additional reporting by Ali Harrison.

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