Who Were the Most Dishonest Presidents in History (and How Does Donald Trump Compare?)
Many presidents have told lies, some more outrageous than others. But just as some presidents were dumb, some were terrible people, and some had narcissistic personalities, some presidents were more dishonest than others. And of course, dishonesty is about more than the occasional fib.
Read on to learn about which commanders in chief were the most dishonest presidents in history. And on page 15, see how Donald Trump compares.
15. George Washington
- 1st president of the United States
Most people think of the first president of the United States as very honest. George Washington enjoys that reputation at least partially thanks to the myth that a young Washington couldn’t lie to his father about chopping down a cherry tree. The episode was actually invented by a biographer.
That may seem betrayal enough to Washington fans. But as Newsweek reports, Washington actually committed another kind of dishonesty: writing a love letter to another woman after he had already become engaged to his future wife, Martha. At least that’s about as scandalous as things got for the first president.
Next: This president began a corrupt system of appointing officials.
14. Andrew Jackson
- 7th president of the United States
Andrew Jackson makes the list of the most corrupt and therefore dishonest presidents. According to ATTN, “The inherently corrupt ‘spoil system,’ under which government officials were hired based on what they’d done for the incoming administration rather than on merit, dominated politics in the 19th century.” And who can we blame for that? Jackson.
Jackson “was unable to keep federal offices nonpartisan,” the publication explains. He “rewarded lucrative jobs to donors, friends, business associates, newspaper editors who had written in support of Jackson, Army veterans, and seemingly random characters.” Theft and corruption resulted. And as ATTN notes, it took decades to dismantle the system and all the dishonesty it encouraged.
Next: This president lied to begin a war.
13. James K. Polk
- 11th president of the United States
Alternet puts James Polk on the list of the biggest presidential liars. The reason why? All of the lies he told at the outset of the Mexican-American War. Polk wanted the Mexican territories of California and New Mexico to become part of the United States of America. So he offered Mexico $30 million for the land.
That price was also intended to buy Mexico’s recognition of the Rio Grande as the Texas border. Mexico didn’t agree. So Polk provoked an attack from Mexico when the country refused his offer. Then, the president told Congress that Mexico had invaded. “Thus, the Mexican-American War started on a lie,” Alternet explains.
Next: This president told a few lies despite his honest reputation.
12. Abraham Lincoln
- 16th president of the United States
Can a president known as “Honest Abe” really make the list of the most dishonest presidents? It turns out that he does. Alternet notes that to get elected and effect change, Lincoln “said many things that, in retrospect, he did not believe.”
In some speeches, Lincoln said that he wouldn’t interfere with slaveholders’ rights. And in some situations, he denied the equality of black people and white people. But most historians would agree that Lincoln did what he had to do to win the presidency and get to work.
Next: This president appointed numerous corrupt officials.
11. Ulysses S. Grant
- 18th president of the United States
ATTN reports that Ulysses S. Grant was known for his honesty. But he appointed dishonest officials to what the publication characterizes as the most corrupt administration of the 19th century.
“A near-ceaseless flow of money from speculation and western expansion led to an epidemic of corruption,” the publication explains. And instead of seeing the light and acting with integrity, “Grant responded by stubbornly protecting those accused of graft.”
Next: This president also had a corrupt administration.
10. Warren G. Harding
- 29th president of the United States
Warren G. Harding lands on ATTN’s list of the most corrupt presidents thanks to his personal and political scandals. The publication characterizes Harding as a “notorious philanderer.” He also makes the list of the presidents who fathered illegitimate children. But his womanizing ways did compromise Harding as president. In fact, he was blackmailed by a former mistress who threatened to expose their affair if he didn’t vote against war with Germany.
Harding also appointed numerous dishonest officials, one of whom became the first cabinet member to be convicted of a crime. (What an accomplishment!) Several of his appointees were convicted of bribery and fraud.
Next: This president lied about his ability to keep America out of war.
9. Franklin D. Roosevelt
- 32nd president of the United States
Alternet characterized Franklin D. Roosevelt as one of several presidents who lied about his ability to keep the U.S. out of war. He campaigned on the promise that “Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.” But according to the publication, Roosevelt knew that his actions in office would lead to war against the Nazis and the Imperial Army of Japan.
As he professed peace, Roosevelt began covertly meeting with Winston Churchill (on a presidential yacht) to provide Great Britain with much-needed arms. And, speaking of dishonesty, Roosevelt had an affair with his wife’s secretary. And on the day he died, his mistress was there — but his wife was not.
Next: This president had numerous affairs.
8. John F. Kennedy
- 35th president of the United States
John F. Kennedy famously lied about his intentions of invading Castro’s Cuba. But if adultery counts as dishonesty, then Kennedy may well have been the most dishonest president ever to hold office.
As Newsweek reports, Kennedy “was a notorious playboy whose extramarital affairs were so numerous that this shouldn’t be a surprise.” Kennedy had an affair with movie star Marilyn Monroe. He also had an affair with 19-year-old White House intern Mimi Alford. And he had another affair with Los Angeles socialite Judith Exner.
Next: This president told huge lies about a war.
7. Lyndon B. Johnson
- 36th president of the United States
Alternet puts Lyndon B. Johnson on the list of the biggest liars in presidential history. Johnson was dishonest with the American people about the reasons for the Vietnam War and the prospects for victory in the conflict. As The Guardian notes, Johnson himself supposedly said in private, “I don’t think we can win in Vietnam and I don’t think we can get out.”
In fact, Alternet notes that almost 60,000 American soldiers died in the Vietnam War due to ” the lies of Lyndon Johnson (with some able dishonest assistance from Richard Nixon).” Johnson distorted the facts about the Gulf of Tonkin Incident and led the United States into the war — despite widespread skepticism and even though he had campaigned as a pro-peace candidate.
Next: This president lied about several crimes.
6. Richard Nixon
- 37th president of the United States
As if Watergate — and Nixon’s declaration, “I am not a crook” — weren’t enough to make him one the most dishonest presidents, Richard Nixon earned that distinction before he was even sworn in. Alternet reports that as Nixon campaigned for office, Lyndon B. Johnson was trying to end the Vietnam War. Nixon knew that if the war continued, it would hurt Democrat Hubert Humphrey’s chances of winning the 1968 election.
So Nixon sent envoys to talk South Vietnamese leaders out of attending peace talks in Paris. Johnson found out. ANd he privately accused Nixon of treason. But Nixon’s plan worked. The war continued, Nixon became president, and only then could the war end.
Next: This president sabotaged his predecessor.
5. Ronald Reagan
- 40th president of the United States
Even setting aside the later Iran-Contra Affair, Ronald Reagan still makes the list of the most dishonest presidents thanks to another incident with Iran. Alternet reports that Reagan became president because “his people sabotaged then-President Jimmy Carter’s negotiations to release American hostages in Iran.”
Smithsonian Magazine notes that to win the election, Reagan’s campaign reportedly met with Iranian officials to delay the release of the hostages until after the election. As Alternet reports, “The Iran hostage crisis continued and torpedoed Jimmy Carter’s re-election hopes.” And as the Smithsonian explains, the hostages went free just minutes after Reagan took the oath of office.
Next: This president told a huge lie under oath.
4. Bill Clinton
- 42nd president of the United States
Not only did Bill Clinton have a high-profile affair while in the White House, but he also lied about it. Time counts Clinton’s quote, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman,” as one of the most “unfortunate political one-liners.” The rest is history. After denying his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, Clinton got impeached by the House of Representatives for lying about the affair under oath.
Another memorable Clinton scandal? As Vice reports, his staffers staged a “Vandal Scandal” by prying the “W” keys off all the White House keyboards and mislabeling doors “to spite the incoming president.”
Next: This president went into a war for all the wrong reasons.
3. George W. Bush
- 43rd president of the United States
Alternet notes that many people considered George W. Bush’s election illegitimate. But an even worse offense? Bush’s dishonesty about the decision to invade Iraq. As Vox reports, an investigative report from the U.K. government indicated that intelligence officials “knew ahead of time that the war would cause massive instability and societal collapse.”
They also realized that the war would “make the problem of terrorism worse.” But Bush, along with Tony Blair, “went ahead with the effort anyway.” Bush lied about war being forced upon the U.S. and lied about authorizing the use of torture.
Next: Barack Obama told his share of lies.
2. Barack Obama
- 44th president of the United States
Many Americans — especially those who voted in the current administration — would also put Barack Obama on the list of the most dishonest presidents. The Hill notes that Obama lied about Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA by stating, “There is no spying on Americans.” Obama said of the Affordable Care Act, “If you like your doctor, you’ll be able to keep your doctor; if you like your health care plan, you’ll be able to keep your health care plan.”
The Hill also notes that Obama made false promises to justify his actions in Afghanistan and Libya. Plus, he blamed Republicans for ideological rigidity while, as The Atlantic put it, the White House was just as guilty as the GOP.
Next: How does Donald Trump compare to the most dishonest presidents?
1. Donald Trump
- 45th president of the United States
New York Magazine reports that Donald Trump “ran the most dishonest presidential campaign in modern memory.” A historian said that Trump is running the most dishonest White House in American history. Trump has numerous conflicts of interest (despite claims to the contrary). Plus, more of Trump’s statements than Obama’s check out as false.
In fact, Trump kept fact-checkers busy both during his campaign and after he was sworn in as president. The Washington Post reports thatTrump made more than 2,000 misleading or outright-false statements during his first year in office alone.
Check out The Cheat Sheet on Facebook!