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4 US presidents who fell foul of the law

Donald Trump speaking at a rally
Image: Editorial credit: Evan El-Amin /

In May 2024, Donald Trump was found guilty of 34 counts of falsifying business records. The 45th president of the United States was accused of criminally altering his business records in order to cover up a payment he made to adult actress Stormy Daniels ahead of the 2016 election. The historic ruling makes him the first US president to ever be criminally convicted.

However, Trump is not the first president to fall foul of the law. Here are four other US presidents who have found themselves in hot legal waters.

1. Richard Nixon

Whatever the future holds for Donald Trump, he’s almost managed to dwarf the scandal surrounding the resignation of the 37th president, Richard Nixon, in 1974. Until Trump, the Watergate scandal was the biggest political upset the USA had witnessed.

The Democratic National Committee (DNC) office was located in the Watergate complex (now luxury apartments), comprised of a group of six buildings in the Foggy Bottom neighbourhood of Washington, D.C. On 11th May 1972, the DNC office was broken into - classified documents were photographed and phones tapped - but when the perpetrators went in a second time on 17th June, they were caught and arrested.

Nixon was re-elected that year, but two Washington Post reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein began to investigate rumours that Nixon himself had covered up the break-in. Despite mounting evidence that Nixon had paid the burglars hush money and prevented both the FBI and CIA from further investigation, there was no concrete proof of his involvement.

It was only when the Supreme Court ordered Nixon to hand over tape recordings from the Oval Office, which revealed that Nixon was involved in the cover-up, that the decision was made to impeach him. But Nixon jumped before he was pushed and he left his post in disgrace. However, less than a month after his resignation, Nixon’s replacement, Gerald Ford granted the former president a full and unconditional pardon, while some of Nixon’s aides went to prison.

It’s worth noting that the tapes revealed other sinister goings-on in the Oval Office, such as ordering the firebombing of the Brooking Institute. While this attempt to destroy an influential think tank never materialised, the legacy of Watergate still looms large.

2. Warren G. Harding

The 29th president, Warren G. Harding, found himself under scrutiny in 1922 when one of his aides, Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall, was convicted of bribery in what became known as the Teapot Dome Scandal. Fall had taken substantial backhanders for allowing two of his friends leases to drill the oil reserves in Teapot Dome, Wyoming.

Fall went to prison for a year but Harding, whilst technically innocent of any wrongdoing, found himself at the sharp end of guilt by association and the press started digging into his affairs. Just before a fatal heart attack on 2nd August 1923, it was revealed that Harding had been involved in an extramarital affair. In 1927, another woman claimed that she’d also had an affair with Harding, and it was later revealed they had a daughter. Harding had paid $500 a month to cover child-care costs.

3. Bill Clinton

Warren G. Harding wasn’t the first president to be caught up in a sex scandal. The 42nd president, Bill Clinton, was involved with two sex scandals during his time in office, which ran from 1993 to 2001. Paula Jones reached an $850,000 out-of-court settlement in 1998 with Bill Clinton after accusing him of physical sexual harassment when he was governor of Arkansas seven years earlier. Despite the seriousness of the crime, it was Clinton’s affair with a 22-year-old intern, Monica Lewinsky, who was subpoenaed during the Jones vs Clinton trial, that brought him to the attention of the Supreme Court.

Both Clinton and Lewinsky had denied the affair under oath, but a colleague of the latter, Linda Tripp, had been secretly recording phone calls to Lewinsky who had admitted to nine sexual encounters with the president. Clinton was subsequently impeached, only the second time in US history (the first was Andrew Johnson in 1868) and then controversially acquitted.

4. Ulysses S. Grant

While Ulysses S. Grant’s conviction for speeding occurred before the invention of the automobile, you could still be in hot water for riding too fast on a horse and cart.

There are no documents to prove President Grant was arrested, just the account of one man, William West, a local police officer. West claimed to have cautioned President Grant for speeding on 13th Street, Washington, DC after residents complained of his reckless driving. The following day, West claimed to catch Grant and his friends again and the men were arrested and fined. West went on to say that he and Grant became friends for the remainder of Grant’s term, but without the documents to back up West's claim, the story remains apocryphal.