The Biggest Donald Trump Scandals (So Far)

White House Insiders Describe an Administration in Chaos

Donald Trump on the White House grounds
President Donald Trump walks to the White House from the South Lawn in June 2017. Alex Wong/Getty Images

It didn't take long for Donald Trump's presidency to become mired in scandal and controversy. The list of Donald Trump scandals grew long soon after he took office in January 2017. Some had their roots in his use of social media to insult or attack political enemies and foreign leaders. Others involved a revolving door of staffers and senior officials who either quick or were fired. The most serious Trump scandal, though, emerged from Russia's alleged meddling in the 2016 presidential election and the president's efforts to undermine the investigation into the matter. Some members of Trump's own administration grew concerned about his behavior. Here's a look at the biggest Trump scandals so far, what they're about and how Trump responded to the controversies surrounding him. 

Impeachment

Donald Trump shakes hands with Ukranian President Zelensky
Trump meets with Ukranian President Zelensky in 2019.

The White House / Flickr / Public Domain

President Trump became the first American president ever to be impeached twice. First, in December 2019, he was impeached on two articles related to his alleged attempt to pressure Ukraine to interfere in the 2020 presidential election. He was impeached by the House, but acquitted by the Senate. In January 2021, only weeks before his term expired, he was impeached a second time, this time on a charge of incitement of insurrection for his role in attempting to overturn the results of the 2020 election, leading to the January 6 Capitol riots.

What the Scandal Is About

Trump's dual impeachments both are about fundamental conflicts between what are perceived as his personal interests and the interests of the country as a whole. The Ukraine scandal centered, like his earlier scandal linked to Russia, on Trump's attempts to convince a foreign entity to aid him in a presidential election. In this case, he reportedly tried to withhold military aid to Ukraine and pressured the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to investigate conspiracy theories involving Democratic National Committee servers, Trump's political opponent Joe Biden, and Biden's son Hunter.

Trump's second impeachment came as the pinnacle of a two-month effort by the president and his allies to discredit and even overturn the results of the 2020 election, in which Trump lost re-election to Democratic challenger Joe Biden. He repeatedly pushed claims of election fraud (including conspiracy theories about mail-in voting and a particular brand of voting machines), filed over sixty lawsuits contesting elections in key swing states (nearly all of which he lost immediately), and was caught on a recording calling the Georgia Secretary of State to pressure him to "find 11,780 votes" to flip the state to Trump. Prior to the Capitol riot of January 6, 2021, in which a pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol building during the formal certification of electoral votes and left five people dead, Trump spoke at a rally and urged his followers to march to the Capitol and "stop the steal."

What Critics Say

Regarding the Trump-Ukraine scandal that led to the first impeachment, critics say that it was part of a pattern of Trump illegally soliciting foreign interference for his own political gain, misusing his powers of office to do so. The accusations fully reached public view after a whistleblower from the U.S. intelligence community reported the contents of Trump's call with Zelensky and the simultaneous change in U.S. policy towards aid to Ukraine. The whistleblower complaint also alleged that the White House attempted to cover up records of the call.

The House Intelligence Committee ultimately published a report as part of the impeachment investigations. In part, the report concluded that "President Trump, personally and acting through agents within and outside of the U.S. government, solicited the interference of a foreign government, Ukraine, to benefit his reelection. In furtherance of this scheme, President Trump conditioned official acts on a public announcement by the new Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, of politically-motivated investigations, including one into Joe Biden, one of Trump's domestic political opponents. In pressuring President Zelensky to carry out his demand, President Trump withheld a White House meeting desperately sought by the Ukrainian President, and critical U.S. military assistance."

Trump's second impeachment came about after his months-long quest to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election were linked to the deadly riot at the Capitol. "This was not a close election... I won them both and the second one I won much bigger than the first, okay?" he told followers at a rally just prior to the riot, promising to walk with them to the Capitol to "peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard." "You'll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength and you have to be strong...something is wrong here, something is really wrong, can't have happened and we fight, we fight like hell, and if you don't fight like hell you're not going to have a country anymore."

While Trump's critics, both within his own party and among Democrats, laid blame at his feet for the day's events, the rioters themselves declared themselves to be following Trump. A New York Times report quoted several rioters who said they were "[following] the president's instructions" and "answer[ing] the call of my president;" one rioter was caught on camera telling Capitol security that the rioters were "listening to Trump, your boss." It follows a long line of accusations that Trump has nurtured and fanned the flames of far-right, white nationalist, and anti-democratic violence. "It is deliberate and by design, and it is honestly frightening,” Lynda Garcia, the policing campaign director for the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said to NBC News.

What Trump Says

Following the whistleblower complaint over Trump's phone call with Zelensky, Trump was caught on tape commenting about how to deal with it. "I want to know who’s the person, who’s the person who gave the whistleblower the information? Because that’s close to a spy. You know what we used to do in the old days when we were smart? Right? The spies and treason, we used to handle it a little differently than we do now.”

Trump also refused to take responsibility for his actions leading up to the Capitol riot. He called his remarks at the rally "totally appropriate" and seemed to threaten the impeachment leaders and those suggesting he should be removed via the 25th Amendment. "As the expression goes, be careful what you wish for."

2020 Election

Donald Trump stands on a stage with American flags behind him
Trump speaks at the Jan. 6 rally in D.C. prior to the Capitol riots.

Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

The 2020 presidential election pitted incumbent Trump against Democrat Joe Biden, a former U.S. Senator from Delaware and the former vice president to Trump's predecessor, Barack Obama. Following Trump's loss in the election, rather than conceding and working on the usual peaceful transition of power to the next administration, Trump and his allies filed dozens of lawsuits and made numerous speeches claiming election fraud and attempting to overturn the results of the election, particularly in swing states that broke for Biden.

What the Scandal Is About

In a nutshell, the scandal is about the losing candidate of a presidential election refusing to accept the results. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, several states changed or updated their rules regarding mail-in and early voting in an attempt to make voting safer during a deadly pandemic. Because of this, it took a little more time to count votes (many states require mail-in votes to be counted last), and Trump's team falsely claimed that this was actually evidence of voter fraud.

Trump's team filed over sixty lawsuits alleging irregularities and attempting to overturn results in states including Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin - all swing states that Biden won. In court, in contrast to the fiery language targeted at the public, Trump's lawyers alleged procedural irregularities. All but one of their cases was thrown out, and the one temporary win was later overturned.

What Critics Say

Even the legal and judicial professionals who oversaw the Trump campaign's lawsuits had strong words for the president. One Michigan judge, for instance, denied an injunction to halt certification of the state's votes with a blunt ruling that stated, in part, "Plaintiffs’ allegation is mere speculation... [they] offered no evidence to support their assertions."

Another ruling, this one out of Pennsylvania, offered a sharp rebuke to Republicans seeking to overturn the state's votes. "This lawsuit seems to be less about achieving the relief plaintiffs seek ... and more about the impact of their allegations on people’s faith in the democratic process and their trust in our government... Plaintiffs ask this court to ignore the orderly statutory scheme established to challenge elections and to ignore the will of millions of voters. This, the court cannot, and will not, do."

What Trump Says

Trump and his closest allies, such as lawyers Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell, pushed a variety of conspiracy theories about the election. Trump refused to concede the election, continuing to insist that he actually won, even after every legal avenue was exhausted. The closest Trump came to admitting his loss came in a video on the heels of the January 2021 Capitol riot, when he said "a new administration will be inaugurated on January 20th."

The Russia Scandal

Russian President Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin denied his country sought to interfere with the 2016 presidential election. : Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images Contributor

The Russia scandal was the most serious of the controversies surrounding the Trump presidency in its early days. It involved a number of key players besides the president himself, including the national security adviser and the FBI director. The Russia scandal had its origins in the general election campaign between Trump, a Republican, and former U.S. Sen. and onetime Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a Democrat. Both the FBI and CIA said hackers who targeted the Democratic National Committee and the private emails of Clinton’s campaign chairman were working for Moscow, hoping to sway the election to Trump. U.S. intelligence agencies also said that Russia was working to sow dissent and confusion among American voters in an attempt to undermine its democratic institutions.

What the Scandal Is About

At its core, this scandal is about national security and the integrity of the American voting system. That a foreign government was able to interfere in a presidential election to help one candidate win is an unprecedented breach. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence said it had "high confidence" the Russian government sought to help win the election for Trump. "We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election. Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary (Hillary) Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump," the report stated.

What Critics Say

Critics of Trump were troubled by the connections between the Trump campaign and Russians. They successfully called for an independent special prosecutor to get to the bottom of the hacking. Former FBI Director Robert Mueller was later appointed as a special counsel to handle the investigation into campaign ties between Trump and Russia.

Some Democrats began talking openly about the prospect of impeaching Trump. “I know that there are those who are talking about, ‘Well, we’re going to get ready for the next election.' No, we can’t wait that long. We don’t need to wait that long. He will have destroyed this country by then," Democratic U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters of California said. In 2018, Deputy U.S. Attorney General Rod Rosenstein reportedly suggested he secretly record Trump in the White House to "expose the chaos consuming the administration" and was said to have discussed recruiting cabinet members to invoke the 25th Amendment, which allows for the forceful removal of a president. Rosenstein denied the reports.

On March 22, 2019, Special Counsel Robert Mueller concluded his investigation. Two days later, Attorney General William Barr released a four-page "summary" claiming that the report "did not find that the Trump campaign or anyone associated with it conspired or coordinated with Russia to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election." However, Mueller privately wrote to Barr, noting that Barr's summary did not adequately explain the report and had led to "public confusion about critical aspects of the results of [the] investigation." He asked Barr to release other non-redacted sections of the report (an introduction and an executive summary) to clarify to the public; Barr refused.

In August 2020, the bipartisan, Republican-majority United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released its final report on the links between Trump, Russia, and the 2016 election. The lengthy report concluded that there had been significant links between the Trump campaign and Russia; of particular note was how former campaign chair Paul Manafort hired a former Russian intelligence operative who may have been involved in the DNC hack and leaks.

What Trump Says

The president has said the allegations of Russian interference are an excuse used by Democrats still smarting over an election they believed they should have been able to win easily. "This Russia thing - with Trump and Russia - is a made-up story. It's an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won," Trump said.

Towards the end of his presidency, Trump pardoned key players in the Russia scandal, including Manafort and Michael Flynn, a former lieutenant general who had pled guilty to misleading testimony about his communications with the Russian ambassador.

The Firing of James Comey

James Comey
Former FBI Director James Comey leaves a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing in 2017. Drew Angerer/Getty Images News

Trump fired FBI Director James Comey in May 2017 and blamed senior Justice Department officials for the move. Democrats had viewed Comey with suspicion because, 11 days before the 2016 presidential election, he announced he was reviewing emails found on a laptop computer belonging to a Hillary Clinton confidant to determine whether they were relevant to the then-closed investigation of her use of the personal email server.

What the Scandal Is About

At the time of his firing, Comey was directing the investigation into Russians' interference in the 2016 presidential election and whether any of Trump's advisers or campaign staff had colluded with them. Trump's firing of the FBI director was seen as a way to halt the investigation, and Comey later testified under oath that Trump asked him to drop his investigation of the former national security adviser, Michael Flynn. Flynn had misled the White House about his conversations with the Russian ambassador to the United States. 

What Critics Say

Critics of Trump clearly believe Trump's firing of Comey, which was abrupt and unexpected, was a clear attempt to interfere with the FBI's investigation of Russian interference with the 2016 election. Some said it was worse than the cover-up in the Watergate scandal, which led to President RIchard Nixon's resignation. “Russia attacked our democracy and the American people deserve answers. President Trump’s decision to make this move ... is an attack on the rule of law and raises more questions that demand answers. Firing the FBI Director does not place the White House, the President, or his campaign above the law," said Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin.

Even Republicans were troubled by the firing. Republican U.S. Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina said he was “troubled by the timing and reasoning of Director Comey’s termination. I have found Director Comey to be a public servant of the highest order, and his dismissal further confuses an already difficult investigation by the Committee."

What Trump Says

Trump has called coverage of the Russia investigation "fake news" and said there is no evidence Russia changed the outcome of the presidential election. The president tweeted: "This is the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!" Trump has said he looked forward to "this matter concluding quickly. As I have stated many times, a thorough investigation will confirm what we already know — there was no collusion between my campaign and any foreign entity."

The Resignation of Michael Flynn

National Security Adviser Michael Flynn
National Security Adviser Michael Flynn is pictured here in Washington, D.C. Mario Tama/Getty Images News

Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn was tapped by Trump to be his national security adviser in November 2016, just days after the presidential election. He resigned the position after just 24 days on the job, in February of 2017 after The Washington Post reported that he lied to Vice President Mike Pence and other White House officials about his meetings with a Russian ambassador to the United States.

What the Scandal Is About

The meetings Flynn had with the Russian ambassador were portrayed as being potentially illegal, and his alleged cover-up of them concerned the Justice Department, which believed his mischaracterization made him vulnerable to blackmail by the Russians. Flynn was said to have discussed U.S. sanctions on Russia with the ambassador. 

What Critics Say

Critics of Trump saw the Flynn controversy as further evidence of the presidential campaign's ties to Russia and its possible collusion with Russia to damage Clinton.

What Trump Says

The Trump White House was more concerned about leaks to the news media that about the actual nature of Flynn's conversations with the Russian ambassador. Trump himself reportedly asked Comey to drop his investigation of Flynn, saying, “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go,” according to The New York Times.

Public Service and Private Gain

Trump has dismissed such claims as being "without merit" and has remained defiant about maintaining ownership of his vast network of real estate and business holdings.

Donald Trump inaugural ball
President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump dance at the Freedom Ball on January 20, 2017. Kevin Dietsch - Pool / Getty Images

Trump, a wealthy businessman who operates country clubs and resorts, reportedly profited from at least 10 foreign governments during his time as president. The include the Kuwaiti Embassy, which booked the Trump hotel for an event; a public-relations firm hired by Saudi Arabia that spent $270,000 on rooms, meals and parking at Trump's hotel in Washington; and Turkey, which used the same facility for a government-sponsored event.

Throughout his presidency, Trump also spent a large amount of time at resorts and golf courses owned by his own company - meaning that the U.S. government and taxpayers have been paying for presidential trips and security to properties that directly profit Trump himself. One estimate had the cost at over $142 million as of November 2020.

What the Scandal Is About

Critics argue Trump's acceptance of payments from foreign governments violates the Foreign Emoluments Clause, which bans elected officials in the United States from accepting gifts or other valuables from foreign leaders. The Constitution states: "No Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State."

What Critics Say

Dozens of lawmakers and several entities have filed suit against Trump alleging violations of the clause, including the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “Trump is the framers’ worst-case scenario — a president who would seize office and attempt to exploit his position for personal financial gain with every governmental entity imaginable, across the United States or around the world,” Norman Eisen, the chief White House ethics lawyer for Obama, told The Washington Post.

What Trump Says

Trump has dismissed such claims as being "without merit" and has remained defiant about maintaining ownership of his vast network of real estate and business holdings.

Trump's Use of Twitter

Trump has no regrets about any of his tweets or even using Twitter to communicate with his supporters. “I don’t regret anything, because there is nothing you can do about it. You know if you issue hundreds of tweets, and every once in a while you have a clinker, that’s not so bad,” Trump told a Financial Times interviewer. “Without the tweets, I wouldn’t be here . . . I have over 100 million followers between Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. Over 100 million. I don’t have to go to the fake media.”

Donald Trump on Twitter
One of President Donald Trump's tweets is on display in a museum. Drew Angerer/Getty Images News

The most powerful elected official in the universe has an army of paid spokesmen, communications staffers and public-relations pros working to craft the messages coming from the White House. So how did Donald Trump choose to talk to the American people? Via the social-media network Twitter, without a filter and often in the wee hours of the night. He's referred to himself as "the Ernest Hemingway of 140 characters." Trump was not the first president to use Twitter; the microblogging service came online when Barack Obama was president. Obama used Twitter, but his tweets were carefully vetted before being broadcast to millions of people.

What the Scandal Is About

There is no filter between the thoughts, ideas and emotions held by Trump and the expression of them on Twitter. Trump has used tweets to mock foreign leaders in times of crisis, hammer his political foes in Congress and even accuse Obama of bugging his office in Trump Tower. "Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my 'wires tapped' in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!" Trump tweeted. The claim was unsubstantiated and quickly debunked. Trump also used Twitter to attack London Mayor Sadiq Khan shortly after a terrorist attack in 2017. "At least 7 dead and 48 wounded in terror attack and Mayor of London says there is 'no reason to be alarmed!'" Trump tweeted.

Trump's use of Twitter also was central to the controversy over the January 6 Capitol riot, where he used the platform to urge his supporters on prior to the insurrection. Hours after the initial violence, he used Twitter to post a video message in which he repeated his lies about election fraud, told his followers "we love you, you’re very special," and, shortly after, tweeted, "These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long." As a result, Twitter first suspended his account, then banned it permanently.

What Critics Say

The idea that Trump, whose bombastic and brash manner of speaking is off-putting in diplomatic settings, is posting what amount to be official statements without being advised by White House staff or policy experts worries many observers. “The idea he would tweet without anyone reviewing it or thinking about what he’s saying is frankly pretty frightening,” Larry Noble, general counsel of the Campaign Legal Center in Washington, D.C., told Wired.

What Trump Says

Trump has no regrets about any of his tweets or even using Twitter to communicate with his supporters. “I don’t regret anything, because there is nothing you can do about it. You know if you issue hundreds of tweets, and every once in a while you have a clinker, that’s not so bad,” Trump told a Financial Times interviewer. “Without the tweets, I wouldn’t be here . . . I have over 100 million followers between Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. Over 100 million. I don’t have to go to the fake media.”

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Murse, Tom. "The Biggest Donald Trump Scandals (So Far)." ThoughtCo, Jan. 19, 2021, thoughtco.com/trump-scandals-4142784. Murse, Tom. (2021, January 19). The Biggest Donald Trump Scandals (So Far). Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/trump-scandals-4142784 Murse, Tom. "The Biggest Donald Trump Scandals (So Far)." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/trump-scandals-4142784 (accessed January 22, 2021).