Recently there have been rumors that the Manhattan DA is going to indict Donald Trump for campaign finance violations over paying hush money to Stormy Daniels. The word "unprecedented" is often used to describe this potential arrest of a former President.

But is it the indictment that's unprecedented, or the fact that the former President committed such a serious offense in the first place?

The only one in my lifetime I can think of is Nixon, but Ford preemptively pardoned him so he couldn't be indicted.

EDIT (after Raveesh's answer, because I realized I wasn't clear):

To keep this tractable, let's limit it to US laws. International law opens up a large can of worms due to opinions about whether military actions constitute war crimes.

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    @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica Unfortunately the end note about Lets limit this to US law was added after my answer. As I pointed out to OP this violates SE principles. So I hope he will restore it to the original form. A US president has never been indited is just a google away
    – Raveesh
    Mar 22 at 16:28
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    @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica Impeachment isn't a legal issue. Several other Presidents have been impeached, so obviously that's not "unprecedented" (although 2 impeachments of Trump was a new record).
    – Barmar
    Mar 22 at 18:20
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    @Fizz I'm pretty sure none were ever indicted. So the question is whether there were Presidents who could have been indicted, but prosecutors chose to give them a pass. Assuming Trump is indicted, he might have a legitimate claim that he's being singled out for political reasons.
    – Barmar
    Mar 22 at 23:54
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    Okay, so to make this answerable by something other than speculation/opinion on who could have been indicted but wasn't, I suppose the only real criterion is that some DA said they considered it?
    – Fizz
    Mar 23 at 0:06
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    A nitpick in the realm of language precision: Trump wasn't yet president when the Stormy Daniels payments were made, much less former president. If evidence arose that George W Bush had committed bribery in his business career in the 1970s, would that count? Would the treason committed by the first few presidents against the king of Great Britain count?
    – phoog
    Mar 24 at 10:40

2 Answers 2


We know that at least two recent presidents committed felonies.

We have Richard Nixon, who Obstructed Justice as he tried to thwart the investigation into the Watergate burglaries. Nixon was also an Accessory After the Fact to those Burglaries, and he could also have been charged with Conspiracy as he was paying the burglars to be quiet. There are a whole slew of other crimes related to Watergate but those are the highlights for which Nixon could have been indicted

  • When all of these facts came to light, Nixon resigned from the presidency, and was pardoned a month later (likely part of the agreement for him to go quietly).

We also have Bill Clinton, who in 1998 committed Grand Jury Perjury and Obstructed Justice when he lied about an affair in a sworn affidavit. Clinton was impeached for this lie, but Clinton was acquitted by the Senate.

  • Subsequent to the acquittal, Clinton was cited for Contempt of Court and fined $90,000. Clinton was also investigated by the Arkansas bar and in a plea deal had his law license suspended for 5 years. Clinton also agreed to another plea deal with the special counsel Robert Ray paying a $25,000 fine to avoid indictments.
  • Clinton could have quite easily been indicted once he left office had he not agreed to those plea deals. While opinions differ on whether Clinton got off easy or not for lying in a sworn affidavit about sex, a 5 year law license suspension is pretty hefty. Just consider, Jimmy McGill broke into his brother's house, destroyed evidence, and assaulted his brother, and Mr. Better Call Saul lost his license for just 1 year!


There are plenty of conspiracy theories, some of which I believe, about Ronald Reagan and George W Bush committing felonies, but there is no hard evidence about either. George HW Bush and Jimmy Carter kept their noses pretty clean, while Barack Obama avoided scandal like the plague during his stay in the White House.

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    The question already mentions Nixon and his pardon, but Clinton is a good answer.
    – F1Krazy
    Mar 24 at 9:48
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    5 year law license suspension is pretty hefty -- is it much of a punishment if you don't plan on acting as a lawyer? It seems like mainly a symbolic act, perhaps with a little impact on reputation, but he doesn't seem to have suffered much.
    – Barmar
    Mar 24 at 16:44
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    Would Reagan's conspiracy theories likely be related to Iran Contra?
    – Barmar
    Mar 24 at 16:45
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    I got the joke, but the obvious difference is that Jimmy wanted to be a lawyer, while Clinton had long ended his legal career. It's kind of like being sentenced to house arrest when you live in a lavish mansion.
    – Barmar
    Mar 24 at 16:54
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    @Barmar Iran Contra is one possibility. Did Reagan know? If he did that was a felony. Another is the Iran Embassy Hostages who were released an hour after Reagan was inaugurated. Carter tried hard to negotiate a release before the election but Iran chose to wait till Reagan was in office. Then Reagan covertly sells arms to Iran in spite of the 2 countries being enemies. There are a few conspiracy theories out there claiming that Regan's 1980 election campaign cut a deal with Iran to stymie Carter's efforts. If true, that's treason.
    – Special_K
    Mar 24 at 16:56

There's a well-seen (nearly 5 million views) snip of Chomsky

I'll just take the transcript, with paragraph boundaries at each President. I guess the interview is from more than twenty years ago since it stops at Clinton

The Transcript

Interviewer: You said that if the Nuremberg principles were applied, every post-World War II president would be indictable.

Chomsky: It’s probably true.

Q Can we run down them real fast? What did Eisenhower do that would indict him? -


Eisenhower overthrew the conservative nationalist government of Iran with a military coup. He overthrew the first and last democratic government in Guatemala by military coup and invasion, leading to years of In Iran it led to 25 years of brutal dictatorship, finally overthrown in 79. In Guatemala it led to massive atrocities which are still continuing. That's after almost 50 years. In Indonesia, this was not known until recently, but he conducted a major clandestine terror operation of the post-war period, up until Cuban and Nicaragua, in an effort to break up Indonesia and strip off the outer islands where most of the resources are, and undermine what was then considered as the threat of Indonesian democracy. Indonesia was too free and open. It was allowing a political party of the poor to participate. They were gaining a lot of ground, so Eisenhower supported and helped instigate a military rebellion in the outer islands. This is just for starters. These are all indictable offenses.


Kennedy was one of the worst. Kennedy, first of all, invaded South Vietnam. During the Eisenhower administration they had blocked a political settlement in 1954, and instituted a kind of Latin American- style terror state which had killed maybe 60 or 70 thousand people by the end of the Eisenhower period, and it had instigated a response, a reaction that Kennedy recognized couldn't be controlled internally, so he simply invaded. In 1962, about a third of the bombing missions were carried out by the US Air Force in the South by US planes with South Vietnamese insignia but US pilots. He authorized napalm. He began the use of chemical weapons to destroy food crops. They began programs which drove millions of people into what amounted to concentration camps. That's aggression. In the case of Cuba it was just a massive campaign of international terrorism which almost led to the destruction of the world, led to the missile crisis, and we can continue. Again, these are all indictable offenses.


Johnson expanded the war in Indochina to the point where he ended up probably leaving three or four million people dead. He invaded the Dominican Republic to block what looked like a potential democratic revolution there. He supported the Israeli occupation in its early stages. Again, we can go around the world.


Nixon we don't even have to talk about. We can skip that one, OK?


Ford was only there for a short time but long enough to endorse the Indonesian invasion of East Timor which became about as close to genocide as anything in the modern period. They pretended to oppose it, but secretly supported it, in fact not so secretly. Immediately after the invasion the US did join the rest of the world in formally condemning it at the Security Council, but ambassador Moynihan was kind enough to explain to us in his words that his instructions were to render the United Nations utterly ineffective in any actions it might take to counter the Indonesian invasion and he says proudly that he did this with considerable success, and his next sentence says in the next few months it seems that about sixty thousand people were killed and then he goes off to the next topic. That's the first few months. It went on to probably hundreds of thousands. Formally the US announced the boycott of weapons but secretly it increased the supply of weapons including counterinsurgency equipment so that the Indonesians could consummate the invasion. That's just a short period in office but that's indictable, seriously, in fact. That’s a major war crime.


Carter increased, as the Indonesian atrocities were increasing — they peaked in 1978 — Carter's flow of weapons to Indonesia increased. When Congress imposed human rights restrictions — by then there was a human rights movement in Congress to block the flow of advanced weaponry to Indonesia — Carter arranged through Mondale, the vice president, to get Israel to send US Skyhawks to Indonesia to enable Indonesia to complete what turned out to be near genocide, killing maybe a quarter of the population or something. In the Middle East, Carter had just won the Nobel Prize. His great achievement was the Camp David agreements. The Camp David agreements are presented as a diplomatic triumph for the United States. In fact, they were a diplomatic catastrophe. At Camp David the United States and Israel accepted finally Egypt’s 1971 offer which the US had rejected at the time except that now it was worse from the US-Israeli point of view because it included the Palestinians. In order get Israel to accept Egypt’S 1971 offer, after a major war and atrocities and so on, Carter raised military and other aid to Israel to more than fifty percent of total aid worldwide. Israel used it at once in exactly the way they said they were going to do, as every sane person knew, as an opportunity to attack their northern neighbor, first in 1978 then in 1982, and to increase integration of the occupied territories. And that's for starters. We can continue.


I don't think we have to talk about that one, either. I mean Reagan is the first president to have been condemned by the International Court of Justice for what they called the unlawful use of force, meaning international terrorism, in the war against Nicaragua. Again, that's just for starters. The Security Council endorsed it in two resolutions, both of which were vetoed by the United States.

George H.W. Bush

Well, we can begin with the invasion of Panama. The invasion of Panama, which according to the Panamanians killed about 3,000 people. Since it's never investigated, who knows if that's true or not. This was done in order to kidnap a disobedient thug who had been supported by the United States right through his worst atrocities. -Noriega. -Noriega, who was brought to Florida and tried for crimes that he had committed mostly on the CIA payroll. OK, that's aggression. You could go into the details of the war in Iraq, but there were plainly opportunities for… they might not have worked, but there were opportunities for diplomatic settlement which the Bush administration refused to consider, and, incidentally, the press would not report, with a single exception: Long Island Newsday, which did report the whole story throughout accurately, and it is the only newspaper in the country to have done so. The Bush administration then did attack and the attack was carried out and in a manner which is criminal under the laws of war. They attacked infrastructure. If you attack New York City and you destroy the electrical system, the sewage systems and so on, that amounts to biological warfare, and that's the nature of the attack. Then came a sanctions regime, which was mostly Clinton, but began with Bush, which by conservative estimates killed hundreds of thousands of people while strengthening Saddam Hussein. That takes us off to Clinton. That's the beginning. That's by no means the end. We could run through it. That one case suffices, but there are plenty of others.


One of Clinton's very minor escapades was sending a couple of cruise missiles to the Sudan to destroy what they knew to be a pharmaceutical plant. There was no intelligence failure. According to the only estimates we have from the German ambassador and the regional director of Near East Foundation, which does field work in Sudan, both of them estimated several tens of thousands of deaths from one cruise missile. Very serious. If somebody did that to us, we’d regard it as bad news, and again we can continue. In the Middle East, for example, Clinton began by declaring past UN resolutions, in the words of his administration, “obsolete and anachronistic” because we're finished with that. No more international law. Then comes a period called a peace process except that during the peace process Israeli settlement, which means settlement paid for by the US taxpayer and supported by US military aid and diplomacy, continually increased. The most extreme year was Clinton's last year: the highest level of settlement, the highest since 1992. Meanwhile the territories were cantonized and broken up into small regions with infrastructure projects and new settlement. I don't know what you call that, but it's under military occupation, and if anyone else was doing it, we would call it a crime, and again we can continue.

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    @barmar Normally in stackexchange policy question edits that invalidate existing answers is not considered good practice
    – Raveesh
    Mar 22 at 16:15
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    Yes, but this was very much as part of a question about an internal US affair. The Stormy Daniels stuff has nothing to do with your long list which would belong somewhere else. Like maybe the ICC buzz that is doing the rounds. Mar 22 at 16:27
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    @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica this question is somewhat confused. Most people when they hear about indiction think of Milosevich Karadzic etc - ie very much an international affair. Impeachments OTOH are a US congress matter. And Stormy Daniels is a personal matter.
    – Rusi
    Mar 22 at 16:58
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    @rusi, Indictment is a normal part of US judicial process. Impeachment applies only to a limited number of top level elected or appointed officials, and that only during their term of office. There is no reason to assume (in the context of the US) that the word "indictment" implies international affairs rather than routine legal proceedings. Murderers, drug dealers, car thieves, and others are indicted daily. Mar 22 at 17:56
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    @user4556274 For your intra national use. A President has never been indicted (Raveesh link above)
    – Rusi
    Mar 22 at 18:12

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