Having trouble keeping up with all the overlapping accusations of wrongdoing and scandal swirling around the Trump administration? Exhausted just trying to stay factually up to date? Twitter feed got you down?

Well, you aren’t imagining things. It isn’t just that the Trump administration is prone to scandal. The Trump administration is prone to an astounding pace and variety of scandal. Some incidents are primarily about sex; some are primarily about corruption and personal enrichment; others challenge the basic norms of American governance.

Sometimes it seems as if the administration is collapsing the history of American political scandal down to a singularity, offering the equivalent of a Major League Baseball “condensed game” of American political wrongdoing.

A brief tour of past presidential scandals can help us sort out how the Trump administration is replaying the greatest hits of American political ignominy.

A tweet from the Richard Nixon Presidential Library after comparisons were made between Nixon and President Trump when the latter fired the Director of the FBI, James Comey.

The High Bar

The ubiquitous, unfathomable ur-scandal of the Trump administration, at least thus far, is the role played by Russian intelligence in the 2016 election and the realistic possibility that subterranean ties between Trump and Russia extend as far back as the late Soviet era.

Previously, the most outlandish and perplexing scandal in American political history had been one of the earliest: the treason case against Aaron Burr.

A 1901 depiction of the 1804 dual between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. 

Burr, an ambitious and successful New York politician, helped build both the Tammany Hall political machine in New York City and the national Jeffersonian Republican coalition, and as a result wound up Thomas Jefferson’s first vice president. He was never particularly trusted or valued in the role, however, and was dropped from the ticket in 1804.

Burr was nevertheless busy. He failed in a bid for governor of New York, a bid linked to a secession scheme by New England Federalists. Blaming his old rival Alexander Hamilton for the failure, he shot and killed Hamilton in a duel with which the world is still familiar. Burr then spent two years pursuing allies for a filibustering scheme he hoped would make him ruler of some portion of Texas and/or the trans-Appalachian west. Jefferson finally had Burr arrested and tried for treason in 1807.

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William Wirt delivering a speech during the 1807 trial of Burr.

Burr’s trial, however, ended in an embarrassing loss for Jefferson. The main evidence against Burr came from James Wilkinson, a co-conspirator widely believed to be hired by the Spanish government (a fact now known to be true). The trial was presided over by Chief Justice John Marshall, Jefferson’s main political antagonist, who interpreted “treason” so narrowly as to separate intent or conspiracy to commit treasonous acts from the actual commission of such acts. Burr was acquitted. He moved to Europe, where he continued to seek support for wild schemes against Spanish possessions in North America.

Though not a “presidential scandal” in the sense that it involved presidential misconduct, the outcome of the Burr Conspiracy had a significant long-term impact on how the American political system would subsequently address high-level wrongdoing. It set the legal and political bar for treason very, very high.

Another of Jefferson’s political miscalculations, the failed impeachment of Supreme Court justice Samuel Chase, had a similar effect. If, at some point, the judicial and/or legislative branches take aim at Trump wrongdoing, they will face the high bar set during the Jeffersonian period.

Sex, Honor, and Propriety

Just as Trump/Russia is a cluster of related scandals rather than a single node of wrongdoing, so does Stormy Daniels stand in for a whole category of Trump infidelity and sexual misconduct.

An 1836 satire about President Andrew Jackson and his cabinet.

To the extent that accusations of sexual misconduct have shaped previous presidencies, however, they have turned less on the morality of the conduct in question and more on the ability of a president or candidate to make his version of contested events the master narrative.

President Andrew Jackson, for instance, imbued every moment of his life with a comically exaggerated sense of honor—so much so that his first administration was dominated by the Petticoat Affair, a scandal over the sexual reputation of the wife of one of his cabinet members.

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An 1831 cartoon depicting resignations from President Jackson’s cabinet after the Peggy Eaton scandal.

John Eaton, the Secretary of War and a friend of Jackson’s from Tennessee, had just married Peggy O’Neale, a young widow well known in Washington. The marriage was disreputable by the standards of the day; O’Neale’s previous husband, John Timberlake, had not been dead long, and many in Washington believed that she and Eaton had been conducting an affair while Timberlake was still alive. Respectable Washington women refused to socialize with her.

This infuriated Jackson, whose own wife, Rachel, had long been accused of similar impropriety, and had just passed away. Incapable of interpreting any occurrence or event except through the lens of loyalty to himself, Jackson attempted to defend O’Neale’s honor with the same combination of verve and recklessness he used to defend his own. “She is chaste as a virgin!” he allegedly declared in a cabinet meeting called to demand that the wives of his cabinet members socialize with the Eatons.

When this failed, the only solution turned out to be mass resignation of the cabinet. The big loser was John Calhoun, whose wife Floride was at the center of the anti-Eaton cabal. The big winner was Martin Van Buren, who, as a widower, had avoided the problem altogether. He became Jackson’s preferred political successor and the heir to the Democratic Party itself.

Subsequent presidential sex scandals have been more salacious but ultimately less transformative of the path of American politics.

An 1884 cartoon referencing President Grover Cleveland's affair with Maria Halpin.

In 1884, Grover Cleveland ran for president as a bachelor. His opponent, James Blaine, was widely regarded as vulnerable to accusations of corruption, so Democrats positioned Cleveland as “Grover the Good” and ran him as a symbol of personal probity.

During the campaign, however, accusations surfaced that Cleveland had fathered an illegitimate childten years earlier. Cleveland quickly admitted to an affair with the woman in question, a Buffalo widow named Maria Halpin. He claimed, however, that any number of other prominent men in Buffalo might also have been the father, and that, since he was the only bachelor among them, he had accepted paternity as a gesture of gallantry and arranged for the child to be adopted by a respectable family.

An 1893 portrait of President Cleveland and his wife above the White House (left). A print showing President Cleveland and his wife playing with their children in their backyard while reporters watch (right).

In the context of the sexual politics of the 1880s, this was audacious spin. It simultaneously positioned Cleveland as a champion of moral rectitude and slandered everyone else, especially Halpin. She responded with accusations that the adoption had been coerced and that Cleveland had paid a settlement of $500 to make the matter go away.

Cleveland nevertheless won a close election, then flipped the Victorian sexual script a second time by marrying while in office. Cleveland is now famous mostly for having served two non-consecutive terms.

Bill Clinton similarly survived accusations of sexual impropriety, though in his case the battle was more complex and more closely fought.

The intended site of the Whitewater Development Corporation along the Whitewater River in Arkansas.

The investigative dominos that eventually triggered the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal began with an obscure real estate failure in Arkansas. While governor of Arkansas, Clinton invested in the Whitewater Development Corporation, a local real estate project that failed along with its associated savings and loan, Madison Guaranty. Madison Guaranty was owned by close political associates and, it turned out, engaged in a number of financial irregularities. When Clinton ran for President in 1992, these irregularities became the subject of intense public scrutiny.

So did Clinton’s personal life, as he had a reputation for philandering and infidelity.

In 1994, an Arkansas state employee named Paula Jones sued Clinton for sexually harassing her several years earlier, when he was still governor of Arkansas. The Jones case, along with a number of other accusations against Clinton, eventually came under the purview of special prosecutor Kenneth Starr, who had initially been appointed to investigate Whitewater, but ultimately targeted a variety of Clinton scandals and sub-scandals.

President Bill Clinton with White House intern Monica Lewinsky around 1995.

The release of the Starr Report was one of the first major news events impacted by the emergence of the Internet (or as Clinton liked to call it, “the Information Superhighway”). CNN broke the news by filming its lead reporter sitting at a computer terminal waiting for the report to be published online.

Starr’s report concluded that Clinton had committed perjury and obstruction of justice when, in his deposition in the Jones case, he denied sexual contact with Lewinsky. Starr’s report also contained accounts of the sexual contact in question.

President Bill Clinton denying allegations that he had sexual relations with Lewinsky in 1998.

Clinton was impeached in 1998, but not convicted by the Senate. His public approval ratings remained high throughout the scandal, and the Democrats made gains in the 1998 Congressional midterms.