When Donald Trump alleged that “Crooked Hillary” was “may be the most corrupt person ever to seek the presidency,” he opened himself to criticisms of the same variety.
After all, while Hillary Clinton and her husband’s penchant for pushing the ethical envelope when it comes to fundraising for their foundation, campaigns and their own personal gain is well-publicized, Donald Trump has also been dogged by allegations of corruption.
Fortune has written extensively about both both candidates’ troubles, from Hillary’s suspiciously large gains in the cattle future market in the 1980s, to Donald Trump’s use of his charitable foundation to make political donations to the Florida Attorney General that was considering investigating Trump University.
But if it seems like one of these two candidates might win the mantle of “most corrupt president ever,” take a look at presidential history. You’ll find that corruption scandals and the White House have gone hand in hand almost since the founding of the Republic.
Nineteenth century America, in particular, was notoriously corrupt, with politics and self-dealing often being barely distinguishable from one another. As political scientist Francis Fukuyama put it, before successive reforms beginning in 1883 that insulated the bureaucracy from legislative meddling, interest groups as a matter of course corrupted the government “through bribery and the feeding of clientelistic machines.”
But even after the good-government reforms of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, several presidents engaged in or benefitted from behavior at least as nakedly corrupt than Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump.
Here are just a few examples:
Like other many other presidents born into obscurity, the plainspoken farmer’s son from Independence, Missouri would not become the most powerful man in the world without a lot of help from his friends. In fact, Truman owed his entire political career to a corrupt Kansas City political boss Tom Pendergast, who was ultimately convicted of income tax evasion for failing to pay taxes on bribes.
Before meeting Pendergast, Truman failed at nearly every venture he undertook, from farming to running a haberdashery. He was lucky enough to have served, however, with some distinction in World War One with Pendergast’s nephew. In 1922, Prendergast recruited Truman to run for a Jackson County, Missouri administrative position that would give Prendergast control over who was awarded infrastructure projects and public employment—based on the theory that Truman’s reputation for honesty as a businessman would attract voters otherwise turned off by machine politics.
It was only with the help of Prendergast that Truman was elected to the United States Senate, and he became a compromise pick to be FDR’s 1944 running mate because of his place in the Senate. Though Truman was able to rid himself of Prendergast’s influence following the latter’s downfall in 1939, his ascent was only enabled by what would be labeled blatant corruption by today’s standards.
John F. Kennedy
Self-dealing is obviously much more tempting for politicians who are not already independently wealthy. Kennedy was certainly not in this camp so he didn’t need to use his office for personal gain. But he enjoyed the fruits of his father’s unsavory business practices, which made Joseph Kennedy a fabulously wealthy man.
Kennedy Sr. made huge amounts of money in the stock market in the 1920s, using tactics like insider trading and stock manipulation that were sleazy at the time and later made illegal (and with prohibitions enforced by Kennedy, Sr. himself when he was appointed SEC Chair by Franklin Roosevelt). It is also rumored that he made money in the liquor trade during prohibition.
But John F. Kennedy was directly responsible for his own campaigns. Aside from the 1960 break-in of Nixon accountant’s office, historian Robert Dallek has concluded that Kennedy colluded with Chicago Mayor Richard Daley to rig the vote in Illinois, which he won in 1960 by just 8,800 votes.
LBJ is best known today as a champion of civil rights, the architect of such programs as Medicare, and for his tragic insistence on escalating the Vietnam War. But before he ascended to the executive branch, Johnson was a rough-and-tumble Texas legislator with a long record of questionable ethics. His biographer Robert Caro has alleged that Johnson stole the primary election that ultimately sent him to the United States Senate.
After he was there, he used his connections and power over specifically the Federal Communications Commission to get approval for his wife to purchase radio and television stations and to expand their reach to make them more profitable. He also used his sway over where military bases would be located to get local businessmen in those areas to advertise on his stations. These businesses ultimately netted LBJ—who was born into a modest circumstances—millions of dollars that he could have not otherwise made. The classic picture of a corrupt politician is one who uses his power for personal, monetary gain; Johnson fits this image to a tee.
The most obvious example or presidential corruption is Richard Nixon, who would have been the first president ever removed from Office following an impeachment had he not resigned before the Congress had the chance to act. Nixon routinely used the powers of the executive branch—including those of agencies like the FBI and Federal Reserve that today take seriously their political independence—in order to further his own political ends and solidify his grip on power.
The most damning of these scandals was Watergate; President Nixon directed a coverup of a break in to the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington’s Watergate complex during his 1972 reelection campaign. Funds were used from the President’s Committee to Reelect the president to defend the burglars and buy their perjury. One of the many ironies of this scandal was that the Watergate break-in was an example of Nixon recycling a tactic that the John F. Kennedy campaign used against him in 1960, wherein the Kennedy campaign instigated a break-in of an accountant associated with Nixon in order to dig up dirt on then Vice President Nixon, though Kennedy’s reputation is not tarnished by this fact.
The Reagan Administration was a source of dozens of scandals, and many top officials in the administration were convicted on corruption charges. Two examples include Reagan’s Deputy Chief of Staff Michael Deaver, who was convicted of perjuring himself before Congress about his lobbying activities after leaving the White House, and Secretary of the Interior James Watt who pled guilty to misdemeanor charge of withholding documents from federal investigators looking into an influence peddling scandal at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which he lobbied.
But the granddaddy of all Reagan Administration scandals was the Iran-Contra affair, in which the Reagan Administration, perhaps with the President’s consent, illegally sold arms to an embargoed Iran in exchange for the release of American hostages held by Hezbollah. The Reagan Administration then used the proceeds of this sale to illegally fund guerrilla groups in Nicaragua, an act expressly prohibited by Congress.
Commissions appointed by both Congress and the White House concluded that there was insufficient evidence that President Reagan knew about the illegal transfer of funds to the Sandinistas, but documents and testimony from Reagan Administration officials’ after the fact suggest he did.