The Worst President in History
Three particular failures secure Trump’s status as the worst chief executive ever to hold the office.
Tim Naftali Clinical associate professor of history at NYU
AFP/ CORBIS / LIFE / GETTY / THE ATLANTIC
President Donald Trump has long exulted in superlatives. The first. The best. The most. The greatest. “No president has ever done what I’ve done,” he boasts. “No president has ever even come close,” he says. But as his four years in office draw to an end, there’s only one title to which he can lay claim: Donald Trump is the worst president America has ever had.
In December 2019, he became the third president to be impeached. Last week, Trump entered a category all his own, becoming the first president to be impeached twice. But impeachment, which depends in part on the makeup of Congress, is not the most objective standard. What does being the worst president actually mean? And is there even any value, at the bitter end of a bad presidency, in spending energy on judging a pageant of failed presidencies?
It is helpful to think of the responsibilities of a president in terms of the two elements of the oath of office set forth in the Constitution. In the first part, presidents swear to “faithfully execute the Office of the President of the United States.” This is a pledge to properly perform the three jobs the presidency combines into one: head of state, head of government, and commander in chief. In the second part, they promise to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
Trump was a serial violator of his oath—as evidenced by his continual use of his office for personal financial gain—but focusing on three crucial ways in which he betrayed it helps clarify his singular historical status. First, he failed to put the national-security interests of the United States ahead of his own political needs. Second, in the face of a devastating pandemic, he was grossly derelict, unable or unwilling to marshal the requisite resources to save lives while actively encouraging public behavior that spread the disease. And third, held to account by voters for his failures, he refused to concede defeat and instead instigated an insurrection, stirring a mob that stormed the Capitol.
Many chief executives have failed, in one way or another, to live up to the demands of the job, or to competently discharge them. But historians now tend to agree that our worst presidents are those who fall short in the second part of their pledge, in some way endangering the Constitution. And if you want to understand why these three failures make Trump the worst of all our presidents, the place to begin is in the basement of the presidential rankings, where dwell his rivals for that singular dishonor.
For decades in the 20th century, many historians agreed that the title Trump has recently earned properly belonged to Warren G. Harding, a president they remembered. The journalist H. L. Mencken, master of the acidic bon mot, listened to Harding’s inaugural address and despaired. “No other such complete and dreadful nitwit is to be found in the pages of American history,” he wrote.
Poor Harding. Our 29th president popularized the word normalcy and self-deprecatingly described himself as a “bloviator,” before dying in office of natural causes in 1923. Although mourned by an entire nation—9 million people are said to have viewed his funeral train, many singing his favorite hymn, “Nearer, My God, to Thee”—he was never respected by people of letters when he was alive. An avalanche of posthumous revelations about corruption in his administration made him an object of scorn among most historians. In 1948, Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr. began the tradition of regularly ranking our presidents, which his son, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. continued—for decades Harding consistently came in dead last, dominating a category entitled “failure.”
The scandal that prompted Harding’s descent to presidential hell involved the leasing of private drilling rights on federal lands in California and under a Wyoming rock resembling a teapot; Teapot Dome would serve as the shorthand for a terrible presidential scandal until it was displaced by Watergate. In April 1922, the Republican-controlled Senate began an investigation of the Republican administration, with Harding promising cooperation. Public hearings began only after Harding’s death the next year. The secretary of the interior was ultimately found guilty of bribery, becoming the first person to go from the Cabinet to jail. Other scandals engulfed the director of the Veterans’ Bureau and the attorney general.
Although Harding had some warning of the corruption in his administration, no evidence suggests that he personally profited from it, or that he was guilty of more than incompetence. John W. Dean, the former White House counsel who pleaded guilty to federal charges for his role in Watergate, later concluded that Harding’s reputation was unfairly tainted: “The fact that Harding had done nothing wrong and had not been involved in any criminal activities became irrelevant.” And, regardless of Harding’s role in the widespread corruption in his administration, he didn’t ever threaten our constitutional system.
On the other side of the ledger, Harding had a number of positive achievements: the Washington Naval Conference to discuss disarmament, the implementation of presidential authority over executive-branch budgeting, the commutation of Eugene V. Debs’s sentence. These, combined with his own lack of direct involvement in the scandals of his administration and the absence of any attack on our republic (which no positive administrative achievements could ever balance out), ought to allow him to be happily forgotten as a mediocre president.
Harding’s reputation has hardly improved, but in recent presidential surveys organized by C-SPAN, his tenure has been eclipsed by the failures of three men who were implicated in the breakup of the Union or who hindered the tortuous effort to reconstruct it.
The first two are Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan. Pierce, a New Hampshire Democrat, and Buchanan, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, abetted and at times amplified the forces that drove the Union asunder. Although neither was from the South, both men sympathized with southern slaveholders. They considered the rising tide of abolitionism an abomination, and sought ways to increase the power of slaveholders.
Pierce and Buchanan opposed the 1820 Missouri Compromise, which had calmed political tensions by prohibiting slavery above a certain line in the Louisiana Territory. As president, Pierce helped overturn it, adding the pernicious sentence to the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act that declared the Compromise “inoperative and void.” The Kansas-Nebraska Act not only allowed the people of the Kansas and Nebraska territories to determine themselves whether their respective states were to be slave or free but opened all unorganized territory to slavery.
Buchanan then used federal power in Kansas to ensure that slaveholders and their supporters, though a minority, would win. He authorized the granting of an $80,000 contract to a pro-slavery editor in the territory and “contracts, commissions, and in some cases cold cash” to northern Democrats in the House of Representatives to press them to admit Kansas as a slave state.
When Abraham Lincoln was elected to replace him in November 1860, and states began to secede, Buchanan effectively abdicated his responsibilities as president of the United States. He blamed Lincoln’s Republicans for causing all the problems he faced, and promised southerners a constitutional amendment protecting slavery forever if they returned. When secessionists in South Carolina set siege to a federal fort, Buchanan collapsed. “Like … Nixon in the summer of 1974 before his resignation,” wrote the Buchanan biographer Jean H. Baker, “Buchanan gave every indication of severe mental strain affecting both his health and his judgment.”
During the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, President George Washington had led the militia against the Pennsylvania rebels. Buchanan’s Cabinet didn’t expect him to personally lead U.S. troops to protect the federal forts and customhouses being seized by southern secessionists, but he shocked them by doing effectively nothing. When federal officeholders resigned in the South, Buchanan did not use his authority to replace them. He even had to be deterred by his Cabinet from simply surrendering Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, and ultimately made only a feeble effort to defend the fort, sending an unarmed merchant ship as relief. Meanwhile, former President Pierce, who had been asked to speak in Alabama, instead wrote in a public letter, “If we cannot live together in peace, then in peace and on just terms let us separate.” After the Civil War ended, Pierce offered his services as a defense lawyer to his friend Jefferson Davis. (Pierce might not have been our worst president, but he’s in the running against John Tyler, who left office in 1845 and 16 years later joined the Confederacy, for leading the worst post-presidency.)
The next great presidential failure in U.S. history involved the management of the victory over the South. Enter the third of the three men who eclipsed Harding: Andrew Johnson. Lincoln had picked Johnson as his running mate in 1864 to forge a unity ticket for what he expected to be a tough reelection bid. A pro-Union Democrat, Johnson had been the sole southern senator in 1861 not to leave Congress when his state seceded.
But Johnson’s fidelity to Lincoln and to the nation ended with Lincoln’s assassination in April 1865. While Lincoln had not left detailed plans for how to “bind up the nation’s wounds” after the war, Johnson certainly violated the spirit of what Lincoln had envisioned. An unrepentant white supremacist, he opposed efforts to give freedmen the vote, and when Congress did so over his objections, Johnson impeded their enjoyment of that right. He wanted slavery by another name in the South, undermining the broad consensus in the victorious North. “What he had in mind all along for the south,” as his biographer Annette Gordon-Reed wrote, “was a restoration rather than reconstruction.”
Johnson used his pulpit to bully those who believed in equal rights for formerly enslaved people and to encourage a culture of grievance in the South, spreading myths about why the Civil War had occurred in the first place. Many people are responsible for the toxic views and policies that have so long denied Black Americans basic human rights, but Andrew Johnson was the first to use the office of the presidency to give that project national legitimacy and federal support. Having inherited Lincoln’s Cabinet, Johnson was forced to maneuver around Lincoln’s men to impose his own mean-spirited and racist vision of how to reintegrate the South. That got him impeached by the House. A Republican Senate then fell one vote short of removing him from office.
All three of these 19th-century presidents compiled awful records, but Buchanan stands apart because—besides undermining the Union, using his office to promote white supremacy, and demonstrating dereliction of duty in the decisive crisis of secession—he led an outrageously corrupt administration. He violated not just the second part of his oath, betraying the Constitution, but also the first part. Buchanan managed to be more corrupt than the low standard set by his contemporaries in Congress, which is saying something.
In 1858, members of Congress tried to curtail a routine source of graft, described by the historian Michael Holt as the “public printing rake-off.” At the time, there was no Government Printing Office, so contracts for printing the reams of congressional and executive-branch proceedings and statements went to private printers. In the 1820s, President Andrew Jackson had started steering these lucrative contracts to friends. By the 1850s, congressional investigators found that bribes were being extorted from would-be government printers, and that those who won contracts were kicking back a portion of their profits to the Democratic Party. Buchanan directly benefited from this system in the 1856 election. Although he signed reforms into law in 1858, he swiftly subverted them by permitting a subterfuge that allowed his key contributor—who owned a prominent pro-administration newspaper—to continue profiting from government printing.
Does Trump have any modern competitors for the title of worst president? Like Harding, a number of presidents were poor executors of the office. President Woodrow Wilson was an awful man who presided over an apartheid system in the nation’s capital, largely confined his support for democracy abroad to white nations, and then mishandled a pandemic. President Herbert Hoover helped drive the U.S. economy into the ground during the Great Depression, because the economics he learned as a young man proved fundamentally wrong.
President George W. Bush’s impulse after 9/11 to weaken American civil liberties in the name of protecting them, and his blanket approval of interrogation techniques universally considered torture, left Americans disillusioned and impeded the struggle to deradicalize Islamists. His invasion of Iraq in 2003, like Thomas Jefferson’s embargo on foreign trade during the Napoleonic Wars, had disastrous consequences for American power, and undermined unity at home and abroad.
These presidents were each deeply flawed, but not in the same league as their predecessors who steered the country into Civil War or did their utmost to deprive formerly enslaved people of their hard-won rights while rewarding those who betrayed their country.
And then there’s Richard Nixon.
Before Trump, Nixon set the standard for modern presidential failure as the first president forced from office, who resigned ahead of impeachment. And in many ways, their presidencies have been eerily parallel. But the comparison to Nixon reveals the ways in which Trump’s presidency has been not merely bad, but the very worst we have ever seen.
Like the 45th president, Nixon ascended to office by committing an original sin. As the Republican presidential nominee, Nixon intervened indirectly to scuttle peace negotiations in Paris over the Vietnam War. He was worried that a diplomatic breakthrough in the 11th hour of the campaign would help his Democratic rival, Hubert Humphrey. For Nixon, it set the pattern for future presidential lies and cover-ups.
Trump, too, put his political prospects ahead of any sense of duty. As a candidate, Trump openly appealed to Russia to steal his opponent’s emails. Then, as Russia dumped hacked emails from her campaign chair, he seized on the pilfered materials to suggest wrongdoing and amplified Russian disinformation efforts. Extensive investigations during his administration by then–Special Counsel Robert Mueller and the Senate Intelligence Committee didn’t produce any evidence suggesting that he directly abetted Russian hacking, but those investigations were impeded by a pattern of obstructive conduct that Mueller carefully outlined in his report.
Trump’s heartless and incompetent approach to immigration, his use of tax policy to punish states that didn’t vote for him, his diversion of public funds to properties owned by him and his family, his impulsive and self-defeating approach to trade, and his petulance toward traditional allies assured on their own that he would not be seen as a successful modern president. But those failures have more to do with the first part of his oath. The case that Trump is not just the worst of our modern presidents but the worst of them all rests on three other pillars, not all of which have a Nixonian parallel.
Trump is the first president since America became a superpower to subordinate national-security interests to his political needs. Nixon’s mishandling of renewed peace negotiations with Hanoi in the 1972 election campaign led to the commission of a war crime, the unnecessary “Christmas bombing” at the end of that year. But it cannot compare, in terms of the harm to U.S. national interests, to Trump’s serial subservience to foreign strongmen such as Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey, Kim Jong Un of North Korea, and, of course, Russia’s Vladimir Putin—none of whom act out of a sense of shared interests with the United States. Trump’s effort to squeeze the Ukrainians to get dirt on his likely opponent in 2020, the cause of his first impeachment, was just the best-documented instance of a form of corruption that characterized his entire foreign policy.
The second pillar is Trump’s dereliction of duty during the COVID-19 pandemic, which will have killed at least 400,000 Americans by the time he leaves office. In his inaugural address, Trump vowed an end to “American carnage,” but in office, he presided over needless death and suffering. Trump’s failure to anticipate and then respond to the pandemic has no equivalent in Nixon’s tenure; when Nixon wasn’t plotting political subversion and revenge against his perceived enemies, he could be a good administrator.
Trump, of course, is not the first president to have been surprised by a threat to our country. Franklin D. Roosevelt was caught off guard by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Trump, like FDR, could have tried to redeem himself by his management of the response. But Trump lacked FDR’s intellectual and leadership skills. Instead of adapting, he dug in, denying the severity of the challenge and the importance of mask wearing and social distancing while bemoaning the likely damage to his beloved economy.
Trump continued to insist that he was in charge of America’s coronavirus response, but when being in charge required him to actively oversee plans—or at least to read and approve them—he punted on the tough issues of ramping up testing, and was painfully slow to secure sufficient protective equipment and ventilators. FDR didn’t directly manage the Liberty ship program, but he grasped its necessity and understood how to empower subordinates. Trump, instead, ignored his own experts and advisers, searching constantly for some silver bullet that would relieve him of the necessity of making hard choices. He threw money at pharmaceutical and biotech firms to accelerate work on vaccines, with good results, but went AWOL on the massive logistical effort administering those vaccines requires.
In doubling down on his opposition to basic public-health measures, the president crossed a new line of awfulness. Three of Trump’s tweets on April 17, 2020—“LIBERATE VIRGINIA,” “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!,” and “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!”—moved him into Pierce and Buchanan territory for the first time: The president was promoting disunity. The “liberation” he was advocating was civil disobedience against stay-at-home rules put in place by governors who were listening to public-health experts. Trump then organized a series of in-person rallies that sickened audience members and encouraged a wider public to put themselves at risk.
Trump channeled the same divisive spirit that Pierce and Buchanan had tapped by turning requests from the governors of the states that had been the hardest hit by the coronavirus into opportunities for partisan and sectarian attack.
Fifty-eight thousand Americans had already died of the virus when Trump signaled that ignoring or actively violating public-health mandates was a patriotic act. Over the summer, even as the death toll from COVID mounted, Trump never stopped bullying civic leaders who promoted mask wearing, and continued to hold large in-person rallies, despite the risk of spreading the virus. When the president himself became sick in the fall, rather than being sobered by his personal brush with serious illness, the president chose to turn a potential teachable moment for many Americans into a grotesque carnival. He used his presidential access to experimental treatment to argue that ordinary Americans need not fear the disease. He even took a joyride around Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in his closed, armored SUV to bask in the glow of his supporters’ adulation while endangering the health of his Secret Service detail.
American presidents have a mixed record with epidemics. For every Barack Obama, whose administration professionally managed the threats from Ebola and the H1N1 virus, or George W. Bush, who tackled AIDS in Africa, there’s been a Woodrow Wilson, who mishandled the influenza pandemic, or a Ronald Reagan, who was derelict in the face of AIDS. But neither Reagan nor Wilson actively promoted risky behavior for political purposes, nor did they personally obstruct federal-state partnerships that had been intended to control the spread of disease. On those points, Trump stands alone.
The third pillar of the case against Trump is his role as the chief instigator of the attempted insurrection of January 6. Although racism and violent nativism preceded Trump, the seeds of what happened on January 6 were planted by his use of the presidential bully pulpit. No president since Andrew Johnson had so publicly sympathized with the sense of victimhood among racists. In important ways, Nixon prefigured Trump by conspiring with his top lieutenants to use race, covertly, to bring about a realignment in U.S. politics. Nixon’s goal was to lure racists away from the Democratic Party and so transform the Republican Party into a governing majority. Trump has gone much further. From his remarks after the neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, to his effort to set the U.S. military against the Black Lives Matter movement, Trump has openly used race in an effort to transform the Republican Party into an agitated, cult-like, white-supremacist minority movement that could win elections only through fear, disenfranchisement, and disinformation.
Both Trump and Nixon sought to subvert any serious efforts to deny them reelection. Nixon approved a dirty-tricks campaign, and his chief of staff Bob Haldeman approved the details of an illegal espionage program against the eventual Democratic nominee. Nixon won his election but ultimately left office in the middle of his second term because the press, the Department of Justice, and Congress uncovered his efforts to hide his role in this subversion. They were helped in large part by Nixon’s absentminded taping of his own conversations.
Trump never won reelection. Instead, he mounted the first effort by a defeated incumbent to use the power of his office to overturn a presidential election. Both men looked for weaknesses in the system to retain power. But Trump’s attempt to steal the 2020 election put him in a class of awfulness all by himself.
Holding a national election during a pandemic was a test of the resilience of American democracy. State and local election officials looked for ways to boost participation without boosting the virus’s spread. In practical terms, this meant taking the pressure off same-day voting—limiting crowds at booths—by encouraging voting by mail and advance voting. Every candidate in the 2020 elections understood that tallying ballots would be slow in states that started counting only on Election Day. Even before voting began, Trump planted poisonous seeds of doubt about the fairness of this COVID-19 election. When the numbers didn’t go his way, Trump accelerated his disinformation campaign, alleging fraud in states that he had won in 2016 but lost four years later. The campaign was vigorous and widespread. Trump’s allies sought court injunctions and relief from Republican state officials. Lacking any actual evidence of widespread fraud, they lost in the courts. Despite having exploited every constitutional option, Trump refused to give up.
It was at this point that Trump went far beyond Nixon, or any of his other predecessors. In 1974, when the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in U.S. v. Nixon that Nixon had to turn over his White House tapes to a special prosecutor, Nixon also ran out of constitutional options. He knew that the tapes proved his guilt, and would likely lead to his impeachment and then to his conviction in the Senate. On July 24, Nixon said he would comply with the order from a coequal branch of our government, and ultimately accepted his political fate. In the end, even our most awful presidents before 2017 believed in the continuation of the system they had taken an oath to defend.
But not Trump. Heading into January 6, 2021, when Congress would ritually certify the election, Trump knew that he lacked the Electoral College votes to win or the congressional votes to prevent certification. He had only two cards left to play—neither one of which was consistent with his oath. He pushed Vice President Mike Pence to use his formal constitutional role as the play-by-play announcer of the count to unconstitutionally obstruct it, sending it back to the states for recertification. Meanwhile, to maintain pressure on Pence and Republicans in Congress, he gathered some of his most radicalized followers on the Mall and pointed the way to the Capitol, where the electoral count was about to begin. When Pence refused to exceed his constitutional authority, Trump unleashed his mob. He clearly wanted the count to be disrupted.
On January 6, Trump’s legacy was on a knife’s edge. Trump likely knew Pence’s intentions when he began to speak to the mob. He knew that the vice president would disappoint his hopes. In riling up the mob and sending it down Pennsylvania Avenue, he was imperiling the safety of his vice president and members of Congress. If there was any doubt that he was willing to countenance violence to get his way, it disappeared in the face of the president’s long inaction, as he sat in the White House watching live footage of the spreading assault.
And he may do still more damage before he departs.
Andrew Johnson left a political time bomb behind him in the nation’s capital. After the Democratic Party refused to nominate Johnson for a second term and Ulysses S. Grant won the election as a Republican, Johnson issued a broad political amnesty for many Confederates, including leaders who were under indictment such as the former president of the Confederate States, Jefferson Davis.
So much of the pain and suffering this country experienced in the Trump years started with that amnesty. Had Davis and top Confederate generals been tried and convicted, polite society in the South could not have viewed these traitors as heroes. Now Trump is hinting that he wishes to pardon those who aided and abetted him in office, and perhaps even pardon himself—similarly attempting to escape accountability, and to delay a reckoning.
As Trump prepares to leave Washington, the capital is more agitated than during any previous presidential transition since 1861, with thousands of National Guard troops deployed around the city. There have been serious threats to previous inaugurations. But for the first time in the modern era, those threats are internal. An incumbent president is being asked to discourage terrorism by supporters acting in his name.
There are many verdicts on Donald Trump still to come, from the Senate, from juries of private citizens, from scholars and historians. But as a result of his subversion of national security, his reckless endangerment of every American in the pandemic, and his failed insurrection on January 6, one thing seems abundantly clear: Trump is the worst president in the 232-year history of the United States.
So, why does this matter? If we have experienced an unprecedented political trauma, we should be prepared to act to prevent any recurrence. Nixon’s fall introduced an era of government reform—expanded privacy rights, overhauled campaign-finance rules, presidential-records preservation, and enhanced congressional oversight of covert operations.
Managing the pandemic must be the incoming Biden administration’s principal focus, but it needn’t be its only focus. Steps can be taken to ensure that the worst president ever is held to account, and to forestall a man like Trump ever abusing his power in this way again.
The first is to ensure that we preserve the record of what has taken place. As was done after the Nixon administration, Congress should pass a law establishing guidelines for the preservation of and access to the materials of the Trump presidency. Those guidelines should also protect nonpartisan public history at any public facility associated with the Trump era. The Presidential Records Act already puts those documents under the control of the archivist of the United States, but Congress should mandate that they be held in the D.C. area and that the National Archives should not partner with the Trump Foundation in any public-history efforts. Disentangling the federal Nixon Presidential Library from Nixon’s poisonous myths about Watergate took an enormous effort. The pressure on the National Archives to, in some way, enable and legitimate Trump’s own Lost Cause is likely to be even greater.
Trump’s documented relationship with the truth also ensures that his presidential records will necessarily be incomplete. His presidency has revealed gaping loopholes in the process of public disclosure, which the president deftly exploited. Congress should mandate that future candidates and presidents release their tax returns. Congress should also seek to tightly constrict the definition of privacy regarding presidential medical records. It should also require presidents to fully disclose their own business activities, and those of members of their immediate family, conducted while in office. Congress should also claim, as public records, the transition materials of 2016–17 and 2020–21 and those of future transitions.
Finally, Congress must tend to American memory. It should establish a Joint Congressional Committee to study January 6 and the events and activities leading up to it, have public hearings, and issue a report. And it should bar the naming of federal buildings, installations, and vessels after Trump; his presidency should be remembered, but not commemorated.
Because this, ultimately, is the point of this entire exercise. If Trump is now the worst president we have ever had, it’s up to every American to ensure that no future chief executive ever exceeds him.